The Call Goes Out

The call goes out: „Come on girls!“ and a populous group of mares and foals, in all possible shades of dun, gallop over to us. Cameron Ormiston has taken a couple of hours of his time to show us the larger part of his herd of some 80 Highland ponies - and that even though we told him right at the start of the visit that we already had two Highland ponies and did not want to buy another!

Highland Pony Skymuir Bervie in Winter 2003

All the Scots I have come to know are just as proud of their Highlands as Cameron, whose prefix Croila has been passed on from father to son for generations.

The Highland pony is the heaviest of the nine British native breeds. Standing anything between 132cm and 148cm, a fully-grown modern Highland can have a normal weight of up to 550kgs. In keeping with lots of other breeds of pony, Highlands too - traditionally used to sparse moorland grazing - can be wont to become rather portly on our rich pastures. The only action to be taken in such a case is regular exercise and controlled access to grazing.

Highland Pony Skymuir Danaidh

 

The native environment of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, to which the breed has adapted itself superbly, has made the Highland pony a tough, foot-sure animal. The winter coat is thick and insulates well, ensuring that the ponies can and should ideally be kept outside all year round. Mane, tail and feathering on the legs are full and silky. The summer coat is fine and smooth.

The colouring of the ponies calls to mind their homeland: every shade of dun (grey, cream, mouse, yellow and chocolate) is to be found, along with bay and black. Not a few Highland pony owners are reluctant to face up to the fact that most ponies bought as grey or cream duns will eventually turn white - although in Scotland (and Britain as a whole) there is no such thing as a „white“ equine: they are always described as being greys. And as long as a coloured hair is to be found on a pony, the talk is of cream dun, grey dun... Ponies with „true“ colours mostly keep these a lifetime. Whether a pony will turn grey or not can be deduced from the first day of life, or, alternatively, after the foal coat is lost. Even a few protuding white hairs, especially around the eyes, are a good indication of later colouring.

Highland Pony Skymuir Dramna

A speciality, and exception, is present in the ranks of the breed: Highland ponies from the island of Rhum have developed unusual colours, such as chestnut with silver manes, tails and feathering. A handful of studs have concentrated their breeding programmes to producing ponies with such colouring. It has to be said, however, that in Great Britain, a somewhat dim view is taken of chestnuts among the ranks of native ponies. Many Highlands have eel stripes, shoulder strips and/or zebra strips on the legs. Latticing on the hocks can also be seen, albeit relatively seldom. White markings are not wished, save for a small star, because, it is said, a horse with a star cannot have a bad character. Stallions with white markings, apart from a small star, are not eligible for licensing.

In the past, there was a discernible difference between the smaller, lighter Western Isles type ponies and the larger, heavier mainland type. The number of breeders grew and bloodlines were mixed so that the ponies could no longer generally be categorised as either one of the two types. The Highland ponys stems from the primitive pony of Scotland, with a few breeders having introduced blood from Spanish horses and others that of Clydesdales (the Scottish version of the English Shire horse). Since the 1880s, studbook records have been kept and although the Highland Pony Society was founded in 1923, the ponies were registered through the UK-wide National Pony Society until the 1960s. At the turn of the century, the Scottish board of agriculture established the Knocknagael „stud“ at Beechwood just outside of Inverness, the capital of the Highlands and Islands region. In doing so, crofters were enabled to cover their Highland mares with quality stallions. The service was available until the stud was dispersed in the 1970s.

Highland Pony Skymuir Eilean in winter

Unlike Germany, Scotland has no centralised system for the registration of mares or general appraisal and performance testing of stallions. There is therfore no neutral assessment of the ponies and the breed definition is very general in its formation. The Highland Pony Society does not decide which stallion may be used for breeding: stallions must only undergo a veterinary examination in order to obtain a licence. The result of this practise has been to produce a wide range of different types which are, nevertheless, still undoubtedly recognisable as Highlands.

A couple of years ago, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, together with the Highland Pony Society, began to build up a sperm bank with samples from as many different stallions, unrelated over several generations, as possible. Easier said than done however, considering that there are not even two entirely separate male bloodlines among Highland ponies. Not only that, but foal numbers have also fallen over the last eight years.

Skymuir Ailsa and Skymuir Danaidh in winter tolling around

The Highland was originally the all-terrain, all-purpose pony of the Highlands and Islands, used by the crofter to plough land, in the forest, for riding and as the transporter of all kinds of different materials, agricultural and otherwise. To this day, the ponies are still used to carry deer and other game out of difficult terrain. The traditional role of the Highland Pony became obsolete however with the introduction of the tractor, with many ponies being sold in the 1950s as a result. At this time, there is also the recorded import of a stallion to Germany. The stallion Jack, who had a „Deckerlaubnis A“ (approved to cover) for the then North Rhein province, is also thought to later have been used among the Dülmener wild horses.

The introduction of pony trekking in the 1950s brought fresh impetus to the breed. In the 1970s, a few ponies were imported into Germany, although it was not until the 1980s that the ball really started rolling. There are now some 250 Highland ponies in Germany with some enthusiasts having begun to breed. Each year, between 10 and 15 foals are born here. Nowadays, the Highland Pony is a versatile family pony and, depending on type, just as suited to pleasure riding, driving, dressage, jumping, handy pony classes, endurance, as it is to therapeutic riding.

Highland ponies have been exported to many other countries and there are breeders in France, Belgium, Holland, Poland, Australia, Canada and the USA.

Highland Ponies Skymuir Eilean and Sykmuir Danaidh