Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Our 'Osses - when did our Fells become "ponies"?

Where does the name “the Fell pony” come from?

There is very scant evidence of British ponies in the 12 centuries between the end of Roman rule and the era of Elizabeth I. Every positive statement that can be made about them has a “but” attached to it.

Harness fittings and small pony-size 3.5” to 4” bits have survived from the Roman period and there are some sculptures which portray horses in Britain as small, eg the Roman tombstone to Flavinus in Hexham Abbey (on display at Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, in 2014), but we don’t have evidence of a local Cumbrian type, much less a breed. 

The Bayeux Tapestry shows a pack pony smaller than the fighting cavalry ponies who seem to be about 14 hands, but it is way too far south in its origins to be a reference for Northern England. 

Paintings throughout history show horses in the service of monarchs and generals, but no-one showcased the working ponies of the inhospitable North. 

We may guess that they were around—but who’s going to write about a scruffy pickup truck when there are Ferraris or Rolls Royces to admire?  


Eventually, when printed material becomes more common, evidence of local ponies appears as it does today, in literature and in trivia such as advertisements. The term “Galloway” comes into use in Shakespeare’s time (1597) referring to a small horse in common use.  Daniel Defoe in the early 1700s describes Scotland as having “the best breed of strong low horses in Britain, if not in Europe … from whence we call all small truss-strong riding horses Galloways.”

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The most specific references to local Cumbrian horses are notices in newspapers seeking information about “missing” saddle horses. “DARK BAY GALLOWAY, Eleven Hands and a Half high…. the Mane and Tail rather inclined to black, and had two or three white Saddle Marks… Reward for information leading to retrieval.”

The word “pony”

An explanation is frequently trotted out that the word “pony” traces to the Celtic horse goddess Epona. Sadly that doesn’t really hold water because her name had disappeared from common English usage by the 6th century AD—a thousand years before the earliest known date for “powny” which is a diary entry in 1659: "Diary 18 June, I caused to bring home the powny..." and 1675 W. Cunningham's Diary, 24 May, "Sent to Glasgow for a gang of shoo's to Cuninghamheid's pownie." Both are cited by the Oxford English Dictionary which adds that “pony” comes from Scottish, apparently from French poulenet “little foal”, and that the Irish pónaí and Scottish Gaelic pònaidh are derived from the English word and not the other way around. 
In 1710  Defoe describes characters riding on “Bastard Turks, half-bred Barbs, and Union Ponies, a Kind of Horses foaled upon the Borders, and occasionally owning either Country”. That might mean he is thinking of Scottish Galloways or predecessors of the English Fell. However, since Defoe was sent to Edinburgh in 1706 to worm his way into the confidence of the Scottish Parliament and help secure the Union of England and Scotland, he may simply be poking fun at himself and at recent political history. In any case, later in the pamphlet he remarks, “it is not my business as a Historian, to be over sollicitous about the Truth of Facts” (unusual honesty on the part of a secret agent and a journalist). Perhaps it’s safest to assume he has his tongue firmly in his cheek, and just to note his use of the word “ponies.”

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Spelt “poney” the word appears in 1838 in local advertisements in the Westmorland Gazette where it is linked to the terms “Scotch horse” or “Galloway” but not yet to “Fell”. Through the 19th Century the horses of Cumberland and Westmorland were still referred to as Fell-Galloways, and I have heard farmers even in the late 20th C using the term “Gallower” about Fell ponies. 

Agricultural horses, cobs, Hackneys, Galloways and "fell ponies"

Local shows - mostly held in September after the hay crop had been cleared from the fields - divided classes for horses and ponies into various types: Agricultural horses (ie, Clydesdales and their crosses and others suitable to pull farm equipment); cobs; Hackneys; and ponies. These "ponies" were not defined as a breed but usually the classes specified height limits such as "under 14 hands" or "under 13 1/2 hands".

The earliest use of the term "fell pony" (without a capital F) that I've found so far is from the Penrith newspaper, the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald, 6th September, 1885. At Dufton show "the entry of fell ponies was good and the competition keen". The lack of a capital F, as opposed to the G of Galloway or H of Hackney, suggests that the term "fell pony" was not a breed name yet: it was being used for "a pony suitable to live at the fell" or "pony that has been living at the fell", in the same way that modern sheep breeds like Swaledales, Roughs and Herdwicks could be grouped under the one term "fell sheep". This version of the term "fell pony" as any fell-going pony is supported by a slightly later report in the Penrith Observer of 25th October, 1887 which stated that "the Judges for Shorthorns, Cobs, Ponies and Whitefaced Sheep were Mr. W. Ellwood, Skelling and Mr, Bousfield, Langwathby," and reports under Special Prizes for Ponies the following result: "Fell-gone pony, with foal at foot - 1, Messrs. Dargue; 2. Mr.Hutchinson." (with thanks to Dorothy Ewin of Dufton)

The Polo and Riding Pony Society

In 1893 the Polo Pony Society became the Polo and Riding Pony Society and began to register native pony types suitable for breeding light horses for sport and recreation. It registered the ponies by the areas in which they were located, and stipulated that they must be at least three-quarters “native” bred. This is when the names of areas such as Wales and the Scottish Highlands began to be linked to pony registrations, and the idea of a local breed with recorded ancestry emerged in place of a local “type”. 

Agricultural Show reports

In the following year, 1894, the first Cumbrian reference couples the words “ponies” and “Fell.” Before that, the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald reports from agricultural shows only described classes scheduled for Ponies not over 13½ hands, Cobs over 13½ hands and under 14½ hands, and Hackneys over 14½ hands. Hesket-New-Market (1894) and Shap (1895) were two of the first shows, after Dufton, that offered classes specifically for “Fell ponies.” 
Four years later the Polo and Riding Pony Society Stud Book registered the first 2 stallions and 6 mares in its Fell section.

But we still call them ’osses, even now.

Defoe, (1724–1727) A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies
Cumberland Chronicle or Whitehaven Intelligencer, April and May 1777
Defoe, 1710, The True Account of the Last Distemper and Death of Tom Whigg (Part ii. p. 19) 

Sue Millard's book web site, Jackdaw E Books, now does gift vouchers 


Sue Millard said...

I'm hoping to update this post and the Fell Pony Museum with some fresh historical information later this autumn.

Sue Bursztynski said...

This is wonderful information! Most writers don't know much about the history of horses, including me. I wonder how I can save this post for later research material...

Yes, 11 1/2 hands definitely sounds pony size ! :-)

Sue Millard said...

Sue B - bookmark the post. Also bookmark the Fell Pony Museum,, where much of this material is online.