The Fell Pony comes from Cumberland, Cumbria, and Northumberland. Herds of this pony roamed around the moors in a feral state. The fell farms in the area would round up these ponies, domesticate them, and then use them for riding, driving, and other farm needs.
Closely related to the Dales Pony, the Fell Pony is smaller and offers more pony-like features. It is a sure-footed breed, notably hardy, and is one of the pound-for-pound strongest pony breeds found in the world today.
The Fell Pony is one of the few that breeds true to type. For this reason, it is not unusual to find matched driving pairs within this breed. This has made the breed popular for nobles and royals in England over the centuries. It is a popularity that continues to exist still to this day.
Teams of Fell Ponies are regularly competing in driving competition on behalf of the Queen. The Royal Family uses this breed for trekking and hunting on their estates.
Although they are popular, the Fell Pony as a breed is relatively rare globally. Although there is a total population of Fell Ponies of about 8,000, the total number in North America is estimated to be about 450.
History of the Fell Pony
The beginning of the story for the Fell Pony begins with the Galloway Pony, which is now extinct. The Galloway Pony helped to bring about several different moorland pony breeds, along with some international pony breeds as well. Due to crossbreeding, however, the Galloway Pony would become extinct by the 19th century.
Out of its wake came the Fell Pony. Its home in Northern England, along the border of Scotland, is believed to have been the home of this breed and its ancestors since the time of Roman occupation in the area.
Some believe that the Fell Pony came from crossbreeding of local ponies with Roman war stallions, though no evidence for this legend currently exists.
The Viking settlements in the region were known to use horses like the Fell Pony for their pulling, riding, and plowing needs. As farms evolved and more strength was required, this breed fell out of favor for the larger heavy draft breeds that come from this region.
The Fell Pony was then used as a pack horse. Mining in the area was commonplace and these ponies were small enough to work in the pits and caves where slate, copper, lead, and iron were being mined. Farmers in the area would use these ponies for some agricultural work and their transportation needs.
It is this ability that helped the Fell Pony survive the Industrial Revolution in England relatively unscathed. Their ability to work as a pack animal allowed them to work effectively with miners to create high production levels that would eventually transform English society.
Yet their ability to work on fell farms and serve multiple needs was never forgotten. Some ponies could travel almost 400 kilometers in a single week and not show any signs of wear. Several stories told in their home region talk about how the fast trot of these ponies allowed them to carry riders over great distances in a relatively short period of time.
The ability of these ponies to serve as pack animals and their impressive speed had postal services using them as a pony train well into the 20th century.
The Fell Pony Society was formed in 1916 with the goal of keeping the bred pure and able to roam the moors of its home for generations to come. Over the next 2 years, the resolutions provided by the Society would become formalized. By 1922, the Fell Pony Society had organized itself to allow breeders to work with the ponies.
As with most horse breeds, the Fell Pony population suffered great losses through the 1940s. During the food shortages in Europe, these ponies were often valued more for their meat than their ability to work. If a pony could not be sold, many of the fell farms just let their horses run free, forming herds like their ancestors did so long ago.
In 1945, a stallion enclosure program had to be initiated by the Fell Pony Society to preserve the breed. A grading-up system was also initiated and would continue until 1970, when the breed genetics would finally stabilize.
Thanks to an increase in recreational riding and competitive events during the grading-up period for the breed, the population numbers of the Fell Pony have begun to recover. Registrations have increased steadily since the 1950s and an annual stud books is published.
Characteristics to Expect with the Fell Pony
The characteristics of a Fell Pony can be quite variable. Height can be up to 14 hands high, with the average height of the breed coming in at 13.2 hands high. Differences in weight make it possible to find a pony that can carry virtually any rider.
Breeding programs and better access to quality feed have helped to promote a taller height for these ponies. A Fell Pony in the wild, more than two centuries ago, would have likely topped out at 12 hands high.
Thanks to the conditions of Northern England, the Fell Pony can adapt to virtually any climate or environment.
Coat colors for the Fell Pony are typically brown, gray, bay, or black. The Fell Pony Society disallows ponies that have chestnut, skewbald, or piebald characteristics, though they can be found on ponies in semi-feral herds. A small star on the forehead and markings below the hind fetlock which are white are also considered acceptable, but excessive markings are still eligible for registry.
The head of the Fell Pony is comparatively small to the rest of its body. The outline should be chiseled, with the forehead broad and tapering to the nose. The nostrils of the pony should be large and expansive, complementing eyes that are mild, bright, prominent, and intelligent. There should be no signs of coarseness or throatiness.
A Fell Pony should have ears that are well-formed, somewhat small, and neatly set.
Outside of the physical expectations, the primary characteristic of the Fell Pony is its stamina. All ponies should be strong and hardy, with typical pony features present. This includes a strong, flat bone.
The intelligence of this breed is high and self-preservation is one of its most unique characteristics, developed due to the climate of its ancestral home. Like many pony breeds that come from the moorlands, the Fell Pony is alert, lively, and has a spirited, but steady temperament.
A Fell Pony is a reliable jumper because of its innate agility. Popular uses for this breed include hunting, cross-country riding, and recreational trail use. Show jumping is the one competitive event where this pony breed tends to thrive.
Why Choose a Fell Pony?
A Fell Pony is a good all-around breed. They work well with adults and support children with consistency. It has an easy pace and a fast walk, which provides a comfortable ride. Because the breed is extremely sure-footed, even rough terrain can be handled with consistent safety. A Fell Pony can often go where other ponies and larger horse breeds would not journey.
Some breeds have a “cow” sense or have a hunting or herding mentality. The Fell Pony has a sense for potential danger instead. This allows the pony to pick the safest route between two points so they can handle a rocky hillside, wetlands, or other difficult terrain with relative ease.
The Fell Pony Society tests the qualities of registered ponies on a regular basis to ensure they can meet the standards and expectations of the breed. Annual performance trials include handling difficult terrain elements, water crossing events, and navigating numerous natural hazards.
The temperament is also an attractive component of owning a Fell Pony. There are remarkably docile for such a spirited horse, which makes them an integral part of beginner and experiential programs.
The Future of the Fell Pony
Population numbers have continued to increase since the 1950s, with a rapid increase occurring at the turn of the 21st century. The annual publication of the Society’s stud book helps to maintain the popularity of the breed, while the growing recreational riding industries creates a demand for pony breeds to serve children and smaller adults.
The Fell Pony meets the current riding needs quite well. It’s ability to serve as a pack animal allows this pony breed to thrive in cultures where mechanization has fallen out of favor for traditional farming methods. It is a breed that is fast, versatile, and willing to learn.
It is a good all-around pony capable of doing a wide variety of jobs and that is why it will always be attractive to own one.