After 30 years spent managing and showing Welsh and Dartmoor stallions, Shull can’t envision a future without ponies.
Hershell Shull leads me into a field of yearling ponies. Soft roans, fuzzy bays and winter grays look up as we walk toward them, their tails swishing, interested. A few take a first step in our direction, and within moments they’re all ambling as a herd: not rushed, just eager.
Immediately I find myself shifting my camera behind my back—nibblers, I bet— but when we’re surrounded (Shull first, then me), I discover that the ponies are polite. Mannered, even. They nuzzle, don’t bite, mostly just watch as I reach out to scratch one on the crest. The others don’t push. Shull, surrounded by a fan club, is rubbing chins that have been raised in his direction. I lift the camera to snap a few shots, all the while wondering: Can these really be pony yearlings?
“Did he call them over for you?” Hetty Abeles, owner of her family’s Farnley Farm, asks when we’ve walked back downhill to the barn. I explain that it wasn’t necessary; the ponies saw us and walked right over.
“Well yes,” she says, “that’s pretty common. They come to [Shull], and he doesn’t need a bucket of grain, never has. Sometimes he calls them, and they come when he calls. He has different noises he makes. When he’s dealing with a foal, it’s hard to make them follow the mares when they’re young, and he can sound just like a mare whinnying to them. They turn right around and follow him.”
Shull smiles and nods modestly. In the small paddock beside the barn, two ponies have been watching us eagerly from the gate.
Learning From The Best
Thirty years ago, Hershull Shull moved to Farnley Farm in White Post, Va., without any idea what he was in for. He’d been working on a cattle farm in Berryville, Va., when family friend Ed Simpson let him in on a job opening.
“Ed’s the cattle man here at Farnley. He’s been here over 60 years,” said Shull, 49. “He knew I was interested in animals, and he said Farnley was looking for a stallion manager. I didn’t know a whole lot about ponies, but I was very lucky coming to Farnley. I’ve had the best teachers in [Joan Dunning] and Mrs. Abeles, and I just took a liking to it.”
In 1936, Dunning and her first husband, Alexander Mackay-Smith, voyaged to England and brought several Welsh and Dartmoor ponies back to Virginia via cargo passage. Over the next few decades, they made additional trips, bolstering the stock that would establish both breeds in the United States. Dunning’s eye for conformation and temperament, evident in stallions like the venerable Farnley Lustre (Gretton Blue Boy—Cui Glitter, Rebel Revolt), soon made ponies with Farnley-prefixed names the rage in hunter rings, favored for their floating movement and kid-friendly demeanors.
“I only knew it was a pony farm, but I’ve really been privileged to become part of their tradition,” said Shull. “Mrs. Dunning always said, ‘We’re like family here.’ ”
Shull, too, brought his family along when he moved to Farnley. His wife, Karen, accompanied him when he accepted the job.
“We met at the Shenandoah Valley Baptist Church in Stephens City [Va.] when we were about 15,” said Karen, 49. “We got married in that same church on June 8 about three years later.”
Both 19 when they moved to Farnley, neither had much horse experience, but they hung on every piece of advice Dunning had to offer.
“Mrs. Dunning would show me the ponies, and we’d look them over and see what a good quality pony should look like,” said Hershell. “We’d look at different ones and say, ‘What do you like? What don’t you like?’ Then she’d tell me which was better than the other, what you could give up, what you didn’t want. A longer head was OK, but not crooked hocks. It’s hard here, because we don’t have anything but good conformational ponies to compare to.”
Hustle And Bustle
Today, spring and summer breeding seasons find Hershell with his hands full.
“I come in and do the feeding and barn work, and then we call the teasing mare herd down,” he said. “We get a stallion and tease to see which mares are in season and which ones to cover that day. We do the same with the mares with foals at their sides. All of our breeding and foaling is done in the pastures.”
Hershell estimates that Farnley’s 14 stallions, including multiple-time Welsh Pony and Cob Society of America supreme champion Farnley Triton, covered about 60 mares this season, including ship-in clients and Farnley’s own broodmares.
“We used to cover 60 Farnley mares alone, but we’ve downsized and aren’t breeding as many due to the economy,” he said. “We get a lot of mares that have tried [artificial insemination] and didn’t catch. Live cover is more natural, and we get many of those mares to catch right away. We’ve talked about doing AI for some of the stallions, but trying to find the time to do that between everything else is difficult.”
Farnley Farm spans 600 acres, and in addition to overseeing breeding operations and occasional on-site pony auctions—including this summer’s auction in which 63 ponies were sold—Hershell takes pride in contributing to the farm’s upkeep, including mowing, trimming, chopping wood and maintaining pastures for both horses and cattle.
“If we’re making hay in the middle of all that, then I add that to the mix,” he said. “And then if we’re getting ready for a show, we’ve got to bring the show ponies in and clean them up.”
But amidst all the hustle and bustle of farm life, raising their twin daughters, Megan and Stephanie, born in 1984, has been the Shulls’ crowning achievement.
“Our girls grew up here,” said Karen. “And before they went off to college, they worked here, too, cleaning stalls, washing ponies, helping show in the ring and helping halter-break the foals.”
From Softball To Show Ring
Spring through fall, you’ll find Hershell and Karen showing ponies and stallions at breed shows up and down the East Coast, including Maryland and Virginia Pony Breeders Association shows.
“We do a lot of groundwork with the foals and stallions to get them ready,” said Hershell. “[Karen] gets the ponies groomed up for the shows. All of them sparkle—she has her secrets.”
But unlike breeding management, for which Hershell felt initially unprepared, showing in-hand came more naturally.
“I played softball for many years, so I could run fast, and that was good for showing ponies,” he said. “Like [Farnley Triton], he’s won more [WPCSA supreme championships] than just about any pony that can be remembered. He’s amazing. He’s a 10-plus exceptional mover, and those are the ones you love to show. You can just get in the ring and fly with them.”
Abeles, who took over ownership of the farm when Dunning, her mother, passed away in 2009, attributes Hershell’s success to more than just speed.
“At [the Upperville Colt and Horse Show (Va.)] once, he was holding Farnley Magic Word, and there were quite a few stallions in the ring,” she said. “One of them began to act up, and the others caught the bug. But Magic Word and Hershell just stood there nonchalantly like nothing was going on. That’s very typical of his teaching. He requires them to be quiet, and they are. Someone came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I know which stallion I’m breeding to!’ ”
For Hershell, good behavior is the most basic requirement for all of Farnley’s breeding stock.
“All stallions should have good manners, and I always say that it’s usually not the pony, it’s what they’ve been allowed to get away with,” he said. “But we only have good-mannered ponies at Farnley. That’s what you want in a child’s pony.”
Does he have a favorite among the stallions?
“Triton is a favorite,” he said with a gleam in his eye, then rattled off a list of others—Farnley Magic Word, Farnley Magic Flute, Cowboy Joe, Count Bisbee—making it clear he can’t play the favorites game.
“You raise them up, and they’re all individuals with their own personalities,” he said. “I like working with all of them, and you do get attached.”
Affinity for Hershell is equally as strong in the Welsh Pony community.
“He meets the world with joy, and he’s very well-known,” said Abeles. “He’s one of the people they all look forward to seeing.”
At Season’s End
When breeding and show season end, Hershell gives the stallions a 30-day break before turning them out together in a field behind his house.
“Ms. Dunning always said that that’s how they grew up, and sure enough, they’ve always been fine out there together. They’re just like a bunch of kids playing. You can go out there, and they’ll just be standing quietly in the field. If they see you coming, they’ll squeal, but that’s about all they do.”
Abeles takes comfort in knowing that Hershell can look out his window to oversee the herd.
“He has his eye on them all the time, and it’s a peaceable kingdom,” she said, noting that she’s come to rely on Hershell for a variety of tasks over the years.
“He’s the best of the machine drivers, because he cares about them,” she said. “He’s learned a lot from the veterinarians, and he can quote them. He’s famous for how good he is at giving a shot. He can find a vein in the neck better than the vet—even the vet will tell you that!”
Though Hershell and Karen’s daughters are now grown with children of their own, their granddaughter, Madison, who just turned 3, competed in her first leadline class this year on Farnley Couscous.
“As long as they’ll have us, we’ll be here,” said Karen. “People don’t know how we’ve stayed married so long and still work together every day, but we do. We’ll probably grow old together here.”
And Hershell, an old hat in the breeding business after 30 years at Farnley, can’t envision a better setting.
“The special times, when the craziness of the showing and breeding are over, are when you can take time to look at the farm and the ponies,” said Hershell. “With Mrs. Abeles, I’ll compare the ponies now with what we’ve had in the past and the good conformational matches we’ve made. Or I’ll do the bush hogging and come back in the evenings when it’s cooler, when the mares and foals are out running around. No matter how bad a day you’ve had, if you can sit and watch them, it makes it all better. Some people would say, ‘Grab a drink!’ But I’d say, ‘I’d rather go watch a foal.’ ”
If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of "Stud Manager Hershell Shull Finds His Niche At Farnley Farm" ran in the Dec. 5, 2011, Stallion issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.