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Thread: Pony Tales 2

  1. #1

    Pony Tales 2

    Pony Tales (2) Andy Hurrell 2014


    Until relatively recently, the entire infrastructural evolution of every industrialised nation in the world depended largely on the use of horses for transporting persons, goods and materials, so it's perhaps surprising that there isn't more day-to-day evidence or acknowledgement of the huge historical debt we owe our equine friends. Imagine how many horses put their backs into the building of St Paul's Cathedral, our canal and railway networks, the dark Satanic mills of the north or the ships of the Georgian navy.


    But in the highlands of Scotland, hundreds of horses are still used to bring the annual harvest of red deer down from the hill to the larder. A century and a half ago, when Victoria and Albert were forging the Scottish deer stalking prototype at Crucible Balmoral, the utilisation of locally available highland ponies for deer extraction would have been a no-brainer: whether the continuance of this practice into the twenty-first century is solely for utilitarian reasons is a moot point. Most of the revenue derived by a landowner from stag stalking is fees paid by the guests: are ponies used to carry the stags because that's what the customers want, or are ponies still used because they do a better job than any available alternative? Are there sentimental and environmental considerations? Is it a tradition maintained for tradition's sake?


    The acid test, it might be argued, is whether there are any professional stalkers left in Scotland who, when working alone (that is, stalking without clients, as they often do during the hind season) favour the use of ponies. The veteran Scottish stalker Lea MacNally, in his classic 1968 publication 'Highland Deer Forest', says 'that two hinds make a load for one pony', but that was written nearly fifty ago . . .


    In the 1970s, when I worked as ponyman at Braeroy, an estate bordering Lea MacNally's formative patch at Culachy, we used a Landrover to move ourselves and our equipment along the glen road, but we used ponies for carrying the stags off the hill, down to the roadside. Two of our six ponies had been backed well enough to be reliably ridable, so they also took turns, first thing in the morning, at carrying the ponyman to a predetermined rendezvous at the far end of the glen road. (The stalker and his guests set off much later, catching up with the ponyman in the Landrover.) You'd have to be desperately tired, or suffering from a serious leg injury or perhaps just trying to dodge a soaking in a deep burn to prefer a ride on a pack saddle to shanks' pony. A pack saddle offers no more comfort than would an oversized barrel of malt whisky (in fact, potentially rather less comfort than a full one). At Braeroy, happily, I rode out in the mornings on a horse fitted with a pukka riding saddle - with stirrups, a bridle and a bit. Gordon Addison, the stalker at that time, stored a deer saddle in the Landrover and we swapped saddles after he'd caught up with me at the rendezvous.


    We never used the ponies to carry stags along the road - what would have been the point when the Landrover was available? Once we'd got the ponies to the roadside, the stags and saddles came off the ponies and the burden was transferred to the Landrover and its trailer. Gordon was mindful not to make the ponies carry weight unnecessarily. Even unloaded, a leather deer saddle - just the saddle and the straps - is quite heavy: my guess is closer to three stone than two.


    Beautifully crafted TV advertisements imply otherwise, but it seems to me that conventional four-wheeled vehicles, even with drive to each wheel, lose their efficacy in inverse proportion to the hardness of the driving surface. During my seasons at Braeroy, I recall that on the two occasions we took the Landrover off the beaten track we very soon came unstuck. Well, by unstuck, off course, I actually mean stuck.


    By contrast, the Canadian manufactured Argocat, an eight (or six) wheeled sit-in skid-steering All Terrain Vehicle, performs over the kind of soft ground that leaves any four-wheeled road vehicle floundering. It can, by a skilful operator, also be manouevred over lumpy terrain; uneven ground that would be completely no-go for any kind of mechanical transport short of a military tank. And, like a tank, an Argo can even be fitted with tracks, though it's default operational condition is eight or six small wheels, each shod with a wide soggy tyre.


    But the Argocat has its limitations and most certainly isn't the off-road equivalent of The Great Panacea. It's definitely not a go-anywhere vehicle. Indeed, it has a number of Achilles' heels, the most serious of which is its potential to capsize - easily fulfilled if driven incautiously along the contour of even a modestly sloping hillside. In the 'Potential Hazards' section of the official Argocat manual it says 'side slope operation greatly increases the risk of rolling the vehicle over sideways'. To avoid this hazard it says, quite simply, 'do not drive your vehicle across the side of a hill'.


    Last year, working in Sutherland, a young ghillie on a neighbouring beat gained first-hand experience of another of the Argocat's operational vulnerabilities. He nose-dived his eight-wheeler into a trench and grounded it on the front of the bodywork. Traction in reverse gear proved elusive. His laudable efforts to use the ground anchor and electric winch to haul the machine out of its predicament precipitated a seriously pear-shaped turn for the worse: he forgot to keep the engine running while using the electric winch. The battery went flat. One of the most useless things in the world is a flat battery. A flat battery is especially useless when you're stuck on a hill in the Scottish highlands, five miles from anywhere with a pronounceable name, it's raining, you've got a fourteen stone lump of venison to get home and it's going to be pitch dark by eight o'clock.


    Horses don't get flat batteries, but they have their own idiosyncratic and equally tiresome propensities, one of which is to sometimes fall over. On the last working day of the stag season, the horse my erstwhile flat-batteried colleague was riding lost its footing. He ended up in hospital (my colleague, that is, not the horse). And even to a ghillie on foot, a pony is a potential hazard. Leading a horse down a steep or slippery bank, for example, one should be aware of the possibility of inadvertently functioning as a soft landing mat for one's four-legged friend. Being rolled on by half a ton of live horse flesh, particularly if it has a sharp pair of antlers protruding from an additional load of freshly harvested venison strapped to its saddle, would almost certainly spoil one's day.


    I've been lucky, so far, with horses, but it's as well to keep in mind the author Ian Fleming's observation - that horses are dangerous at both ends. I was kicked last year by a colt, but half a second before he lashed out at me l'd been visited by a rare moment of clairvoyance and was able to sidestep the worst of the blow. I recall, however, with astonishing clarity, the two occasions at Braeroy when I had one of my feet trodden on by a fully grown highland pony. Of course, such an incident can only occur when one's working very close to a horse, when adjusting the saddle or loading a stag, for example. It's an eye-wateringly painful experience, which lasts as long as it takes for the animal to be persuaded to shift its weight elsewhere. I can personally testify, however, that though the actuality of the pain subsides within minutes of the horse removing its metal-shod hoof, the memory of it can linger for more than three decades. The health and safety wallahs may well insist that steel toecapped boots are the answer, but I shall refuse to accept that metal prophylactics can be comfortably incorporated into lightweight hill-walking boots until I hear that Himalayan sherpas are wearing them.


    I was once helping Gordon Addison to shoe a horse in the yard at Braeroy when it trod on his foot (accidentally, one might assume, although this particular pony, Ginger, was a bit of a character). Gordon was holding a heavy hammer in his hand at the time. His two-fold response to Ginger's act of passive aggression was to utter an unrepeatably foul deprecation in a Scots Gaelic version of Anglo-Saxon, then to strike the beast a violent hammer blow to the forehead. Neither of these two retaliatory gestures appeared to cause Ginger the slightest offence. In fact, I caught Ginger's eye a moment before the hammer made contact. It seemed to me that despite his inscrutable, dead-pan, long-faced horse-like expression, Ginger was struggling to suppress a very naughty smirk . . .

  2. #2
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    Interesting read thank you very much Andy. I was suprised to read that "hundreds" of ponies are still used on the hill today. It'd be good to think there were that many. I suppose if each estate has at least two ponies then that's 50 estates which in fact could be the case. Does anyone have any idea or source of what proportion of all the estates still use ponies? It would be interesting to know.

    We moved to London a couple of years ago and in fact you sometimes do still see the odd random piece of ironmongery attached to an old wall as evidence of working horses. Also at the end of our back garden in London is the old coach house to a bigger house and I have dug up quite a bit of stable paraphernalia.

  3. #3
    Yes, they do have their advantages. But like a lot of things in life, they can be tempremental, and high maintenance. And a pain in the a**e when they won't stand still, when you're trying to wrestle a stag on to their back. But if you're in the business of selling memories, following a pony down a track, with your stag on it's back, listening to the "clop" of the hooves, and slap of the stag's legs, just about guarantees repeat bookings

  4. #4
    [QUOTE=andyhurrell;820020]Pony Tales (2) Andy Hurrell 2014


    But in the highlands of Scotland, hundreds of horses are still used to bring the annual harvest of red deer down from the hill to the larder. A century and a half ago, when Victoria and Albert were forging the Scottish deer stalking prototype at Crucible Balmoral, the utilisation of locally available highland ponies for deer extraction would have been a no-brainer: whether the continuance of this practice into the twenty-first century is solely for utilitarian reasons is a moot point. Most of the revenue derived by a landowner from stag stalking is fees paid by the guests: are ponies used to carry the stags because that's what the customers want, or are ponies still used because they do a better job than any available alternative? Are there sentimental and environmental considerations? Is it a tradition maintained for tradition's sake?

    I think its mostly tradition , what the client wants especially overseas clients fulfills their romantic notion of Highland stalking











    The acid test, it might be argued, is whether there are any professional stalkers left in Scotland who, when working alone (that is, stalking without clients, as they often do during the hind season) favour the use of ponies. The veteran Scottish stalker Lea MacNally, in his classic 1968 publication 'Highland Deer Forest', says 'that two hinds make a load for one pony', but that was written nearly fifty ago . . .


    There may be but most seem to use them only for the stags, a pony is not ideal when stalking alone, fine at the hinds if you still have a Ghillie a lot of us only had the luxury of a Ghillie during the stag season.




    By contrast, the Canadian manufactured Argocat, an eight (or six) wheeled sit-in skid-steering All Terrain Vehicle, performs over the kind of soft ground that leaves any four-wheeled road vehicle floundering. It can, by a skilful operator, also be manouevred over lumpy terrain; uneven ground that would be completely no-go for any kind of mechanical transport short of a military tank. And, like a tank, an Argo can even be fitted with tracks, though it's default operational condition is eight or six small wheels, each shod with a wide soggy tyre.


    But the Argocat has its limitations and most certainly isn't the off-road equivalent of The Great Panacea. It's definitely not a go-anywhere vehicle. Indeed, it has a number of Achilles' heels, the most serious of which is its potential to capsize - easily fulfilled if driven incautiously along the contour of even a modestly sloping hillside. In the 'Potential Hazards' section of the official Argocat manual it says 'side slope operation greatly increases the risk of rolling the vehicle over sideways'. To avoid this hazard it says, quite simply, 'do not drive your vehicle across the side of a hill'.

    Its true they are not go anywhere vehicles but with experience and common sense you can get if not to the place you want to be pretty close.

    I know about capsizing Argos and somebody will probably be along soon to say I wrote the book on the subject

    I will relate one instance at my expense, I had my Argo stolen ( but that's another story) and just taken delivery of a new one, it was one of the last days of the stag season , a lovely warm Indian summers day, we had stalked and shot two stags
    by early afternoon and stopped for our piece, the client wanted to carry on and try for another stag, now I was not best pleased and thought he was being a bit greedy after all he was not a paying client but enjoying a freebee from my then Laird.

    I decided to take him to an area where we would certainly see stags but it was a very difficult area to stalk and there was a good chance we would not be successful, which was not worrying me greatly.

    I told my Ghillie what my plans were, and to give me two hours and then to bring the Argo to a meeting point, I knew that this would not go down very well as he had never liked taking the Argo down a particular slope that he would have to navigate on the way to the arranged meeting point.

    He told me there was no way he was taking the Argo down THERE as it kept jumping out of gear, I told him in the gentle mild mannered way that I have not to be so stupid as the Argo was brand new and had less than five hours on the clock and that there was no way it could be jumping out of gear.

    He however was adamant he was not taking the Argo down this slope, not wishing to cause a scene in front of the client I told him to take the client and try and get him a stag (he was an able stalker in his own right though a little lacking in confidence) and that I would deal with him later, I thought this would be enough to change his mind and that he would reluctantly agree to taking the Argo, but no he said he would stalk with the client.

    I spent a pleasant two hours dozing in the warm sunshine before setting off to the meeting point all went well until I was about a third of the way down the steep slope, when all of a sudden surprise surprise the bloody thing jumped out of gear,
    could not get it back in gear , nor could I stop it without any engine braking any application of the brakes just caused the wheels to lock and the Argo then became a sledge, wow I knew then what the Cresta Run was like.

    I had to decide what to do jump which I think would have caused some considerable injury or stay with it and hope I could steer it down the slope and onto the flats several hundred feet below , made it all the way to the bottom still travelling at a fair speed, just about to congratulate myself when the Argo suddenly stopped dead however I did not the front wheels of the Argo had dropped into a heather covered hole stopping it instantly, I became airborne eventually coming to rest with one of the mornings stags on top of me, I was in agony and could hardly breath discovered later that I had broken every rib
    down my right side either against the steering levers when being thrown from the Argo or by the stag landing on top of me.


    One estate I worked on had got rid of their ponies the year before I started and replaced them with an Argo , one of the other employees shepherd/ stalker had been responsible for looking after the ponies a job which he hated the first thing he did when the ponies left was to build a bonfire and put both the deer saddles on it just in case the estate was ever tempted to return to ponies, very sad.

    Last edited by bogtrotter; 17-07-2014 at 10:36.

  5. #5
    Here in Southeast Alaska, a friend has an Argo that we have used to retrieve many moose from nasty swamps and bogs with the help of its winch. We usually cut the animal in half to load in the cargo area or can tow it in more open wet grassy areas. Small trees less than 3" diameter and thick brush are no obstacle. They also float and can motor across slow moving rivers and lakes. The tires are much better than tracks also and definitely not good on sidehills!

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