Partnered Pony Blog

Early Winter, Late Spring, and Wood Fences
 Wood chewing isn't exclusively reserved for fences.  Some pony has worked on this fallen lodgepole tree.

Wood chewing isn't exclusively reserved for fences.  Some pony has worked on this fallen lodgepole tree.

I thought I was the only one.  I thought it was just my ponies that, all of a sudden and seemingly without reason, would start ravenously chewing on our wood fences.  Then I read an article in Equus magazine (1), and I learned I’m not alone after all!  Of course the ponies do have their reasons for this behavior.  It’s my job to find out what those reasons are and if there is anything I can do to stop their destructive behavior.  I was hoping the article in Equus would have some clues.

My first fence chewer was my second pony.  He was just two years old and had been living in a herd in a large rough pasture before coming to me to live solo in a much smaller paddock.  This was before I had learned the advantages of companionship.  To redirect his destructive behavior, a friend suggested cutting willow switches for him to chew on instead, which I did for several months until he settled into his new life’s routine.  Occasionally, though, he will chew on wood still, so I knew that I had more to learn.

 I was once so desperate to redirect one pony's behavior that every evening I harvested willow switches for him to chew on.  Yes, the goats often got some, too!

I was once so desperate to redirect one pony's behavior that every evening I harvested willow switches for him to chew on.  Yes, the goats often got some, too!

Next I began researching and addressing possible causes for the behavior.  I first ruled out cribbing because it is definitely wood chewing; it doesn’t have the air intake characteristic of cribbing.  Dental issues are another possible reason for wood chewing, but that didn’t explain the behavior I was seeing either.  Then I thought it was a nutritional issue.  Some sources suggest that wood chewing is a phosphorus issue, and indeed sometimes the chewing would start when the ponies had run out of their loose, free-choice minerals that contain phosphorus.  But the wood-chewing would sometimes happen when they had plenty of minerals.  Other sources suggest that it is a copper issue.  I have indeed seen less wood chewing since I started the entire herd on a regular copper supplement.  But the wood chewing didn’t completely end.

Then I returned to the idea that it’s a behavioral issue.  Indeed one pony in particular is hardest on the fences when I am gone for most of the day.  Perhaps it’s boredom after he’s cleaned up all the hay I put out for him.  Perhaps it’s anxiety about my absence.  But there are times when I’m gone and he doesn’t work on the fences at all. 

To protect my fences from being damaged, I looked into ‘paint’ that could be applied to make the rails unpalatable.  I didn’t like any of the commercial products available, so I devised a mixture of neatsfoot oil and cayenne pepper.  When I treat the rails with this mixture, the ponies will no longer chew on the rails.  It doesn’t of course address the underlying issue, whatever that issue is.

I was hopeful that the article I saw in Equus would have a solution to my fence gnawing problem.  I guess I can take some solace that it didn’t have any explanations beyond what I’d already considered.  What I did learn, though, is that studies have found that the behavior is typically during cold wet weather, “perhaps because of an instinctive urge for more roughage as temperatures fall.”  (2)  We have cold weather all winter here, but most of the time it’s quite dry (think powder snow that is coveted by downhill skiers.)  It’s in the late fall and early spring that we have wet snow and cold, and indeed that’s when fence chewing is at its worst here.  I tend to think the ponies are, in the fall, grieving the end of the grazing season, and in the spring, pining for the start of the grazing season!  This at least gives me a possible behavioral motivation.

I did run across one explanation elsewhere that was illuminating.  It turns out that lodgepole pine is higher in phosphorus than other woods, and equines will often choose to chew on lodgepole fences before other types of fencing.  My fences are built exclusively of lodgepole, so I haven’t seen this selective chewing.  It did make me wonder, though, if perhaps the ponies need even more phosphorus than they can get out of the minerals I make available to them. 

After seventeen years, my wood fences are in need of being rebuilt.  Because our lodgepole forests have been decimated by a beetle epidemic, wood fencing materials are a little more scarce than they once were, so I’m slowly replacing the wood fences with metal.  I’ll be glad that the new fences won’t be destroyed by chewing, but I’ll remain mindful that the ponies were chewing for a reason, and I need to make sure they have ways to address their needs.

  1. Frank, Katie with Melinda Freckleton, DVM.  “Winter Wood Chewers,” Equus #421, October 2012, p. 11.
  2. Same as #1.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More stories like this one can be found in my book The Partnered Pony:  What's Possible, Practical, and Powerful with Small Equines, -available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

The Hardest Sort of Snowstorm
 Note how the heavy snow bent over some young trees.  Also note the black pony doesn't have snow on her back, indicating she's quite wet.

Note how the heavy snow bent over some young trees.  Also note the black pony doesn't have snow on her back, indicating she's quite wet.

It’s the third of May, and it’s snowing.  This isn’t unusual.  I remember one May when we had five feet during the month, the biggest single accumulation was eighteen inches.  But while these May storms may be normal, they are the hardest sort of snowstorm for the ponies.

Most of the ponies start shedding in April, so when these May snow storms hit, the ponies don’t have a good coat to protect themselves.  Any hair that hasn’t shed seems to act like a sponge, absorbing the high-water-content snow that is typical of May, so the ponies get wetter than usual.  I can tell when they’re wet to the skin not only because they often are shivering but also because the snow hasn’t accumulated on their backs like it does in the winter.  They end up colder from warm May snows than they are in colder January.

My oldest pony, a Shetland/Welsh cross, hasn’t been shedding in April.  Because she’s well into her twenties, I’ve thought perhaps it’s because she’s becoming insulin resistant with age; holding onto her coat would be one symptom.  But now I’m wondering if she’s just adapted to our climate.  She’s shedding later to protect herself from May snows.  She’s had more years here than all my Fells, and being also originally of British native stock, I wonder if the hardiness inherent in British natives is serving her well here.

I fed well before sunrise because I’ve learned that digestion is one thing that helps ponies keep warm.  And the way that I feed makes the ponies move, and movement is another way that the ponies keep warm.  I was pleasantly surprised that, during this storm at least, no one was shivering.  Maybe we’re all adapting!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More stories like this one can be found in my book The Partnered Pony, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Jenifer Morrissey
Ponies and Food and Work
0307_MRRSkiddingBrush small.jpg

The title of an article about some new research read “Fat Ponies Will Work for Food.”  Ponies being in the title certainly caught my attention.  And I’m thrilled that ponies are meriting the attention of researchers.  I was, though, disappointed at the implied surprise that ponies are willing to work.  Ponies of course have a long and storied working history.  Nonetheless, I read the article to learn what the researchers had found.

Researchers in Australia constructed a feeder that had two sides with sliding doors.  Overweight ponies were given access to the feeder, and after consuming a small amount of hay, the door was automatically closed on one side and opened on the other.  The ponies had to walk around the feeder to access the other door.  The feeder design resulted in 3.7 times more distance traveled per day.  It also resulted in a decrease in body condition score, a decrease in cresty neck score, and a decrease in body fat percentage.  That’s all obviously really good news.  For those ponies that were food motivated, the feeder design also resulted in improved insulin sensitivity, also good news. (1)

Keeping weight off ponies who aren’t in regular work is a challenge for all of us.  Melody de Laat, PhD, BVSc, of the Queensland University of Technology, in Brisbane, said, “Low-intensity exercise of enough duration can be difficult to achieve in ponies that are not ridden regularly, if at all. The dynamic feeder enables a pony owner to exercise their pony without longeing or walking the pony.”  de Laat added, “If owners don’t have access to a dynamic feeding system they could consider walking their pony by hand—just bring him along on the daily dog walk.”  (2)

A quick internet search suggests that a dynamic feeding system isn’t readily available, but there are other ways to get ponies to do low-intensity exercise on their own.  I have had great success feeding on a track system (click here and here for articles on the subject.)  In the Australian study, they got the ponies to walk for two hours twice daily.  My track feeding system has the ponies walking one hour four times a day.  And while the researchers found benefits to physical health, I have also found that the increased movement has benefits for mental health.

Although the title of the article wasn’t entirely accurate – the ponies walked for their food, they didn’t work for it - the title did do the job of enticing me to read further.  And the research expanded my appreciation for the benefits of getting ponies to move on their own.  It is so important for both physical and mental health that ponies move in the course of their day, either through work or being encouraged to do so otherwise.  Anything that can help owners help their ponies with that objective is helpful indeed.

  1. Janicki, Kristin M. “Study:  Fat Ponies Will Work for Food,” thehorse.com article #136575, 9/18/17.  And de Laat et al, “Sustained, Low‐Intensity Exercise Achieved by a Dynamic Feeding System Decreases Body Fat in Ponies,” Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, Sep-Oct 2016, at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5032883/
  2. Same as #1.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More stories about sharing life with ponies can be found in my book The Partnered Pony:  What's Possible, Practical, and Powerful with Small Equines, available internationally by clicking  here or on the book cover.

Moonlight Ride 2
180129 full moon.JPG

The sheriff’s office called just as I was starting chores before sunset.  The dispatcher said my husband had broken down in the back country.  His message had been scratchy, so there wasn’t much detail except that he was getting a ride back to the shop where his truck was parked.  It had been a nice day, and the ponies were all still sunbathing, so I decided marital duty could take precedence over pony feeding, and I headed out to help restore some order to my husband’s day.

When I returned, it was just dark, but the nearly full moon was up and brightly shining.  I fetched my chore pony Rose for our normal ride down the driveway, but it really wasn’t normal since I didn’t remember ever having ridden her after dark before.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it turned out that I got exactly what I needed.

I was still on edge from having my chore routine disrupted and potentially the next day’s plans disrupted too by the need to get parts for the machine.  Rose is very perceptive of my moods, so I tried to calm myself while putting on her tack before our ride.  The ride down the driveway was uneventful, her fast walk taking us to our destination in good time.  I thanked her for not playing games or being uppity about the late hour. 

As I fed the ponies at the far paddock to which we’d ridden, the familiar routine further calmed me, so that when I mounted to go back up the driveway, I was able to take in the beauty of the moment.  Rose was well-behaved about getting back up the hill to her own dinner.  We were riding towards the rising moon, its light reflecting off the snow-covered landscape.  I was finally able to take a deep breath and realize how lucky I was to be doing what I was doing:  riding a pony of my own breeding, out on a beautiful winter’s night under the nearly full moon. 

When we arrived back at Rose’s paddock, I dismounted and thanked her for our outing.  I hadn’t known what to expect when I asked her to head out after dark, but her gift of a perfect ride was exactly what I needed.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

My first Moonlight Ride story is in the book A Humbling Experience, available internationally by clicking here or by clicking on the book cover.

Jenifer Morrissey
My Disordered Dominance Order
 Lady pushing a bigger pony away from me.

Lady pushing a bigger pony away from me.

I prefer to run my ponies in herds whenever possible because it’s so much better for their mental health.  There are challenges with that practice, though.  For instance, when I give feed buckets, each one customized to an individual pony, in my largest paddock I have to tie the ponies to a fence to make sure each pony gets the bucket meant for them.  I’ve been doing this long enough that the ponies present themselves in the proper order when I appear with an armload of halters and lead ropes which definitely makes the job easier.

Recently, though, the ‘proper order’ for tying has been disrupted.  The ‘proper order’ is to tie the most dominant pony first and then to tie the next most dominant pony, and then the next most dominant pony, etc., working my way through the herd.  This ‘proper order’ ensures the safety of the tied ponies because dominant ponies will take advantage of other restrained ponies and attempt to kick, bite, or otherwise hassle them.  It’s my responsibility to make sure everyone stays safe and feels safe.

Willowtrail Moonlit Lady is six months old and is in the largest paddock with four mares.  She has thoroughly disrupted my tying routine.  Before I understood her ‘position’ in the herd, I caught her backing into and trying to kick a tied pony who was much bigger and older and that I mistakenly thought was therefore more dominant.  So now I tie Lady second, after the lead mare.  But then often when I move to tie mare #2, I’ve caught mare #3 approaching Lady with threatening postures.  So far I’ve been able to intervene before Lady gets hurt.

Obviously tying ponies to the fence has become quite complicated in that paddock.  Instead of relying on an inherent order to keep things safe, I have to have eyes in the back of my head to make sure no one is getting hassled by an untied pony!  Fortunately with only five in that paddock, I can get the haltering and tying done quickly enough that I don’t have to run interference too much.  I judge the location of mares #2 and #3 after tying Lady, often tying #3 before #2. 

I never realized how lucky I was previously to have a clear dominance order for tying.  Life is certainly more interesting now that my tying order is disordered!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

There are lots of stories like this one in the book The Partnered Pony:  What's Possible, Practical and Powerful with Small Equines, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover..

Jenifer Morrissey
Wassailing the Ponies 2017

Each year during the holidays we take time out to thank the ponies for their presence in our lives.  We had planned to express our gratitude on Christmas Day, but we had the kind of white Christmas when snow blows sideways and no one was really in the mood for that kind of interaction.  It was much more enjoyable the day after Christmas!

Because we feed apples and carrots to the ponies during this ritual, we call it wassailing.  One pony will take carrots and not apples, and three ponies this year didn’t want either treat.  That didn’t stop us from expressing our appreciation for them!  Enjoy the pictures!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2017

There are more stories about how ponies enrich our lives at the holidays and at other times of the year in the books What an Honor:  A Dozen Years with Fell Ponies and The Partnered Pony:  What's Possible, Practical, and Powerful with Small Equines, available by clicking on the book covers or titles.  Happy New Year!

Jenifer Morrissey
Predictable!

We were arriving home from taking a filly to town for her pre-travel health check.  I was looking forward to a few moments to relax and celebrate how well the four-month-old had done on her journey.  I was especially impressed because the wind had been buffeting the trailer mightily on the trip.  I was only slightly surprised, then, to see a tree blown down in one of the pony paddocks as we came up the driveway.  Sight was faster than thought – it took a moment to realize that there were no ponies in the paddock because the fallen tree had taken out the fence.  So much for the few moments of peace I’d been looking forward to!

171124 Torrin in the hay.JPG

As we pulled in to park, I scanned the landscape for the two missing geldings.  I figured they were somewhere eating, since geldings rarely have anything else on their minds.  As I unloaded the filly and started taking her to the mare paddock, sure enough my prediction proved accurate.  Torrin, my nineteen-year-old, had found his way around a fence into a haystack!  I knew then that I needn’t rush to catch him since he wasn’t likely to go anywhere.  And just as predictably, his paddock-mate was parked at that hay stack when I arrived with halters.  In situations like that, you gotta love a gelding.  So predictable!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2017

You can find more stories like this one in the book The Partnered Pony:  What's Possible, Practical, and Powerful with Small Equines, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Jenifer Morrissey
What Would the Word Be?
170722 Jen Torrin.jpg

I’ve just put the finishing touches on a new book on equine draft harness, so I’m facing the term teamster quite often.  In the past, I’ve done significant draft work with my ponies, and there are a number of photos of my ponies at work (or as models for harness) in the book.  This year, though, I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about packing with my ponies than working them in harness.  Which got me thinking about words.  When someone puts their draft horses to work, they’re called a teamster.  But when someone puts their ponies to work, what are they called? 

Yes, when we put our ponies to draft work, we can be called teamsters.  And when we pack our ponies, we’re packmen or packwomen.  And when we drive or ride, we’re drivers or riders.  But I wondered, what would the word be to encompass all the ways that a single pony and person can work together?

Ponies seem to me to be unique in this regard.  They are so versatile – ride/drive/draft/pack and maybe more – that a single person-pony pair can do many things together.   On the other hand, there don’t seem to be many people doing this range of work with their ponies, or maybe they’re too busy working together to make their accomplishments public!

We were talking to a rancher the other day, and he told us about a wonderful horse he’d owned until it died of old age.  “The worst thing about a horse like that,” he said, “is you spend the rest of your life trying to find another one as good.”  We commiserated about the truth of that statement and shared a few stories back and forth about our once-in-a-lifetime partners.  Mya the Wonder Pony is the one I shared about; she still sets the standard in terms of heart when it comes to work and also willingness to do just about anything I’ve asked her to do.  The story about her helping me move a rattlesnake when I lived in southern Colorado made the rancher squirm.  Like my husband, he lives here in North Park because we don’t have snakes!

I hope someone someday will tell me a word like teamster that encompasses all the ways that a single pony and person can work together.  After talking to the rancher, though, I’ve come up with a stand-in:  lucky.  When we have a pony that is willing to do a wide range of work with us including those occasional odd jobs like moving a rattlesnake, we are lucky indeed!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2017

My book The Partnered Pony celebrates the many ways that my ponies have worked with me.  It is available internationally by clicking here or on the cover.

The book about harness that I mention here is available by clicking here or on the cover.

Jenifer Morrissey
Klibbers

Klibbers are the traditional pack saddles of the Shetland Isles and Shetland ponies.  In the September 2017 issue of Fell Pony News from Willowtrail Farm, adapting klibbers to larger ponies was described.  Highlights:

courtesy Eddie McDonough
  • As anyone who has tried to do real work with ponies knows, sizing tack is often the first challenge, followed closely by keeping things economical.  Pony teamsters learn to be resourceful, and of course that resourcefulness has been going on for centuries.  One example of that resourcefulness is the klibber.
  • Traditional klibbers are very simple in construction, assembled from driftwood found on the shore since the isles are nearly treeless.
  •  It occurred to my friend Eddie McDonough that the klibber design could be easily scaled to fit his Fell Pony to provide an economical pack saddle.  The klibber design could also be adapted to use other found materials, in keeping with the resourceful Shetland tradition.

To request the complete article, click here.

Jenifer Morrissey
Lesson Plans

Each morning when I tie the mares to the fence to give them their feed buckets, I can’t let the opportunity pass to make some small bit of progress in their training before releasing them to their morning hay.  They have had the summer off from these short lessons, and I have had the summer off, too, from creating lesson plans.

As we’ve gotten back into this routine, I started with refresher lessons.  Do they know to back away when I shake their lead rope?  Do they know to laterally flex their heads when I apply pressure on the side of their halter nose band?  All the mares remembered the backing away request.  A few needed an extra session or two on lateral flexion.  The others progressed to another task.  Some tasks are mounted.  A good one for a windy morning is to ask them to stand still after being mounted.  Since I began riding the last of the mares in this herd, all of them can now do mounted work.  The tasks must be kept short, though, since I’m asking them to cooperate on an empty stomach!

I heard about some human research that suggests that playing games together can lower our social anxiety level. (1) If we are introduced to someone new, commonly our anxiety goes up, but if we then are asked to play a game with them (depending on the game), our anxiety goes down.  I think of my morning lessons with my ponies in similar terms; while the lessons do help progress their training, perhaps the more important outcome is a familiarity with each other that helps our relationship be more enjoyable and less stressful.

I will admit there are days when a snow storm makes all of us just want to get on with things and skip lessons entirely.  Usually, though, the mares will stick around wanting their lesson if I forget to do it with them before they leave for their first meal of the day.  Even my two little filly foals line up when I’m putting halters on, even though they aren’t required to stand tied at their age.  Nonetheless it is a compliment to have all of the pones ask.  It is a blessing to share my life with these ponies.

  1. “Press Play,” Ted Radio Hour, 10/20/17, at http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/?showDate=2017-10-20

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2017

Jenifer Morrissey