As its name suggests, the Fell pony hails from the fells of the North of England and is a close counterpart to the bigger Dales pony. Like the Dale it was used for carrying lead, for pulling carts in the days of horse-drawn transport and as a riding horse for adults in the days when people were generally smaller.
Just as with its close neighbour the Dale, the Fell pony traces its origins back to the Scottish Galloway pony, which, in spite of the name was also known in the North of England. Unlike the Dales pony, the Fell was not cross-bred with larger, sturdier ponies and to this day remains a smaller, slightly more lightly-built animal. While it may be relatively small in size, the Fell has long been known for being mighty in strength and speed. In addition to their duties as work ponies, Fells were known as lively trotting ponies and competed very successfully in this area. The turn of the 20th Century brought huge changes for the breed. At the beginning of the Century they continued to be used as reliable work-ponies and in particular outstanding pack ponies. This, of course, saw many of them requisitioned for use in the First and Second World Wars with predictable consequences. Even though there were efforts to repopulate the breed after the First World War, there simply was too little time to undo the damage of that war prior to the start of World War Two. By the end of this war the breed was in a dire state but was saved by the introduction of unregistered ponies, who were identified as being of the right breed type. The population of the breed has been steadily on the rise since this time. Although purebred Fell ponies are still relatively rare, their numbers are much healthier.
The modern Fell is almost invariably black although this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Records from the late 19th and early 20th centuries show that, at this time, there was a roughly even split between black and brown ponies, with a few in bay and grey. These are all accepted breed colours today, chestnut and broken colours such as skewbald and piebald are forbidden. Heavy white markings are discouraged but accepted for registration purposes. Fell ponies may be a maximum of 14 hands, although most animals tend to be around the 13.2 mark. While stopping short of being cobs they are certainly stocky, powerful ponies with intelligent faces frames by long, flowing manes. Their tales are equally luxuriant and they have feathering on their legs, at least during colder months. It may be shed in summer. Their paces are excellent and they are capable of a very respectable turn of speed for animals of their size. Generally speaking they are decent jumpers. They are unlikely to be the ideal choice for children who want to compete seriously, but they are certainly capable of holding their own at amateur/Pony Club level. Their intelligence and versatility makes them outstanding at gymkhana games and also for scurry racing.
A Fell is a pony that can be trusted to get their rider home safely whatever the circumstances. Those who simply want a trustworthy pony for everyday hacking will find the Fell an excellent choice, particularly if they have to deal with traffic. Those who want a pony for something more challenging will appreciate the Fell’s common sense. While more refined ponies may heat up in the charged environment of the show-ring or other competition venue, the Fell will stay calm and will do what it can to help out its rider/driver. The only behavioural issues with Fells are likely to come from mismanagement, in particular overfeeding. Fells developed to live practically on thin air. This means that they need a lot less food than more refined horses, even when working hard and/or in winter. They are at particular risk of over-eating in summer when grassland is at its richest and may need to be kept out of the field for part of the day to avoid this. If a Fell exhibits over-exuberant behaviour this is by far the likeliest cause. The other likely possibility is boredom if the pony is being given insufficient turn-out time and/or exercise. If a Fell starts showing signs of irritability this is usually a sign of pain. The first point to check (or have check) is that their tack fits properly as ill-fitting tack will aggravate even the most docile of animals and if this is fine then it’s time to call the vet.
The little Fell has a robust constitution and is generally free from genetic disorders. As with their temperament any issues are likely to be the result of poor management or bad luck, in that order. Owners must make sure that their pony’s weight stays at a reasonable level. They also need to be alert to any signs of lameness or stiffness, particularly in summer as these are classic early symptoms of laminitis, the bane of over-fed ponies. It’s best to call the vet out immediately in these cases as early intervention can make a world of difference in cases of laminitis. If there is any sign whatsoever of a pony adopting a “rocking-horse” position at any time, usually when getting up, then call the vet immediately as this is a classic sign of laminitis. Obviously Fells can pick up injuries here and there, which are usually minor; however they can be hidden by their thick coats, particularly in winter so make a point of checking for them.
Caring for a Fell
Being hardy and good doers, Fells are economical breeds to keep. If need be they can live out all year round although having access to a stable is generally helpful. It can be used to keep their weight down in summer and allows them to be clipped in winter, meaning they can be worked harder. If they are clipped then they will need rugs for turn out. Fells need daily grooming and this is the perfect time to check them over for cuts and bruises. They will also need foot care and regular worming. As intelligent and energetic animals they will need daily time in the field and plenty of exercise either under saddle or in harness.
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