Partnered Pony Blog

Relative Hair Coat Characteristics
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It’s the third day of summer by the calendar, and it’s the third straight day of accumulating snowfall here at 9,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies.  I am very focused on the ability of my ponies to cope with this late season cold moisture, especially the two foals that are about a week old.  It’s been several weeks since the adults shed out their winter coats, so they don’t have the protection that they normally would for this sort of weather.  They are making more use of their sheds than they usually do.

 A study published in 2017 about hair coat characteristics was especially interesting to me as I monitor my ponies during this unseasonal weather.  The context of the study was donkey welfare, investigating how donkeys’ hair coats vary with season relative to horses, ponies, and mules so that their care is modified appropriately.  I didn’t realize that indeed their care would need to be adjusted because donkeys’ coats don’t change character as seasons change, unlike the other equids. (1)  I also didn’t realize how long ago the donkey evolution line diverged from horses and ponies:  around 3.4–3.9 million years.  That in part explains the difference between donkeys and the other equid groupings. 

I was hopeful when I learned of the study that there would be information about British native ponies’ coats.  And while British native ponies were included in the study sample, they were lumped with British native horses in the reported data. 

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 The study found that horse/pony coats changed significantly in weight and in length over the seasons.  This isn’t really surprising to those of use in cold weather climates who have handfuls of hair shedding out in the spring!  The researchers did ask the interesting question about how the horse/pony coats would respond to more tropical climates, saying it would be a useful future research topic.

 1)      Osthaus, B.,  L. Proops  S. Long  N. Bell  K. Hayday  F. Burden.  “Hair coat properties of donkeys, mules and horses in a temperate climate,” Equine Veterinary Journal, May 2018, p. 339-342.

 © Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

You can find more stories like this one in my book The Partnered Pony, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Jenifer Morrissey
I Under-Estimated Them

It wasn’t until I put the second pony on a transport that I realized it, and even then it took a few days more.  A sudden change in my life had caused me to need to rehome four ponies quickly.  Two of the ponies I delivered myself into the hands of their new owners.  It was the other two that I delivered to a third party that showed me so much.

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When I parted with those two ponies, I was in tears.  One had shared life with me for nineteen years, and the other for thirteen.  We had done a lot together, and I considered them friends.  It’s normal for me to cry when I say good bye to a pony.  This time, though, was different, as these two showed me.  Neither of them would look at me as I said my final good bye.

I try hard to never be angry around my ponies or to have an argument with another person around them.  Over the years, they’ve shown me they don’t like that emotion.  Research has indeed shown that equines respond differently to happy and angry faces.  “Psychologists studied how 28 horses reacted to seeing photographs of positive versus negative human facial expressions. When viewing angry faces, horses looked more with their left eye, a behaviour associated with perceiving negative stimuli. Their heart rate also increased more quickly and they showed more stress-related behaviours.” (1)  One researcher said, “It's interesting to note that the horses had a strong reaction to the negative expressions but less so to the positive.”  I certainly have perceived that difference in response with my own ponies.  They are much more reactive to negative stimuli than positive.

The tears I shed as I said good bye were not angry ones, though, so I didn’t think the ponies would be affected.  I was wrong.  My tears were full of grief, heavy with emotion.  I underestimated these two ponies and the effect my emotions had on them.  One transporter later told me that the pony in their charge perked up after 24 hours.  The other was labeled a hard traveler, and it took her even longer to come around.  These ponies did react to my grief, and if I could apologize to them, I would. Next time that I am emotionally heavy when saying good bye, I will try harder to make it easier on my departing pony friend.

1)      University of Sussex. "Horses can read human emotions." ScienceDaily, 9 February 2016. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/02/160209221158.htm

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

More stories about the amazing relationships ponies make possible can be found in my book The Partnered Pony, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.


Wormers and Gut Microbiota
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Many years ago, I was told by my vet to worm carefully if I ever expected that the worm load was high in a particular pony.  He had seen a yearling killed after being suddenly and heavily dewormed; he said it was because the worm burden was too high for the equine to safely eliminate.  I have never taken worming lightly since.  New research sheds light on the interaction between worms, gut microbiota and inflammation. (1)  Reviewing the research gave me new perspective on my vet’s sad story.

The research was conducted in Ireland and studied two different equine populations:  a group of yearlings and a group aged 1 to 7 years.  Two different wormers were used in the study, though only minor differences in results were observed between the two wormers.  There were differences observed, however, in the different, though not rigorously different, age groups.

The major finding of the study was that use of chemical wormers changes the diversity and abundance of the gut microbiota and causes changes in inflammatory markers.  The study recorded the gut microbiome characteristics at Day 0, Day 7, and Day 14.  The reduction in diversity and abundance at Day 7 was resolved by Day 14.  Both groups also showed changes in inflammatory responses from Day 0 to Day 7.  In both groups, the inflammatory responses were resolved by Day 14. The inflammatory responses were both local and systemic. 

The two groups of equines in the study had different microbiome populations, which the researchers attributed to both age and differences in environments.  Also, “The greater magnitude of changes seen in Group 1 compared with Group 2 may reflect a greater malleability of the still-developing gut microbiome in the younger horses, and/or greater numbers of animals in the former.”

I had always been told to treat worming as a medical procedure that required supportive therapies to be effective.  Probiotics in particular to restore the gut microbiome were recommended, and this study makes it clear why.  It takes up to two weeks for the gut to get back to normal after worming, so asking our equines to continue working during this period without therapeutic support is likely taxing to their systems.  Supporting broodmares seems to be especially important according to related research.

In their paper, the researchers suggest several interesting ideas.  First, that further research like theirs is easy to conduct because small strongyles are ‘ubiquitous’ in equines, with the worms possibly being present as adults but certainly as encysted larvae that can live up to 3 years in the intestinal wall.  This perspective supports the idea that we as equine owners are charged with controlling parasites in our animals rather than getting rid of them entirely.  The researchers then go on to suggest that worms may play a role in responses to inflammation in horses, so there may be opportunities to put them to beneficial use.  Eradicating them completely, then, may not always be in our equines’ best interest.

When I think back to the sad story told by my veterinarian, it’s clear why a young heavily infested horse might adversely respond to deworming, especially if not supported therapeutically.  I have always considered the probiotics on my shelf to be my jug of gold, and this research supports that valuation!

  1. N. Walshe, V. Duggan, R. Cabrera-Rubio et al., “Removal of adult cyathostomins alters faecal microbiota and promotes an inflammatory phenotype in horses”, International Journal for Parasitology, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpara.2019.02.003

 © Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

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

Apple Seeds

After I eat an apple for breakfast, I divide the quartered core between the ponies.  It hadn’t ever occurred to me that there might be a problem with this until I read the headline, “Are Apple Seeds Bad for Horses?”  It took me a few days to get around to reading the article, so I kept wondering what I would learn.  Also, I have an end-of-year holiday ritual called ‘wassailing the ponies’ that includes feeding apples to my ponies, so I was very curious if I could safely continue the ritual.

Wassailing Madie in 2017

Wassailing Madie in 2017

It turns out that apple seeds have a very small amount of cyanide in them.  That fact was the inspiration for the article whose headline I saw.  The author concluded that it would take a dose of upwards of 270 apple seeds to harm a 200 pound human, so a vast number to harm an equine.  Most apples contain 20 seeds or less, so it’s very unlikely that a human or equine could suffer adverse consequences from apple seeds under normal circumstances.  Other fruit pits are more problematic, including peaches, plums, and apricots – more for their fibrous nature than the cyanide they contain.  (1)

So I will continue my habit of sharing my breakfast fruit with my ponies, and I will continue my wassailing ritual.  The ponies and I will all be happy!

  1. Thunes, Clair.  “Are Apple Seeds Bad for Horses?,” article #171544, thehorse.com, 5/6/19.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

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.

Don't Drill Them 2
Fjord gelding Torrin

I am bringing my Fjord gelding Torrin back into work after a long time off.  When Torrin is out of a working mindset and under saddle for the first time in awhile, he will sometimes lower his head, waggle it back and forth and then occasionally waggle his whole body before offering a small buck and then taking off at a run.  I’ve worked with him long enough to arrest this sequence before it progresses too far, and when I’m successful, it will even make me laugh!

I was thinking about my work with Torrin when I wrote the article “Don’t Drill Them,” inspired by a very simple, clear, and accurate discussion of the topic by an owner of two of my ponies (click here to read it).  A conventional approach to dealing with an equine who is out of a working mindset and has lots of energy is to lunge them to get their excess energy out of them or at least reduced.  I’ve never ascribed to this approach.  For one, I appreciate an active walk, like Torrin has, and I don’t want to work it (drill it) out of them.  And second, my goal isn’t to get their energy out of them; I want their cooperation in the activity I have in mind and for them to use their energy in that activity.  Lunging seems different from what I do; instead I want to work them on-line in a way that is about communication, where I can ask for their cooperation and then assess their willingness to give it.

I do put Torrin out on a circle, and I ask for particular gaits, transitions between gaits, and changes in direction.  If he changes gait on his own (usually up when he’s not in a working mindset!), then I know he’s not ready to be ridden safely.  In fact, he’ll often start his amusing sequence, lowering his head, waggling it back and forth, etc, including trying to take off at a run, which of course only goes as far as the end of the line in my hand (and a few steps on my part to arrest his momentum!)  I will continue to ask for compliance with my requests of specific gaits, changes in gait and direction, and when Torrin chooses to work with me rather than go his own way, then we will progress to the activity I had in mind when we came together.  I’m definitely not drilling him; I’m continually asking for something specific and assessing Torrin’s response.

One day I went out to work with Torrin, and he was lying down napping in the sun.  I put his halter on and stepped back, inviting him to go work with me.  He got up and followed me out the gate.  When I put him out on a circle, it was clear I had a cooperative pony, so I mounted and took a short ride.  On this day, I’m afraid if I had done much work on-line at a trot or canter, Torrin would have woken up more completely and reverted to his playful self!

Today after several days in a row of his antics on-line, Torrin showed me in an on-line session that he was willing to listen and respond promptly to everything I asked.  We then took a marvelous ride with not a step misplaced.  I didn’t do a prescribed number of circles at each gait or a prescribed number of gait or direction transitions; that approach feels like drilling.  I did just enough to know we had two-way communication.  Torrin’s response was feedback that not drilling works very well indeed.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

There are more stories like this one in my book The Partnered Pony, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

Lady Long Rider

Lady Long Rider is Bernice Ende, a member of the Long Riders Guild, and it is also the title of her book that I was loaned recently.  My friend who loaned it suggested that I would find it interesting in part because she saw the parallels between my love of Norwegian Fjord Horses and Bernice’s, who thinks they are the perfect long-riding breed.  My friend was right, I found the book very worth reading.  Click here to go to Ende’s website and read news about her book tour.

My own dog-and-pony show!

My own dog-and-pony show!

 I got a kick out of Bernice’s description of her ‘dog and pony show.’  When I worked in the high tech industry, we used this term to describe our displays at trade shows, among other things.  Bernice’s use of the term is of course quite literal.  Her dog, on some of their long-riding trips, rode in a box mounted on her Fjord, and the combination was very eye-catching.  In fact my friend who loaned me the book saw this dog-and-pony-show once along a road in Wyoming several years ago, and it was an image she never forgot!  The picture here is of my own dog-and-pony-show; my Australian Shepherd Sadie was my constant companion no matter the work Torrin and I were doing.  Spending so much solitary time in the company of my dog and my ponies is another shared experience I have with Lady Long Rider.

 Here is Bernice’s case for the Fjord as the ideal long-riding breed.  “Norwegian Fjords are ideally suited for long riding with attributes that my previous horses did not have.  Fjords have a thick skin, coarse hair, and short, flat backs, and they are “easy keepers,” meaning a little food goes a long way.  They are scavengers and will survive on twigs and coarse roughage….  Most importantly, I felt their mild dispositions might let them tolerate a dog riding on their backs, something most horses would not allow.” (1)

Ende is happiest when she is out on a long ride, which she measures in the thousands of miles.  So her definition of home is different than for most of us.  As I contemplate moving my own home, I appreciated her thoughts on the topic.  “I realized that I’d learned an important lesson about home and how I could take an empty space and fill it with ‘home,’ fill it with love, wherever I went.  Maybe home is a choice; wherever you hang your hat, wherever you feel respected and secure, engaged in life and appreciated for who you are is a place you can call ‘home.’” (2)

You could easily say that long riding is about a life perpetually in transition.  My life is in transition at the moment in many dimensions, and while I am not a long rider, I greatly appreciated Bernice’s many explorations of a life in transition.  And I realize how lucky I am to have my dog-and-pony-show life!

  1. Ende, Bernice.  Lady Long Rider:  Alone Across America on Horseback.  Helena, Montana:  Far Country Press, 2018, p. 99-100.

  2. Ende, p. 88.

 © Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

You can find more stories about my dog-and-pony-show life 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.

Jenifer Morrissey
Is There Blood in That Urine?
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A winter visitor once asked me, upon seeing reddish colored urine in the snow, if there was blood in the urine.  At the time I assured them that the color was deceptive and nothing to be concerned about.  However, in the back of my mind, I did wonder if there was meaning in the color since I didn’t see it very often.

Eventually an explanation emerged from my reading stack.  The red results from the urine reacting with cold snow.  “Proteins in the urine, called pyrocatechines, oxidize in low temperatures, which produces colors ranging from a light pink to red, orange or brown.”  (1)  In my experience, orange, brown, and light pink are much more common than red, but it’s good to know they’re all normal!  And of course when in doubt, consulting a veterinarian is advised.

1)      Frank, Katie, with Melinda Freckleton, DVM.  “When You See Red,”  Equus #412, January 2012, p. 15.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2019

Jenifer Morrissey
Twentieth Anniversary
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It was twenty years ago today

This pony came into my life.

She’s been beside me ever since

Through good times and through strife.

 

I’m thankful for her partnership

In work and love and play.

The gifts she’s repeatedly given me

I can never completely repay.

 

That she changed my life completely,

There is absolutely no doubt.

Despite that, I can honestly say

It couldn’t have better turned out.

 

I‘m honored and I’m humbled

Every time she nickers ‘hi.’

I hope it’s quite a long time

Before I have to say goodbye.

 

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More sentiments like this one can be found in the “Powerful” section of my book The Partnered Pony, available internationally by clicking here or on the book cover.

I Give Her Credit
Shelley on a ride at another time right at her rapid turn-around spot

Shelley on a ride at another time right at her rapid turn-around spot

The cow moose didn’t back off like she normally does.  I give her credit; it’s hunting season, and she knows she’s relatively safe close to our house.  She’s alone, without this year’s calf, who was big enough that it might have been a hunter’s score.

I was out feeding before sunrise.  I first knew she was around when my young stallion didn’t come for his feed bucket.  When I went deeper into his paddock to find him, I could see he was looking intently towards the woods.  Before long I made out the large brown shape that was the object of his attention, but I couldn’t tell its gender.  When it moved off a little, I got a treat because Asi moved off too, at a collected trot that was eye candy.

While feeding in the next paddock, I found out it was a cow.  She was right over the fence, and when my dogs tried to push her away into the clearcut, she came towards us instead.  That’s when I realized she wasn’t in a yielding mood, and that summer had been good to her – she was enormous!  I modified my feeding plan to avoid that part of the fence line.

It was well below freezing, so footing was icy.  I decided I would ride my mare Shelley down the driveway to the final paddock rather than walk and risk falling (Shelley’s four-wheel-drive is better than my two-wheel!)  I filled the feed buckets and mounted Shelley bareback with them, just as I’d done the day before, and we headed off.  I knew we might encounter the moose, so I was watching.  Nonetheless she surprised all of us by emerging from a clump of trees right by the road.  The dogs barked, and Shelley spun and headed back up the driveway fast.  It’s amazing how time slows down in these sorts of situations.  I remember grabbing for mane and realizing that the feed buckets were in the way, so I would need to drop them in order to stay mounted.  I give Shelley credit, too.  She didn’t try to buck me off with the buckets bouncing, and not even when the feed buckets descended along her side.  Very soon I felt the panic leave her body and just as I was feeling comfortable sitting out a gallop, she slowed and responded to my verbal command to slow down and stop.

The feed buckets were empty, but the ponies down below really didn’t need them, so after dismounting and letting Shelley go up the road without me, I started walking down the driveway, assuming the cow had finally moved off.  Nope.  I’d learned the strength of her intentions, now, so I turned around and went to the house to finish other chores.  Then, for the first time I ever remember, I fed that lower paddock by driving my truck down the road to avoid another encounter.  The cow had moved off a little, but she still watched as I fed the ponies there.  I kept the dogs close so they didn’t further agitate our neighbor.  I don’t know why she was so different today than past encounters we’ve had, but I give that cow credit for standing her ground. She might be the same one we encountered this spring (to read “Two Mamas Face Off,” click here).  Back then, Shelley won the standoff.  Today the moose gets credit.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More stories like this one can be found in my books What an Honor and The Partnered Pony, available internationally by clicking on the covers or titles.

Nice of Her to Tell Me!
Mya the Wonder Pony

I reunited Mya the Wonder Pony with my Fjord gelding Torrin after Torrin’s paddock-mate of three years went off to a new life.  Mya and Torrin were my first ponies and spent many years housed together, so I knew in time they’d get used to co-habiting again.  For the first week they were in my mare paddock, but the evening before the mares came home from summer pasture, I moved them to my electric fence paddock where they had previously resided together.

The next morning, Mya greeted me at the house, loose.  Moments later I heard Torrin’s frantic cries about being alone.  Three years away from the electric fence paddock had apparently un-trained Mya to the fence!  I put her back in, hoping that the shock she got while exiting would be enough to remind her where she belonged.  It was not to be, though.  While she stayed put for the day, the next morning she greeted me again at the house.  Now I had to figure out what part of the fence she found worth risking.

I got home at dusk, and Mya was with Torrin where I had returned her that morning.  She greeted me normally, and I filled a tub with hay and began distributing their evening feed around the edge of their paddock.  When I returned to where I’d started, it seemed odd that Mya was still eating the hay there instead of following the circuit of food that I had laid out.  Then I realized that she was on the other side of the gate eating dry grass.  Ah ha!  Now I knew what part of the fence she found worth risking.

I dropped the gate and motioned and commanded to her to get back where she belonged, which she willingly did.  She did, however, also have a smug look on her face as though she had won the game again.  And I had to give her credit; she could have run off rather than return to the paddock as I’d asked.

I replaced the gate and shooed her away from it and headed out to get remedying tools.  Fortunately she stayed where she belonged while I was away.  As moonlight overtook the light of the departing sun, I hung pieces of electric fence tape from the gate.  When I was done, I confirmed that they were conducting electricity.  I then headed off to end my day and await the morrow when I’d find out if I’d correctly interpreted what Mya had told me.

Come Thanksgiving in two months, I will have shared twenty years with this pony, more time than I’ve shared with any human.  It’s clear at 27 years old she still has enough spunk to entertain me.  She has stayed in the electric fence paddock since I adorned her gate with ‘fringe.’  And I still laugh at how smug she looked outside the gate that night, showing me where the weakness in my fence was.  It was nice of her tell me!

© 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.

Seeing Them

We were pressed for time, and my husband kindly offered to help me with my long list of departure chores.  “I could go check the ponies at pasture for you,” he said.  I declined his generous offer, and when he asked why, I replied, “I want to see them.”

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Of course, when I go to pasture, I do more than just see my ponies.  While I do indeed look at them, I am also checking the amount of available forage, their minerals and their access to water.  But I also monitor their behavior.  I evaluate their movement.  I observe their interactions. I look for, and hope I don’t see, deviations from ‘normal.’  And ‘normal’ is a state I’ve defined from countless similar times that I’ve been to ‘see’ my ponies at pasture.  Checking the ponies at pasture, I’ve learned, isn’t a chore I can completely delegate, at least when it comes to satisfying my need for information about them.

In addition, of course, when I go see the ponies at pasture, they also get to see me.  It’s not uncommon when they hear my arrival for my two youngest, homebred mares to run more than a hundred yards, through willow thickets, up and down through drainages, and across the river until they reach me.  I know they don’t have to respond this way because I’ve had ponies who barely lifted their heads from grazing to acknowledge my presence.  Even my colts, less than half a year old, often run towards the nearest fence when they know I’ve arrived.  Seeing my ponies so willingly coming to greet me is of course one of the things that makes going to see them not a chore but a pleasure.  And it makes me believe that seeing them is something they value as much as I do.

When my husband says he’s been to see the ponies, no matter whether they’re in a paddock at home or at summer pasture, he will often immediately feel like he’s being interrogated.  Who did you see?  How were they?  What were they doing?  Where were they when you saw them?  My questions of course are an attempt to get the full range of information that I get from ‘seeing,’ not just the simple results of a visual roll call.

My husband loves to visit the ponies, so I know he’ll offer again to check them for me to help me with my always lengthy to-do list.  Perhaps I will accept his kind offer.  But more likely, I’ll decline, and then say again that I want to see them, with all the meaning that those words imply.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

You can find more stories like this one in my books The Partnered Pony and What an Honor, available internationally by clicking on the book covers or titles.

Superwoman Pony
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My husband’s grandchildren came for their annual summer visit.  Two years before, they’d enjoyed spending time with the ponies, but last year not so much, so I stayed focused on preparing dinner when they arrived.  I didn’t want to be disappointed by their lack of interest, so I was thrilled when I learned their interest had been renewed.

My husband’s son says that his youngest, the only daughter, is often the leader when it comes to new or unusual experiences, so I expect I have her to thank.  The kids were feeding grass through the fence to all the ponies near the house, and one in particular they had named Superwoman.  I’m sure Rose earned that name by strongly and repeatedly running the other ponies off when grass was being offered.  The increased sophistication of the naming was notable.  Two years before, Rose had earned the name Spot because she has a white star.  Another pony they called Noddy because she would bob her head when she thought grass was coming her way.

After dinner, I went out to feed and joined the kids and adults at the fence to see the interactions.  When the attraction of the ponies and especially Superwoman to the youngest became apparent, I asked if she wanted to ride her.  A smile slowly spread across her face, so I went to grab a halter then quickly ducked through the fence and hopped on Rose’s back to make sure she was in the right frame of mind since I hadn’t been on her back in weeks.  She was her normal, calm, and cooperative self, so I led her back to the crowd, and Grandpa lifted granddaughter onto Superwoman Pony’s back.  As I led Rose in a large circle with father and grandfather walking on either side of the precious cargo, I regularly checked on our passenger.  Her smile kept growing, and it was amazing to see how naturally she sat.  When I lifted her down, I told her she was the only one besides me who’d ever ridden Superwoman Pony.  I was rewarded with another beautiful smile.

Having watched his sister having fun and getting attention, the oldest brother then said he wanted a ride.  He’d just returned from summer camp where horseback riding was in the top five favorite activities of the week.  I thought perhaps the lead-reining on a pony that I was offering would be too tame by comparison, but he seemed to thoroughly enjoy his ride on Superwoman pony, too.  Not to be left out, brother number two quietly took a ride, too.  The boys sat as naturally on Rose as their sister had.  And brother number two, normally quiet and stone-faced, had a smile that almost equaled his sister’s at the end of his ride.

Darkness was falling, so our pony time came to an end, but my day had been made by the kids’ interest in my hooved friends.

The next day was the last day of their stay.  We had been away at work all day, and I was exhausted and had to go to bed.  What I learned second-hand, though, made my day again.  Grandpa had gone to their cabin to say goodbye, and as dusk approached, the kids said they wanted to come say goodbye to the ponies.  Despite protests from the adults about the late hour, they did just that.  I am grateful to Superwoman Pony for making such an impression on city kids who have so many different opportunities.  I’ll hope that next year they’ll return, and Superwoman Pony can reprise her role.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

More stories like this one can be found in my books The Partnered Pony and What an Honor, available by clicking on the titles or book covers.

Pony Shuffle 2018
Willowtrail Wild Rose, Mountain Honey, and Spring Maiden

Willowtrail Wild Rose, Mountain Honey, and Spring Maiden

The pony shuffle this summer at Willowtrail Farm has been a unique one.  Our pony shuffle is the annual movement of ponies from home to summer pasture, undertaken in a way to ease their bodies from a diet of hay to one of green grass.  Normally by now all the mares will be at summer pasture.  This year, though, that hasn’t been the case for a couple of reasons.  First, drought conditions reduced forage to about 40% of normal so the pasture can’t sustain as many ponies all summer.  And second, a more complex than usual breeding season has meant I’m still teasing, so I still need the mares to be at home where the stallions are, at least some of the time.

The mares with foals at foot are at pasture 24/7 now, but my other bred mares are being shuffled in and out for all or part of a day or night every few days.  This involves a trailer ride four miles out of the forest where we live to a pasture adjacent to the hay meadows where their winter forage will come from.  A few times I’ve also brought one mare with foal back home for teasing.  It’s good practice for the youngster to load and unload.  His mother, of course, knows the routine well.  And a few times I’ve even taken a stallion to pasture to graze for a few minutes and do his teasing duties there.

Guards Apollo and his son Willowtrail Theo

Guards Apollo and his son Willowtrail Theo

While the heat and drought have made grass scarce here, I still feel very fortunate because we haven’t had any fires that are so devastating other parts of the state.  We’ve had hazy and smoky skies to keep fire close in our thoughts.  And earlier this summer we worked in a forest that was burned two summers ago, an even more vivid reminder about how fortunate we are to not have had fire close to home.  So while the pony shuffle this summer is a lot more work than usual, the ponies are still growing fat as the season progresses, and I feel blessed to be forced to spend a little more time with them than I might otherwise.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2018

Badger Creek Fire, June 2018.  The sage land in the midground burned two years ago.

Badger Creek Fire, June 2018.  The sage land in the midground burned two years ago.

You can find more stories like this one in my books What an Honor and A Humbling Experience, available internationally by clicking on the book covers or titles.

Jenifer Morrissey
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