The spectacular views at Glen Affric are best seen when astride a pony, Neil Braidwood discovers
My son and I recently stayed at Eagle Brae, a fantastic log cabin complex high on a hill near Beauly in Inverness-shire. While we were there, we wanted to do some sightseeing, and thought a pony trek would be a great idea.
Neither of us had ever been on a horse, so this was bound to be an interesting experience for us.
We had our young Springer Spaniel, Ruby, with us, so I took her along to the farm at Cougie, south of Cannich, and checked with owner Sasha Pocock (pictured left inset) whether bringing the dog would be a problem.
I quickly saw that it wouldnâ€™t be. The Pocock family had five dogs, and they all crowded eagerly around Ruby, sniffing and barking. The ponies didnâ€™t bat a single (very long) eyelash, while Sasha (who runs the centre with her husband, Iain) confirmed that the ponies were more than used to dogs, though of course she couldnâ€™t guarantee that Ruby wouldnâ€™t get kicked.
There were four of us in the party, so Sasha quickly sized us up, matched us with ponies and got us to try a riding hat for size. A few forms to fill in, and we were up on our steeds. I had expected wee dumpy Shetland ponies, but these beasts were pretty large and it seemed a long way down from where I was sitting. Mine was called Huntly, and all four ponies remained utterly motionless until commanded to â€œwalk onâ€ by Sasha and her daughter, Sarah, who was coming along for the ride.
As the group meandered across the farm to the road, Ruby came bounding alongside us, slightly alarmed at first, as she couldnâ€™t seem to tell where I was. I guess the riding hats made us all look pretty similar. Sasha seemed happy that our dog would be perfectly safe, as she seemed very alert, and kept her distance from the hooves.
Just beyond the farm gates lay the entrance to Glen Affric Estate â€“ privately owned, but free to walk on due to Scotlandâ€™s â€œright to roamâ€ law. The track was basic, but the ponies seemed to know their way, so all that was required of us riders was to stay on and guide the ponies right or left with a gentle tug of the reins. Occasionally, a more vigorous tug was needed to slow the ponies down, but in general, we were able to chat and enjoy the scenery, which became more spectacular as we ventured deeper into the estate. All the ponies had distinct characters, and once or twice they would stop for a munch of grass, until urged to â€œwalk onâ€ again. Sashaâ€™s voice seemed to have more effect than when I gave the command.
When youâ€™re riding like this, you donâ€™t really feel that you are exerting yourself. However, Sasha explained that we were using a lot of muscles that we probably didnâ€™t use very much, so were likely to feel some aches the next day.
The sun was breaking through the clouds now, and after about an hour the ponies started to turn off the track without being asked. â€œThey know where theyâ€™re going,â€ laughed Sasha. Sure enough, they were striking out cross-country and uphill to a vantage point theyâ€™d been to many times. The view here was truly breathtaking, with a full 360Âº of lochs, glens and mountains around us. Sasha explained that this point was a popular place for couples to propose, as it was so gorgeous, and more than once she has led people here, in on the secret, hanging back while the question is popped.
This was our turning point, and as my pony clambered sure-footedly down the steep slope, I leaned back in my saddle to ensure I wouldnâ€™t fall off.
We retraced our steps, by this time all of us feeling much more confident.
The ponies stopped at a stream for a much-needed drink, and Sasha revealed that she and Iain had cross-bred all the ponies themselves to deliver a sturdier mount, hence their size. When the centre had smaller ponies she would often have to turn people away as they would be too heavy for the pony to carry. Having the larger breed meant that happened less.
Interestingly, there were a lot of puddles on the track, and the ponies almost always avoided walking through these, whereas the dog revelled in jumping in headfirst.
We had been in the saddle for nearly three hours, and did feel tired but exhilarated after the trip. We had seen some amazing scenery at a gentle pace â€“ though faster than if we had been walking it ourselves.
Iain often leads longer cross-country treks over four or five days, camping and eating out under the stars. If the weather was good, that would definitely appeal to me â€“ a real taste of the wilderness.
Highland Trekking and Trail Riding