A look into life throughout the year of the native fell pony in Cumbria, written and photographed by Shaun Barr.
Image: A fell pony mare with two young foals on the Cumbrian hills. Shaun Barr Photography
Cumbria's seasons can be varied to say the least, and if you climb just a little higher the weather's unpredictability becomes even more evident. So it can sometimes look pretty tough living life out on the open cold, wet Cumbrian uplands, the wind, rain, hail and snow lashing across the fell sides. But that’s exactly the kind of terrain and climate the native fell pony is used to. It has been bred for these conditions over many centuries, if not thousands of years.
The qualities of hardiness, tenacity and resilience are the kind of well-bred attributes that the fell pony will need to retain if it is to continue to prosper. And it's thanks to the dedication and commitment of owners who still raise their fell ponies on the Cumbrian uplands that these traits can be preserved.
Autumn is an important time of year for the fell pony; it’s when, after the warmer months of summer have created good conditions for plentiful, nutritious-rich food, that the mares are in tip-top shape again. Once the foals have been weaned in October the mares are taken back to the fells to join the rest of the herd. They will stay on the fell throughout the winter. Hay is sometimes provided in the middle of winter but not necessarily taken by the horses – they have a strong, independent nature which stands them in good stead when it comes to looking after themselves. This includes finding food even in frozen, snow-covered ground. Winters can be long in Cumbria, and on the uplands especially, conditions can be relentlessly unforgiving to anyone ill-prepared. The Cumbrian fell pony takes such conditions in its stride, hunkers down, and rides out the winter with the kind of gritty determination I sometimes feel we could do well to emulate.
Meanwhile the foals are kept within the safety of the farm for their first winter. But even after the end of winter, early spring continues to provide challenges for the fell ponies. Although temperatures may have risen a little, the grass on the hillsides is now at its poorest, with very little in the way of sustenance and nutrition left in it.
But it’s worth remembering again that these horses have the fortitude, passed down over generations, to withstand these challenges and are able to survive and cope with less food..
Slowly but surely spring unfurls to its fullest, with the days gradually lengthening, temperatures rising, and the fell sides now lush and rich in vegetation.
May is a notable time in the fell pony calendar as it’s the time of year when some of the ponies are brought down off the fell for foaling. Brood mares are then kept in-bye (on the lower, maintained grassland) where they will run with the stud stallions and rear their foals
A Cumbrian fell pony relaxing in the warmth of a summer's day. Photography by Shaun Barr.
Fell pony breeders often try to aim for May or June foal births to give them a few good months of better weather in which the foals can grow and develop.
After having endured the winter, as well as perhaps a challenging spring and then given birth, the brood mares are likely to be at their leanest by this time. They will however soon start to build much-needed fat as they begin to enjoy the rich summer grassland.
Those summer months are an important time as the young ponies return to the fell to feed, grow and develop muscle – quickly achieved on the steep slopes of Cumbrian hillsides that ensure a good work-out at every turn.
Fell ponies are renowned for their sure-footedness, a skill much required on this rough, uneven terrain. By the end of summer the adult ponies will have acquired a good healthy body mass, with a body depth which should more or less equal the length of the legs.
As autumn returns colts and stallions will stay in-bye, as no entire males are allowed to run on the fell. Once again, the foals are weaned in October and the young mares go back on to the fell. And so the fell pony year keep turning.