Partnered Pony Blog

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

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 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

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2017

Jenifer Morrissey