Fell ponies are native to the North of England, and are mostly found in Cumbria, in the old counties of Cumberland and Westmorland, where probably they roamed from pre-historic times. By the Iron Age, equines were in relatively common use in Britain.1 They averaged 12.1 hh in height and resembled the modern Exmoor breed in terms of overall build. By the later part of the Roman occupation, somewhat later than the improvements in other domestic species, the average height of British ponies had increased to around 13 hh.2
The Vikings used ponies to plough and pull sledges as well as for riding and pack work. The animals in use were kept handy in the villages, and the breeding stock lived out on the fell. From the 11th and 12th centuries ponies were being used for longer distance pack work carrying loads of fleeces, woollen goods, foodstuff such as cheeses, meat, fish and preserves, and local metal ores. They were used for shepherding and to hunt wolves that might attack the flocks on the sheepwalks.3
By the 13th century there was a brisk trade in wool to Belgium, and ponies or “capuls” were used to transport merchandise all around the country. The Fell type would have been particularly good for this purpose, being strong, a fast and steady walker and small enough to be easily loaded.4 Pack trains were well organised and made regular journeys. For instance, in the winter of 1492-93, 11 Kendal traders made a total of 14 journeys to Southampton with pack horses carrying loads of cloth. From the end of the Middle Ages to the 18th century, pack-horses continued to transport imported goods.
Fell Ponies, known locally as ‘galloways’, were also used for the Cumberland sport of trotting races. Modern Fell ponies are renowned for their ground covering trot. 5
As industry developed, ponies were needed to transport copper, iron and lead ores from mines in the north-west of England to the smelting works. They also carried iron and lead long distances across country to Newcastle, returning with coal. Fell ponies were used by big Northeastern collieries such as Ashington until well into the 20th century. They were used underground, where the mine height allowed, and above ground for moving machinery and also hauling dairy produce to town from the colliery farms overlying the pits.6 When canals and railways became the main means of transport pack-pony trains and pony-based postal services remained a lifeline for remote communities.
Pony breeders began to record pedigrees in the late 19th century, and show classes for “Fell ponies” were held at Hesket New Market in 1894 and at Shap in 1895. The first Fell ponies were registered in the Polo and Riding Pony Stud Book in 1898.7
In 1922 the Fell Pony Society was set up in its present form, not to “improve” but to “keep pure the old breed of pony” in the face of cross breeding to produce farm horses and showy road animals such as the Wilson pony. Bay and brown ponies were very common at that time. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that black became the predominant colour, followed by brown, bay, and grey. White markings, in the form of stars and small amounts of white on the hind pasterns, have remained fairly constant over the decades. More than half the breed population has no white markings.
The affluent 1950’s saw the rising popularity of riding for pleasure, a pursuit that has guaranteed the future of many native breeds. The number of ponies being registered with the Fell Pony Society has risen steadily, with foal registrations annually exceeding 400 in the first decade of the 21st century.