Fell Temperament and Maturity

Temperament

The purer the pony to its breed, the more certain one can be of its real common sense.

What does a pony worry about most on earth? Food!

... so few people really care what becomes of the pure pony breeds. People will experiment, they want something different from the purely bred pony. Why, I cannot imagine. One has only got to break and make a pure pony, then turn one’s attention to a pony which has horse blood in its veins to know which is the better animal. The pure pony understands and helps all the time and is soon a delight to handle. Its environment in its early days taught it to use its brains.

It is natural to a semi-wild pony to fend for itself all day and all night, whereas the finer bred animal has been constantly cared for by man and has never known the need for alertness which is instinctive to the native pony. I love what we North-countrymen call “mettle” in a pony. Ponies are like people. Some are game and others are soft. Give me the game one every time. Nowadays I only breed from game ponies.

On retraining a spoilt pony: “I regret to trouble you again, but His Lordship has spoilt another of your delightful ponies...” I used to get the pony back, and on the morning following a good day’s rest to get over the long train journey, I would put on a pair of sharp spurs, and take a good stick, as we North-countrymen say, to “square the pony’s head”. The little rascal knew my intentions and in fact, I could never get one of those returned ponies to show real naughtiness with me. My spurs and stick were never needed. A fortnight of regular work, hard work and hard feeding, and off they would go to a customer that I would know to be a horseman, then the joy to me would be to get a letter from the second owner to say that the pony was simply grand.

Fell ponies are all pony, their good nature invariably predominates, and I am quite sure that the little bit of naughtiness which such ponies practised upon this soft old man, would never be attempted with a horseman.


The important thing is not to bore them with repetitive work, to which they see no purpose; nor allow them to learn bad habits by weak handling. "Stern discipline and loving neglect" is ideal - as practised by Mrs Tarleton in "Gone with the Wind"!

Maturity

It is at Brough Hill and at Appleby Fair where nearly all the small breeders of Fell and Dales ponies take their stags to be sold. A stag is a three-and-a-half-year-old pony, that has been bred on the wild fells of the English Lake District, and has been driven loose-headed as one of a herd of such young ponies from places like Bampton, Dufton, Hardendale, or Ravenstonedale, or other districts of Westmorland, where unlimited grazing is to be had by all farmers who have eatage rights on the open fells. Neighbours go to the high fells and help each other to collect the ponies. The older mares know what is wanted and give a lead down to the “outgans” the little rough lanes leading up onto the open fells) and from there to the farmyard, and there the stags are divided off to go the following morning in one big drove to the fair-ground, where again they are divided, each man penning his own ponies and standing by for customers.

... The three-and-a-half year old pony geldings offered at Brough Hill Fair and other similar fairs in that district are invariably purchased by dealers at prices of from £15 to £20. These men take the ponies down into County Durham or into the Doncaster mining area, break them to gears, and sell them within a very short time to the big colliery companies at just twice what the ponies cost them. In other words, the dealers get as much profit out of the ponies within six months as the silly breeder gets for keeping them three and a half years.

It is most remarkable, but quite true, that very few Fell pony breeders of today possess a saddle. They are pony breeders and have good eyes for a pony but they are not horsemen, and for that reason only, they are almost ready to give away these grand ponies just when they are ready to go into hard work.


In the 1990s it is common practice for horse trainers in the Eden Valley to take a two year old from the fell in its third autumn, handle it, halter break it and mouth it, and accustom it to having a surcingle or breaking roller around its girth. Then it is turned away onto the fell or an allotment with other ponies, to grow on and mature in natural surroundings with its family as company, and without further handling. The early training is not overdone, but it is never forgotten by the pony.

Saddle training will be done when the pony is rising four, or sometimes later. It is light training only; standing, walking, trotting, making big circles to either hand, short canters under a light rider, no changes of leg except through the trot. There are always pony mad children (mostly girls) in the village who will do this simple schooling under supervision for the love of ponies alone! Harness training is equally simple in its aims, though naturally it is more complex to undertake due to the greater amount of equipment and "tackle" which the pony is required to accept.

David Trotter and Bob Atkinson both broke ponies without blinkers and only introduced them after the ponies were confident pulling a cart without them.

These green broken four year old ponies may be put into work by their owners, but it is seldom strenuous compared to the coal work described above. Bob's ponies worked in his trekking string, half a day at a time until they were strong enough to handle more. David Trotter's ponies often went to a riding school on working livery.

If they are not sold they may well be turned away again to the fell until there is a customer for them.

Fells are slow to mature and once they have been taught the basics it does no harm to leave them till five, six or more years old before demanding hard work from them; they will then go on working, sound, until their twenties and even thirties.

For more detail on equine maturity, such as bone development and joint fusion dates, and the type of work that is stressful at young ages, see http://www.walkinghorse.org/Bone%20Fusion.html and http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/10368/69350.