Fell Pony

  • HEIGHT: Average height 13.2 hands; maximum allowed is 14 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Northern England
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Sure-footed, gentle, excellent gaits and stamina, and though compact are quite able to carry an adult
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Trail riding and driving

Before the English Channel formed sometime around 6500 BCE, wild horses migrated across swampy marshes from what is now continental Europe to what is now England. These were the ancestors of the indigenous British ponies. The first people known to have used horses in the area were the “Battle-Axe” people, and they arrived between 3370 BCE and 2680 BCE. Remains of the Tarpan, an ancient wild pony now extinct in its original form, have been found at Battle-Axe sites. (Although the Tarpan died out, it lives on today, having been re-created in modern times by breeding back to type from existing horses.)

By the time the Romans arrived in 55 CE, a distinct type of pony existed in northern England. It stood no larger than 13 hands and was bay, dun, or brown. These wild ponies roamed steep, treeless, rocky hills called fells. The ponies survived and thrived, despite the harsh climate and limited quantity of poor forage.

In 120 CE, the Roman emperor Hadrian decreed that a vast wall be built across northern England to keep the very aggressive Picts from attacking from the area that is now Scotland. To this end, the Romans hired mercenaries from Friesland, a province located in what is now the Netherlands and Germany. These mercenaries supplied their own equipment, weapons, and horses. Most of the horses they imported were stallions of a type not too different from the modern Friesian. This was a large dark or black horse, substantially built, and noted for strength, long-striding action, and docility. Presumably, its feet were feathered. Friesians also had the ability to survive on poor-quality pasture.

When the Friesians were crossed on the local mares, a useful new type of pony resulted. It inherited substance, bone, color, and gentle temperament from the Friesian side of the pedigree, yet it retained the hardiness and tremendous stamina of the local ponies. In time this new sort of pony became known as the Fell.

Over the many generations since the Fell first came into being, few other breeds or even individuals have been crossed in. The ponies have remained true to type. In the late eighteenth century, a few Yorkshire and Norfolk stallions were crossed on Fell mares, as was the well-known Welsh stallion Comet, but beyond that there were few outcrosses.

A Versatile Work Pony

Initially the Fell was used as a pack pony, and it was ideally suited for the work. It was extremely strong, sure-footed, easy to work with, and small enough to load easily yet big enough for a man to ride. For centuries, these ponies packed almost all the goods that came in or out of the area. They transported wool, fresh fish, tanned hides, bolts of cloth, and live chickens. According to Clive Richardson, in The Fell Pony, three hundred Fell Ponies used to leave the little market town of Kendal every working day, carrying goods all over the country.

By the time of the Industrial Revolution, when iron and lead ore began to be heavily mined, the well-established pack pony system of transport in northern England was ideal for the burgeoning mining industry. The ponies usually worked in strings of ten to twenty, each carrying about two hundred pounds of ore in two large wicker baskets, or panniers, attached to a wooden pack saddle. Not tied together, the ponies followed a lead horse with a bell around its neck that was ridden or led by the packman. The unshod ponies routinely traveled two hundred to 250 miles each week over extremely difficult, steep terrain.

The influence of its Friesian ancestry can be seen in this handsome Fell Pony.

Fell Ponies were also reportedly used by smugglers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as by the post office. One Fell stallion carried mail on an eighteen-mile trip every day of the year without a break for twelve years. Fells were also used by shepherds and farmers and in cross-country trotting races under saddle.

Decline and Recovery

The advent of motor vehicles caused working ponies to disappear almost overnight. Many were sold to slaughter. Two world wars also severely depleted pony numbers. After World War II, however, there was renewed interest in the breed. Pony trekkers enjoyed riding the same routes the mining ponies had used for so long. Because of their ground-covering gaits, great stamina, and wonderful look, Fells became popular as driving ponies. They were also used for hunting.

Fell ponies are often dark with very little or no white markings.

There are not yet many Fells in North America, but as they become more familiar here, it is hoped and expected that their numbers will increase.

Breed Characteristics

A versatile and attractive pony, the Fell is athletic and tough while showing a consistently pleasant temperament and intelligence. They have excellent gaits and are good jumpers.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

There are two Fell organizations in North America: the Fell Pony Society of North America (FPSNA) and the Fell Pony Society and Conservancy of the Americas. The Fell Pony Society (FPS), in the United Kingdom, recognizes both groups, which have different philosophies regarding the breed, though both function to promote Fell Ponies. Neither of them is a registry.

According to information compiled from both the FPSNA and the conservancy:

  • The conservancy was founded in 1999.
  • The FPSNA was established in 2001 and incorporated in 2002.
  • The conservancy has members in the United States, Canada, Wales, England, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
  • All eligible North American–born ponies are registered with the Fell Pony Society (FPS) in the United Kingdom (established in 1912).
  • There were about 150 Fell Ponies in North America in 2005.
  • There were 27 foals born in North America in 2004. Eight additional foals were imported in utero.
  • There are about 5,000 Fell Ponies worldwide.

Conformation

A Fell Pony may stand no taller than 14 hands and averages about 13.2 hands, weighing 700 to 900 pounds. The head is small and well chiseled, with a straight profile and a broad forehead that tapers to a moderately broad nose and large nostrils. The eyes are prominent and intelligent and the ears neatly set and small. The well-proportioned neck is strong but not heavy, often with a moderate crest in stallions. The standard emphasizes the correctness of the shoulders, which are well laid back and sloping, not too fine at the withers. The mane and tail are heavy and full.

The back is long and straight, the loins broad and strong. The thick body is round-ribbed from shoulders to flanks, as well as short and close-coupled. The hindquarters are square and muscled, with a short, sloping croup. The tail set is medium to low. The straight legs are sturdy, with short cannons and large, well-formed knees. The round, blue-black feet are of good size, open at the heel, with feathered fetlocks.

Color

Fells may be black, brown, bay, or gray, preferably with no white markings, although a small star or a small bit of white on a foot is allowed. In the past, bay and dark brown were the most common colors, but in recent decades black has become the most popular.