End of road for pony treks on royal estate

Trekking on the Balmoral estate has been the traditional way of exercising ponies. Photograph: Scottish Viewpoint
Trekking on the Balmoral estate has been the traditional way of exercising ponies. Photograph: Scottish Viewpoint
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RIDING Highland ponies has been a tradition and a treat on the Queen’s Balmoral estate for more than a quarter of a century.

Members of the public were prepared to pay up to £97 a day for the privilege of taking out the monarch’s prize animals on the 50,000 acres of her Deeside home while giving them valuable exercise.

But estate managers have now put an end to the treks after buying a mechanical “walker” that will exercise the herd without involving riders. Up to six ponies can use the machine – basic models costs about £4,000 – at the same time. The device functions as a form of treadmill.

The move follows the setting up of a Highland pony stud at Balmoral in an attempt to improve the health and strength of the herd, which is used primarily to bring down red deer carcasses shot on the estate hillsides. The mechanical walker is the next step in ensuring that the ponies get daily exercise for their deer-stalking duties.

A spokesman for Balmoral confirmed the public rides would no longer go ahead for the first time this year. The estate, which attracts around 80,000 visitors a year to the main house and gardens, is due to open to the public next month.

“The treks proved reasonably popular – especially at weekends,” he said. “But the main reason we offered the treks in the first place was for the ponies to be exercised.

“But it was felt that the development of the Highland pony stud would keep them fit for stalking – which is their main purpose on the estate.”

One of three native breeds of the Highlands and Islands, the Highland pony was originally bred to be strong and hardy enough not only to carry 17-stone stags, but also to haul timber and provisions over many miles and climb more than 1,000 feet.

The tradition of Highland ponies on Balmoral goes back to its original royal owner, Queen Victoria, who was famously photographed riding one of the animals with ghillie John Brown holding the reins. The current Queen – who was given her first pony by her grandfather, George V, when she was just four – has continued the royal pony tradition. She is said to be dedicated to maintaining a herd of mountain and moorland breeds as part of a national effort to preserve the species. The 40-strong Balmoral stud – started in 2007 when eight broodmares were transferred from Hampton Court to Balmoral – is now one of the largest breeding studs in the country and the Queen is the patron of the Highland Pony Society.

Balmoral remains a traditional stalking estate and although most other Highland estates have largely replaced ponies with motorised all- terrain vehicles, the Queen is keen to maintain traditional values. Famed for their quiet temperament, intelligence and dependability the ponies are trained to carry a special deer saddle to transport heavy stags and hinds off the hill in what is a lucrative sideline for an estate with £3 million annual running costs.

Trekking also created income but that has now been sacrificed for a more efficient method of keeping the ponies fit. Prices for the treks last year ranged from £36 per person for a half-day to £82 for the full day. Lunchtime treks stopped at one of the scenic picnic spots, and there was even a barbecue trek for £97 – in which riders were fed at a cabin.

Rides were not without restrictions. Only experienced riders over 12 years who could canter without tuition were allowed to take out the Royal ponies and trekkers had to weigh less than 14.5 stones.

But the complete halt to trekking has not gone down well in the local area as it had become a seasonal treat for local children and there is no other outlet for horse or pony riders to use the royal estate.

Graham Adams, chairman of Ballater and Crathie Community Council said: “It is a real shame that the rides have ended.

“They were very popular and I cannot believe that the estate did not make a little bit of money out of it as well as some good public relations.

“The rides were the only way that the general riding public could enjoy the estate in what is a particularly beautiful area. The rides were enjoyed by very many people over the years, including my daughter, and it is a real shame they have been stopped.”