A couple of posts ago I wrote about my solo ride into the U.S. forest Service camp up Vallecito creek. Before the ride I was told that my horse had never been over bridges before so I should be aware that I might have a hard time getting over them. This reminded me a lot of a challenge I was faced with back home…
Corrour is a challenging place to keep horses. The high altitude, the peat bog, the long winters; all these factors combine to make it a task not for the faint hearted. But Corrour is a shooting estate, and in John Stirling Maxwell days horses would have been the only way in and out of the estate, and highland ponies were a deer stalkers essential companion… So it definitely isn’t an impossible task.
Since my Vallebona days I had dreamed and dreamed of making a Scottish equivalent: A rural hotel with fine cuisine and horses to guide the guests around the beautiful surrounding landscape. When I first saw The Station House advertised and realised the estate had a block of empty stables I thought all my birthdays had come at once. When Ollie, my ex-boyfriend/business partner and I submitted our business plan (in which horses did have a mention!) and were granted the lease of the then pretty run down building, it felt like the start of making my dreams become reality. One step at a time though, so our first task was to grow a successful restaurant and accommodation business. I would never have made the crazy move from the city to the wilderness though, if I had known that horses could not have been a part of it, and so I brought my beautiful Tiro (the first horse I ever saved up for and bought for myself) and his young companion Sammy to Corrour when we first got the place.
The immediate success of our venture, with tables being suddenly booked months in advance, meant we were working for 16+hours per day without even the time to eat ourselves sometimes, and it proved very difficult to keep such a high maintenance breed (thoroughbred x havovarian) with such a routine, which lead me to begin thinking about sending the horses down south with a friend, a thought which broke my heart. Not long after I made this decision, but before the move had been made, my dear Tiro had a freak accident in the field (to this day I don’t know how) causing him to badly fracture the ball and socket joint in his pelvis…he had to be put to sleep. If the thought of sending Tiro to a temporary new home broke my heart, i can’t really find the words to describe how losing him forever felt like. I was unable to speak about this for a long time. Sammy was taken by a great girl in Falkirk and I was without horses in my life for the first time since I could ever remember. It was a hard few years and I yearned daily for even just the smell of a horse. Only horsey people can understand this type of yearning.
It would take me forever to discuss all the complicated reasons why we left Corrour, but the lack of a shared vision for incorporating horses into life there was definitely a huge factor for me. Before everything went tits up, my ex-partner and I were negotiating the terms of a ten year lease on the place. As I could see the next ten years of my life laid right before my eyes and truthfully was not buzzing with what I was seeing, I was desperately seeking ways to make life there more pleasurable… and a life in such a beautiful place without horses to enjoy it seemed like a life I could not be a part of. So I went on a mission to find a breed of horse hardy enough to survive life in a challenging place but equally large and athletic enough to stimulate all my equine needs! That’s when Balhagarty Stud walked into my life! Or I guess I walked into theirs… whichever way you look at it, it was definitely meant to be.
Gail Septhon owned a riding school in the north of England and had noticed plenty of small, hardy native breeds but a real lack of large horses hardy enough to live out all year in the British climate. So Balhagarty Stud was born! Based on the east coast of Scotland, the stud was at one point up to breeding 20 foals per year but was currently running at about 6 – 8. The Welsh breeds are tough and sure-footed, adapted to running out over the high Welsh moors, so well suited to the Scottish climate too. After two visits to the Stud and a blossoming friendship with the owners, against the advice of most people in my life at the time, I was suddenly the owner of two beautiful young Balhagarties.
A very favourite spot of mine, and one I still dream of living in one day, is the old shepherds house at the head of Loch Treig. The land surrounding the house is fertile and gorgeous, so I organised a meeting with agents of the land (it’s the neighbouring estate to Corrour) and quickly organised a lease of the sheep paddocks for my two new saviours. The area is a 20 minute quad bike ride (yes, I got myself a quad too, like I said I was on a mission) from the station down a tiny drovers track, unaccessible by car.
The weekend the horses arrived is memorable for many reasons. First of all it was the weekend of the wedding of some dear dear friends of mine, Katy and Ronan…a wedding which we hosted at The Station House not long before our closure and such a special day. And secondly, it’s memorable due to the challenge I was faced with within the first few minutes of owning my two horses…
Thankfully my wonderful German friend Miriam was over to help with the wedding, we had worked together in Vallebona and she is an experienced horsewoman too. The horsebox arrived at the house and Miriam and I hopped in and directed the guys towards the paddock. Now as I mentioned previously, the paddock is inaccessible by road and so the furthest the horsebox could get was about 3 miles away from it. Those last 3 miles are made up of a rocky footpath and 3 wooden bridges with roaring water running beneath. Bridges with roaring water running beneath can be difficult for an experienced horse at the best of times, but what the guys dropped off were two barely halter broken young horses that had only ever seen the flat fields of the east in their short lives and hadn’t had much human handling at all. The first bridge was the worst, as it had been raining heavily and below was more of a waterfall than a river, and it was immediately beside where the horsebox dropped us off (and extremely promptly left!). Miriam and I were in for a challenge to even lead these guys along the path, never mind get them over the rickety bridges!
This is where my great appreciation for the equine species raises its head again, as every instinct in those horse’s bodies was telling them not to trust us and to head for the hills, but after about 40 minutes of work (and sweat, and many, many bruises…), we had both horses over the first of the three scary bridges and on our way towards their new home. The whole thing was such a blur that I can barely remember how we eventually succeeded, but it was a combination of positive reinforcement (grain) and pressure and release/negative reinforcement (in the form of some make-shift panels closing in from behind)… Which is why I am coming to realise that any good horse person should have experience with both schools of training in order to deal effectively with the never-ending list of challenges working with horses will throw at you. After the first bridge, they barely blinked an eyelid at the other two and their first proper leading lesson was a success. The trust that we all gained in each other during this experience was remarkable. I named them Faolan (meaning ‘little wolf’ in Gaelic, but more often than not called Wolfie as no one can pronounce the Gaelic!) and Ossian (after Loch Ossian).
I only had my two boys on Corrour for a month before we had to leave, and it was a bittersweet month with our departure looming overhead but also the presence of horses in my life again and a taste of what life could be like keeping horses in the early summer in the highlands; camping out in their field at night, exploring the shores of loch Treig together, introducing them to the local characters… I wouldn’t have changed it for the world! And like I said, it was definitely meant to be, as I ended up moving to the east coast for almost a year to work on the stud farm with the handling, backing and schooling of their young horses, where I gained a lot of experience. The Sephtons are also extremely kindly keeping Wolf for me while I am in the US, and Ossian is with my friend Fiona in Glen Orchy not far from Corrour. I love them so and they are going to be a big part of my future!
It’s funny, cause my head was telling me not to risk the challenge of trying to keep horses on Corrour again after the first experience and loss of my Tiro, and the challenges of even getting the horses to their paddock were warning signs for my head too.. but my heart and my gut were screaming to do it and they won the fight. They should always win the fight! Subconsciously I must have known that I wasn’t going to be on Corrour for a whole lot longer and the horses were a way of making my life my own again. If I hadn’t done it I wouldn’t have had the chance to work on the stud farm, and I wouldn’t have set up Feast On The Farm, and I probably wouldn’t be here in the USA now having to pinch myself every 5 seconds. So, all hail the crossing of rickety bridges and trusting your gut! xx