The Fell Pony Society

Patron: HM Queen Elizabeth II

The Committee becomes the Fell Pony Society

The resolution of the Fell Pony Committee to become a Society separate from the Polo and Riding Pony Stud Book was passed in 1916, but with this happening during the First World War it was not until 1918 that the resolution became reality. The early Committee consisted of representatives from each district plus a handful of co-opted members - effectively every owner of registered Fells was a member of the committee.

The Fell breed had some particularly hard times after WW1, for although the ponies were too small by War Office standards to be commandeered for work overseas, many had been sold for meat. Prices were very low after peace was re-established, and it took a decade for them to rise again. In 1922 the Society reformed itself on "more liberal lines" in order to attract more members to the support of the Fell pony. By 1929 many stallions were being sold abroad: eg the five Linnel stallions, Boy, Heather, Glen, Snip and Moor Boy; also Wait and See, Blencathra, Jack's Delight, Good Hope, Wallthwaite Ranger, John Bradley, Bousfield John Bull, Minstrel Boy and Mosstrooper.

In the 1930s the motor car and van made the general purpose pony almost redundant. Shooting parties were becoming a thing of the past, so few ponies were needed to carry the "bag" home; tractors were being introduced to do the work on the farms, completely replacing the intermittent use for ponies on the land. Only 3 stallions paraded at the stallion show in 1932, no doubt partly because owing to the increased motorisation of the cavalry units, the War Office no longer provided premiums, so the travelling that year was entirely at the stallion-owner's expense. It was during this period that the quiet donations of people such as His Majesty King George V and Mrs Heelis (Beatrix Potter) were of utmost benefit in keeping the Society afloat to support the breed. There was still a trend to cross the Fell mare with the Clydesdale to produce a bigger, stronger farm horse. However, the Fell breed did survive as a pure strain. This was thanks to the work of the FPS and to families such as the Charltons, Harrisons, Nobles, Bells, Wilsons and Waleses who were prepared to keep the ponies for their own qualities, more for pleasure in them as ponies than for their working contribution to the farm. It was probably no coincidence that tractor power was coming into farming at that time, and the need for a big horse was disappearing, so that the temptation to cross breed Fells for size was reduced.

In 1934 the War Office policy changed again and there was a small sum (£130) given, which together with donations of £10 each from the National Pony Society and the FPS itself enabled the stallions to travel with premiums that year. The local newspaper, the Cumberland & Westmorland Herald, even published an obituary of a local stallion in 1934: "Dalesman, the greatest Fell or Dales pony stallion of the last 25 years, has died. He was bred by Mr R. Bousfield of Great Asby and was owned by John Relph of Newby." Dalesman, who had won at the Royal Show in 1923 when aged 21, had lived to be 32 years old.

By 1939 the Racecourse Betting Control Board began to donate grants for travelling stallions; these varied but never entirely dried up.

Fells enjoyed a small revival during the petrol-hungry years of the Second World War. In the 1940s there was a bout of grass sickness and where the Clydesdales succumbed Fells sometimes had to do the work of the big agricultural horses.

The breed had difficult times again after WW2. The Society moved on to an inspection scheme to try to register typical, but unregistered Fell type stock which would otherwise not be eligible. This broadened the gene pool, a good move for the survival of the breed. Owing to the travelling stallion scheme being outdated, from 1945 onwards an "enclosure" system was organised. Mares were brought by horsebox or van or trailer to an allotment where two, and later only one, stallion each season ran with the mares on a subsidised basis. However, this tended to narrow the gene base once more and it is a rare pony today that does not have a pedigree tracing more than once through one of the Enclosure stallions. For a description of the enclosure system, see the FPS newsletter for 1968. (This link takes you out of the Museum site.)

However, Fell ponies as a whole benefited from the public's increasing interest in horses for leisure during that period, and although the breed ceased to be predominantly a general-purpose work animal, it easily turned into a "ride-and-drive family pony". HRH King George VI bought Linnel Gipsy, who before that had been registered by her Derbyshire breeder as Railton Gipsy Black Princess. As "Windsor Gipsy" she won at Windsor Horse Show in 1944, driven by HRH Princess Margaret, while Princess Elizabeth drove her to win in 1945. Princess Elizabeth, later crowned as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, has been the Society's Patron since that time and is a well-informed and knowledgeable owner and breeder herself.

Other support was also received, for example an annual grant from the Horserace Betting Levy Board. The Society gradually moved from being an entirely volunteer-based organisation, with the secretary/treasurer working for a small honorarium, to a limited company with a salaried secretary assisted both by part-time staff and by volunteers who take on separate parts of the workload.

The Fell Pony Society still, wisely, emphasises the versatility and workmanlike nature of the Fell pony. The Society runs several shows, and under its auspices there is an Autumn performance trial, at Linnel Wood, similar to those formerly run at Packway and Blawith. Local area Support Groups hold rides, shows and small, friendly competitive events. These are essential to retain the breed's active working focus. When any breed has little functionality except showing, fashionably "pretty" examples may be bred from without their temperament, physique and general health being tested by the rigours of work. When this happens, unwelcome changes may occur and be propagated undetected for several generations.

However, at home in Cumbria, this scenario is unlikely, because the breed's abilities are appreciated and put to use in many different ways: Fells are shown, certainly, but they are also used for pleasure riding, or "hacking"; cross country trail riding, or "trekking"; long distance competition; dressage; jumping; low level cross country events (a Fell does not have the jumping scope of the Thoroughbred though proportionately he can probably jump higher!); driving for recreation; cross country driving competitions. They are used for riding and driving in activity centres for the disabled, and a few owners use Fells for light forestry work and agricultural duties such as shepherding, and carting hay and feed to outlying animals. And, of course, there are still some semi-feral herds providing a core example of hardy, tough, sensible ponies who can look after themselves.

Fell Pony Society contact details