Fell Pony

Lunesdale Regina and Lunesdale Born to Rule

Semi-feral Fell Pony mare, Lunesdale Regina and her colt, Lunesdale Born to Rule. Pictured on the fells (mountains) in Tebay, Cumbria, England
©Laurel Highland Farm



As one of the native "Mountain and Moorland" ponies of the British Isles, the Fell pony is named after the "hills", which are also called "fells" in northern England. And with only about 450 Fell ponies in North America and 6-7000 in the world, the breed is also classified as "rare" and "at risk". But don't count this tough pony out yet -- it has narrowly escaped extinction more than once, descending from a long line of survivors which go all the way back to the Ice Ages.

When North America became covered with ice many thousand years ago, the majority of large mammals there went extinct. Fortunately, various types of prehistoric horses traveled northwestward in search of a more favorable environment, crossing the land bridges that once existed between Alaska and Asia at the Bering Straits. During its migration, a larger prehistoric pony flourished in the vicinity of the cold, boggy forests of central and northwestern Europe which existed at that time. It thus became known as the "Forest-type Horse", which scientists have variably referred to Equus robustus and Equus caballus sylvaticus. However, based on the size of earliest fossil remains, it may be more aptly referred to as the "Forest Pony"! It was this northern progenitor pony that likely contributed to the development of many draft breeds, through both selective breeding upward in size and cross-breeding with other taller types. Thus, the same "Equus robustus" which eventually gave rise to the "Great Horse" really began with a "Great Pony"! Its characteristically short, heavy cannon bones provided it with the capacity to bear the weight of its small but heavily-built frame. It also had relatively broad feet, which helped to keep it from getting stuck in the snow or boggy ground. Its long, sloping shoulder gave it knee action, which helped it to clear fallen trees and other obstacles without stumbling, and also enabled it to move quickly through the snow while fleeing from Ice Age predators. Its long fetlock hair or "feather", long forelock, well-furnished mane and tail, and characteristic "beard" provided warmth and facilitated rainwater runoff. It was probably dark-colored - black or brown -- to aid in camouflage around the dark forests and also to help absorb heat in the cold environment. Large, relatively forward-projecting eyes set on a short, broad face provided optimum vision in this environment. Its ears were small and tucked beneath the heavy mane to protect them from the cold.

Fell Stallion, Waverhead Robbie

Fell stallion, Waverhead Robbie, in the snow. Fells are very hardy and hairy and thus well-suited to live out in cold weather!
©Laurel Highland Farm


Later, during the first few centuries A.D. when the Romans occupied Britain, Emperor Hadrian decreed that a wall should be built; stretching across what is now roughly the border between England and Scotland. This wall was built in the vicinity of what is now Cumbria, which also happens to be the home of the Fell pony. Stallions were purportedly brought there by Friesian mercenaries in the Roman army during the construction of Hadrian's Wall, and this is the basis for a popular theory about the origin of the Fell pony - that is, the "breed originated by crossing Friesian stallions with native ponies at Hadrian's Wall." However, this is surely a myth for many reasons, including the facts that the bits recovered at Hadrian's Wall were sized for 13-14 h ponies, and the Friesian horse that we know today did not even exist in Roman times. Instead, evidence suggests that a common prehistoric ancestor -- the Forest "pony" -- is the most likely explanation for the resemblances between the Fell pony and other modern breeds, including the Friesian. However, no matter what may or may not have contributed to the development of the Fell pony we know today, perhaps the greatest influence was, and still is, the rather harsh environment on the fells in Cumbria, where the ponies roam in semi-feral herds to this day.

For many centuries, Fell Ponies also worked as pack ponies, travelling in droves with one pony and its rider guiding the rest along established routes. Their remarkable strength and endurance allowed them to carry packs weighing more than 200 pounds over rough, hilly terrain, where they travelled more than 200 miles per week. Back then, Fells were known as "Fell Galloways" or just "Galloways". They also achieved fame as fast trotters at the shepherd's meets and other Lakeland gatherings. Ironically, their hardiness, strength and usefulness almost brought the breed to extinction in the 20th century when they were sold in droves to the army to pull and pack artillery throughout World Wars I and II. Unfortunately, this left few Fell stallions behind. With mechanization, tractors and cars replaced them on farms, and many more ended up being sold for meat. Fortunately, the development of the leisure industry in the 1950's and 60's gave them a new lease on life. Like other native breeds, the versatile Fell pony rose to the task and was able to adapt to this new market for an all-around sport pony.

Laurelhighland Diva - Schooling Under Saddle

Laurelhighland Diva - a rare, bay Fell Pony mare schooling under saddle.
©Laurel Highland Farm


Breed Standards

The first Fell pony stud book was established in the late 1800's by the Polo Pony Society, when Fells were used as foundation stock for producing "top class" riding and polo ponies - back then, unlike today, polo "ponies" were actually ponies! Standing at up to 14 hands high, the purebred Fell pony is powerfully-built with great bone and is up to the weight of most adult riders, while its kind and sensible nature is also ideal for older children. Although the Fell pony is most commonly black, it may also be bay, brown or grey. In addition, the Fell pony's intelligence, outstanding conformation and movement are also very well-suited for a variety of disciplines, with characteristic long and sloping shoulders, well-balanced knee and hock action, and ground-covering gaits. Not only is the Fell pony highly athletic but it is also a very attractive mount with a luxurious mane, tail and "feather". All of these attributes, coupled with natural stamina and hardiness, make the Fell pony a versatile sport pony.

Height: Not exceeding 14 hands (142.2 cm.).

Colour and Markings: Black, brown, bay and grey. Chestnuts, piebalds and skewbalds are debarred. A star and/or a little white on or below the hind fetlock is acceptable. An excess of white markings is discouraged, but such ponies are eligible for registration.

Head: Small, well-chiseled in outline, well set on, forehead broad, tapering to nose.

Nostrils: Large and expanding.

Eyes: Prominent, bright, mild and intelligent.

Ears: Neatly set, well-formed and small.

Throat & Jaw: Fine, showing no signs of throatiness or coarseness.

Neck: Of proportionate length, giving good length of rein, strong and not too heavy, moderate crest in case of stallion.

Shoulders: Most important, well laid back and sloping, not too fine at withers, nor loaded at the points - a good long shoulder blade, muscles well developed.

Carcase: Good strong back of good outline, muscular loins, deep carcase, thick through heart, round ribbed from shoulders to flank, short and well coupled, hind quarters square and strong with tail well set on.

Feet, Legs and Joints: Feet of good size, round and well formed, open at heels with the characteristic blue horn, fair sloping pasterns not too long, forelegs should be straight, well placed not tied at elbows, big well-formed knees, short cannon bone, plenty of good flat bone below knee (eight inches at least), great muscularity of arm.

Hind Legs: Good thighs and second thighs, very muscular, hocks well let down and clean cut, plenty of bone below joint, hocks should not be sickle nor cow-hocked.

Mane, Tail and Feather: Plenty of fine hair at heels (coarse hair objectionable), all the fine hair except that at point of heel may be cast in summer. Mane and tail are left.

Action: Walk, smart and true. Trot well balanced all round, with good knee and hock action, going well from the shoulder and flexing the hocks, not going too wide nor near behind. Should show great pace and endurance, bringing the hind legs well under the body when going.

General Character: The Fell pony should be constitutionally as hard as iron and show good pony characteristics with the unmistakable appearance of hardiness peculiar to mountain ponies, and at the same time, have a lively and alert appearance and great bone.

The Breed Today

The Fell pony is highly versatile and excels in a variety of pursuits, including riding, driving and jumping, with both children and adults alike, all around the world. For older children, the Fell pony is ideal, because it is a pony most children will never outgrow!

Well-known for its kind and sensible temperament, the Fell pony is frequently used in programs for riding and driving by the disabled. As mountain ponies, their natural surefootedness and stamina also make them ideal for trail riding and pony trekking. There is an old saying that "you can't put a Fell to the wrong job", meaning that Fells can do just about anything! Although traditionally they are used for trekking, working hunter and driving, they have been very successful in many riding styles and disciplines, including hunter/jumper, English Pleasure, dressage, gymkhana, Western, Endurance, Side Saddle, and more! In addition, since the Fell pony breeds also very true to type, it is usually very easy to find matched pairs for driving. Indeed, it comes as no surprise to Fell enthusiasts that the Duke of Edinburgh, despite having his pick of all the many other native pony breeds, drove Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's team of Fells regularly in combined driving competition. To this day, His Royal Highness (now in his 90's!) still drives a team of Fells! Her Majesty also has had Fell Ponies since she was about 6 years old, when her grandfather, the late King George V, first acquired them. Fell ponies are still used for both pony trekking and deerstalking at Balmoral Castle, Her Majesty's estate in Scotland. The Queen (who is currently almost 90 years old), is the patron of the Fell Pony Society and remains an active Fell pony breeder herself. Remarkably, the Queen also still regularly rides one of her Fell Ponies, Carltonlima Emma, around Windsor Castle. It is a fitting tribute that Breyer's first-ever Fell pony model has been released as the Queen's own "Emma"!

HRH Prince Phillip Driving a team of Fell Ponies

HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, driving a team of Fell Ponies at the Royal Windsor Horse Show (England) in 2012.
©Laurel Highland Farm


Laurelhighland Pearl Competing in the Hunter/Jumpers

Fell Pony mare, Laurelhighland Pearl, competing in hunter/jumper classes.
©Laurel Highland Farm


Laurelhighland Sapphire - Skijoring

Laurelhighland Sapphire - a rare, grey Fell Pony mare skijoring with some friends.
©Laurel Highland Farm


Greenholme Sapphire - Ridden Championship at South Cumbria Show

Greenholme Sapphire, a black Fell Pony mare, winning the Ridden Championship at the South Cumbria Show (England) in 2008. The traditional tack and turnout for Fell Ponies in working hunter and other traditional ridden classes is as shown and is based on informal foxhunting tack and turnout.
©Laurel Highland Farm


Fell Pony Stallions Waverhead Robbie and Waverhead Model IV
Fell Pony stallions, Waverhead Robbie and Waverhead Model IV, competing at Walnut Hill Carriage Driving Competition (2005) in Pittsford, New York.
©My Star Photography/Laurel Highland Farm


Additional Information

The Fell Pony Society of North America, Inc., at www.fpsna.org, is the oldest and largest Fell pony organization in North America, and was the first Registered Overseas Branch of the Fell Pony Society in the UK (http://www.fellponysociety.org), the registry and worldwide authority on the Fell pony.

About the author: Mary Jean Gould-Earley, MD, is a founding member of the Fell Pony Society of North America, Inc., and is also a member of both the Fell Pony Society (UK) and the Fell Pony Society (UK) Judges Panel. She has been raising Fell Ponies at Laurel Highland Farm (Pennsylvania) since 1998. © Mary Jean Gould-Earley/Laurel Highland Farm, 2005-2015. www.laurelhighland.com No part of this document or images may be reproduced or without permission from the author.