The gentle Highland is a pony which is used to carrying weight – literally. As its name suggests the breed comes from the highlands of Scotland where it was traditionally used as a working pony, which was also suitable for riding. Today it is used mostly as a riding pony although a number are still kept as working animals.
It is unclear how the Highland pony originally developed. One common theory is that Eriskay ponies from the nearby Hebrides were brought to the mainland and cross-bred with larger animals such as Clydesdales and French Percherons to produce a strong working pony, which was still capable of being used for riding and could withstand the harsh winters common in the North of Scotland.
For many years they were used mainly as load-carrying horses. Crofters would use them to work the fields and the gentry would use them to carry stag down from the mountains in special saddles made for the purpose. (The saddles themselves were far from light). They were also popular with Scottish soldiers and served in WWII.
In spite of its strength, the Highland has a gentle and biddable temperament, which makes it very suitable for inexperienced and/or nervous riders and also for children. One of their earliest celebrity admirers was Queen Victoria who enjoyed what we would now call pony trekking around her Balmoral estate and referred to it in her Journal of our Life in the Highlands. About a hundred years after the period she described, Mr Ewan Ormiston started a pony-trekking centre in Newtonmore in the Scottish Highlands, using the sturdy and gentle ponies to take people safely around the spectacular countryside.
Today Highland ponies still thrive in their traditional home. Trekking centres value pure-bred ponies as docile and hard-working riding mounts, who can be safely trusted with tourists. Local landowners use them to manage their estates. Even with the advance of mechanisation, there are still parts of agricultural work where ponies are more effective than machines. For example, the sturdy ponies will carry heavy loads of young trees into areas where it would be impractical to take machines. They are also still used to carry stags, with the Queen keeping several ponies for this purpose. Highland ponies have also made their mark further afield. Pure-breds are popular for any situation where a calm temperament is paramount. Even though they were bred for life in a rural environment their unflappable nature means that they are generally calm in traffic, which endears them to both adults and children in modern riding environments. They are also often crossed with finer breeds such as Arabs and Thoroughbreds to add strength, stamina and common-sense.
Highland ponies are between 13 and 14.3 hands. All whole colours are permitted and the most common colours are varieties of dun. It is quite common for Highlands to change colour as they grow from foals into adults and for their coats to lighten at a slower rate as they age. Their heads are broad, with gentle eyes and are carried on strong necks. The body is broad but compact, with deep chests and strong hind-quarters. Legs are sturdy with strong bones and hooves. Highlands typically have large hooves, which help them to keep their footing while crossing rough highland countryside. In summer, Highlands have sleek, glossy coats, but retain feathering around their fetlocks, which helps to protect them against injury and stinging plants such as nettles and thistles. In winter they grow very thick coats, which enable them to withstand bitter cold and snow.
The Highland pony is about as docile and gentle as you can possibly get. They are, however, very far from being stupid. The Highland's traditional home is a harsh environment with minimal grazing, even in summer and brutal weather in winter. Consequently Highlands have become canny and resourceful. Although their size and bulk means they are unlikely to be the fastest ponies at any event they are still capable of a respectable turn of speed and often thoroughly enjoy more active pursuits such as cross-country rides (rather than trekking) when given the opportunity to participate in them. They can do well too as their sure-footedness and intelligence often compensates for their relative lack of outright speed. Likewise they can excel in gymkhana games where their ability to keep calm no matter what strange activities their rider is undertaking, along with their comfortable paces, can prove invaluable. This makes them a great choice as an all-round family pony where younger members may want a pony capable of holding its own in competitions and other active pursuits while older ones simply want a gentle ride for relaxing hacking.
Any animal which can survive winters in the North of Scotland year after year has to be hardy and the Highland is a robust and healthy pony. There are, however, a couple of issues that need to be addressed. Firstly Highlands can become overweight very easily. They are meant to be broad and strong not fat. As well as health issues typically associated with obesity, Highlands can fall victim to laminitis very easily. Secondly Highland coats do need either clipping or significant grooming in winter otherwise the pony may suffer from skin conditions.
Caring for a Highland
Generally speaking Highland ponies are very easy to look after. They can live out all year. If lightly clipped for moderate work they will be fine outside with a good rug and blankets if required. They will only need to come inside in winter if they have been more extensively clipped for heavier work. In summer, however, they may need to come in for some of the time to prevent them from over-eating. Other than grooming in winter, their basic requirements are minimal. Their hooves will need regular care and they will need to be wormed. Animals in hard work may require extra
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