Ghillie Heather Mitchell’s work on Scottish estates relies on the strong bond she has with her sturdy, sure-footed ponies
Clad in tweeds, a woman strides purposefully over the hills and rivers of the Scottish countryside. At her side is a small, stocky Highland pony. The crisp air dances over the peaks and whistles around their ears as the pair move nimbly across the rugged terrain. On the back of the pony is a gleaming, bulky saddle, bound on with thick criss-crossed straps.
The woman is Heather Mitchell. She is a ghillie, a person who works as an attendant on a deer-stalking estate in Scotland. Unlike other ghillies however, she only occasionally plays a part in stalking the deer. Instead, her role is to attend to her pony, which is used to carry the deer from the hill. These sturdy animals, known as stalking ponies, or garrons, are a heavy type of Highland pony. They are strong enough to carry stags that weigh up to 18st (114.3kg) over rough ground on their special saddles.
Over the last 20 years, Heather has had six stalking ponies. Today, her companion on the hills is 13-year-old Mayfly. She shares a deep affection and trust with all her ponies. “The secret to being a good pony ghillie is to understand the horses,” she explains. “Young lads train as a ghillie, then think ‘I’ll just add a horse in’. But you have to know about horses. The skill is in being able to know what the pony is thinking, and why it might be frightened. You need to be able to pre-empt anything that could spook them.”
Learning the ways of the hills
Mayfly has been with Heather for four years. She was only introduced to stalking work last year, but is coming on quickly. Her background was in dressage, as far from the hills as possible in the horse world. But dressage is the art of training a horse and rider so they work in harmony. It has made this big boned horse as light as a feather on her feet and willing to learn. Heather hopes this will stand her in good stead in her new role. “I only have
to show Mayfly something once for her to get the gist of it,”
she says. “She’s very intelligent.”
Nimble and sturdy, the Highland pony is native to Scotland and the islands. The island ponies are slightly smaller in stature to their mainland counterparts. Both were bred to not only carry deer, but also to pull provisions and wood. They often worked across treacherous terrain in dire weather conditions where only the most substantial horses would survive. On today’s shooting estates, they transport equipment onto the hills, and carry birds home in wicker panniers as well as stags.
Mayfly is an exception to the rule that training usually starts at an early age. Often a foal will follow its mother out on to the hill when she is at work. This way it becomes used to the smells involved in the work in her reassuring presence. It also learns from her how to read the land for a safe and sure footing.
“The foal follows its mother out on the bogs and learns how to test the ground and where to tread,” says Heather.
“I used to have a grey mare who would go up to the bogs
and sniff them to tell if they were safe or not.”
The horse is a natural flight animal, so has to learn to suppress its urge to run from the scent of blood. It is introduced to the experience of carrying deer very gently.
The foal is gradually acclimatised to the scent so it is not frightened by it. “We take a fresh deer skin, and place their feed on it. In this way the deer’s smell becomes familiar.”
It is only when the bones have stopped growing, at approximately five years old, that the ponies are introduced to the deer saddle. Both heavy and cumbersome, this special saddle weighs approximately 2st (12.7kg). Added to this will be the heavy deer. The weight the ponies carry is gradually built up over subsequent training sessions, either using weighted sacks or part of a tractor tyre. As the pony progresses, Heather may recruit a friend to lie over the saddle. “I’ll get them to stick their arms and legs out so they move as the pony moves, mimicking the dead weight and movements the stag’s body would make,” she says.
After approximately three days’ training, the pony is confident and strong enough to carry a load over tricky terrain. As it learns, trust builds up between ghillie and pony. It is essential there is complete commitment between the handler and pony when the first stag carcass is loaded on.
If the pony panics and bolts, it could be injured by the antlers, or run into danger. The glens have many ravines and bogs that would prove treacherous to a bolting pony.
Heather first came across Highland ponies when she was 23. At the time she was working with very different horses at
a racing yard in north Yorkshire. When the racing season finished, she took a summer job at a trekking centre on Rhidorroch House estate near Ullapool in Ross-shire.
“I found myself with 17 of these short, fat, hairy beasts, which were totally different to the Thoroughbreds I was used to,” she says. “They fascinated me, with their slow plod and massive feet, their short, sturdy legs and long tails. Their sure-footedness and sturdiness was the opposite of racehorses. Nature’s four-wheel drives, they can go anywhere, including walking safely across a bog. When you come to a steep bit of ground, it’s as if they change gear and put the power on.”
While at Rhidorroch, Heather was offered the chance to go out as a ghillie with ponies working on the estate. After just one day, she knew this was what she wanted to do. Then and there she bought a Highland stallion, Oscar.
Moving to a job at Lochinvar estate, she was able to learn from a keeper there. “I taught myself along the way and, as I was working with him, I was learning all I could,” she says. “Working as a pony ghillie isn’t something that’s easy to train for. You need to find a gamekeeper who wants to work ponies on the estate. Then you have to have the confidence to learn on the job. The knowledge is all passed down. I’ve learnt from a few old boys I met when working on other estates. They will tell you they know a better way to do something and will show you how. It’s a handing down of their knowledge. I’ve taken what they’ve shared and added other ideas myself.”
The majority of ghillies and gamekeepers are men, stronger than her. “I have to think a bit differently,” she says. “On the hill I can be up to 10 miles from anywhere, with a stag and a pony. I have to think tactically. Whereas the male pony ghillies can simply lift a stag over the back of their horse, I’ll drag the carcass on top of a nearby rock.
I then take the pony alongside it and slide the stag on.”
Stalking work is seasonal from July to February. Stags are taken between 1 July and 20 October, and hinds taken from 21 October to mid February. “All the deer that are shot on the Highland estates are taken as part of a cull programme,” explains Heather. “The stags are selected according to their age. A judgment is made as to whether the older ones are fit enough to make it through the winter. The weak are picked
off to ensure there are more resources for the younger healthy bucks. Also, stags with deformed antlers, which could cause damage to the other deer, are taken.”
When not working over winter, the ponies are in the field. “Then, when the grass comes through in spring, I need to take them into stables or they get fat,” she says. “At this stage, I change their diet to hay and a salt lick alongside unmolassed sugar beet. Each pony has a bespoke feed to treat any ailments or weaknesses it has. For this, I add in things like seaweed, devil’s claw, brewer’s yeast and turmeric. I’m always on the look-out for signs of grass sickness in the ponies, which occurs when bacteria is picked up from the soil, as that can be deadly.
“From April, I start showing the ponies at the country shows and taking them out for demonstrations. I tack one of the ponies up and show how they work with a dummy stag. It is important to me to teach people what we do and keep this tradition alive.”
Going it alone
Heather worked for estates for several stalking seasons, living on site for months at a time. She worked with both her own ponies and those of her employers. Then she decided to become a freelance pony ghillie. Today, different estates employ her each year, in the Highlands, and out on the islands. When working, the ponies are given a field to graze in while she stays in a bothy within the estate grounds.
She is also continuing the tradition of passing on the lore of the job. For the last two years she has returned to the Rhidorroch estate to teach Iona Scobie the skills of a pony ghillie. Iona has taken on the running of the estate from her mother.
“Twenty years ago, the tradition of using Highland ponies on the hill for carrying deer was being phased out,” says Heather. “Instead, estates were using motorised vehicles. But hunters love the authenticity of using ponies, and often ask for them. That is good news for us pony ghillies, and helps keep traditions alive.”
After two decades, she still gets immense satisfaction from working as a ghillie, and cannot imagine doing anything else.
“Being out on the hill is indescribable,” she says. “It’s beyond obsession. I was hooked from the very first time I went up there. As a ghillie working with ponies, you’re alone, but never lonely.
I don’t take my mobile phone out with me. Instead, I carry a radio with me, and the stalker will contact me when the shooting party is ready for me to come and collect the stag.
“I have great memories of lying up there on the hill with two horses tied to my foot, watching a pair of golden eagles swooping overhead, so still and silent. I’ve never felt that feeling of peace and serenity doing anything else.”
Workhorse of the mountains
The Highland pony is one of the three native breeds which are found in the Scottish Highlands and Islands.
It is unknown how this ancient breed arrived in Scotland, but there are records of them here by the 8th century BC. One theory is that wild horses arrived after the retreat of the glaciers 10,000 years ago. A second is that they arrived with prehistoric settlers.
The Highland has distinctive markings, such as eel or dorsal stripes along the spine, zebra marks on the legs, dark points (extremities such as the tips of the ars and tail) and shoulder stripes. These are primitive coat markings similar to those on ancient equine breeds.
Over centuries, this sturdy little pony has adapted to the changeable and often harsh Scottish environment. Its winter coat is made up of a layer of tough badger-like guard hair growing over a soft, dense undercoat. This allows it to survive on the hill, whatever the weather. It has a long, thick tail and mane, long tufted fetlocks and wispy whiskers under its chin. All help ensure torrential Scottish rains run off its body.
A versatile pony
Their bodies are well balanced and compact, with a deep chest, giving plenty of room for heart and lungs. The ponies’ powerful, well-developed quarters are ideal for the physical demands of work on the hills. They thrive outside, regardless of the weather, and can remain in good condition on the poor grazing afforded by the hills and moors.
Standing 13-14.2 hands high (a hand equals 4in/10cm), the Highland pony was originally a farmer’s workhorse on crofts. They were used for transport and carrying goods before roads were built approximately 200 years ago. After that they pulled carts.
Highland ponies are extremely versatile. They can jump obstacles up to 4ft (1.2m) high, are sure-footed and have indefatigable endurance. On top of this, they can carry weights in excess of 18st (114.3kg) and tackle the roughest, steepest, and trickiest terrain.
Their hardiness is accompanied by a kind and gentle nature, a steady temperament and intelligence. A Highland pony usually only needs to be shown something once to be able to then do it.
Special deer saddles are used to safely strap the deer to the pony’s back. These distribute the weight evenly so there is never too much pressure in one area. Made from thick buffed leather, they are stuffed with horsehair on top of straw, for comfort.
The straw absorbs moisture, keeping the pony’s skin dry. The padding is covered with a thick woollen cloth.
Many of the saddles are more than 100 years old and are now rare. “You need to ask around to find one, scour the papers and leap on one when you get the chance,” says Heather. “Some estates hold on to them, even though they’re not being used, so it can be near impossible to track one down.”
Because it is so hard to source replacement saddles, they are cared for meticulously and repaired as required.
Unlike a riding saddle, which has one girth, deer saddles have two or three girths, which are crossed over. “This keeps them securely on under the heavy weight of the deer,” explains Heather.
“Different estates designed their own saddles in different shapes and sizes.
These reflect the size of their deer, which varies depending on area.” She has a Glen Strathfarrar, which is designed is for bigger deer, while her Glen Quoich is for slightly smaller ones. Both are saddles that were made for carrying deer, but can be ridden in. They have two or three girths, a breastplate, breeching strap, which goes round the back of the pony under its tail, and a surcingle, which runs under the horse’s belly. All help to hold the saddle in position. On top of these, there are several straps designed to secure the stag in position. A third type of saddle is known as a combination. This is one made for riding, but has extra straps for fastening the stag on with.
Words: Abigail Alldis and Katy Islip Photography: Mark Mainz