JUBILEE SPECIAL: 'It is not enough to say The Queen is keen on her Highland Ponies, she is passionate about them'

The Queen’s lifelong love of horses has never wavered and has found many outlets, but few seem to have given her more pleasure than breeding Highland Ponies. Ewan Pate reports.

Ewan Pate
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JUBILEE SPECIAL: 'It is not enough to say The Queen is keen on her Highland Ponies, she is passionate about them'

The Queens lifelong love of horses has never wavered and has found many outlets, but few seem to have given her more pleasure than breeding Highland Ponies. Ewan Pate reports.

The Queen may be patron of the Highland Pony Society (HPS), but she is far from being simply a figurehead, taking a week-to-week interest in what is going on at her Balmoral stud in Aberdeenshire.

Although these hardy working ponies have been an important part of life at Balmoral Estate on Deeside since Queen Victoria and Price Albert purchased it in 1852, it was 1979 before the first pony from the stud, a colt named Balmoral Fasernie, was registered with the HPS.

Since then, there have been innumerable Balmoral prefixed entries in the register with many of them going on to make their mark on a breed which, despite increasing in popularity, is still on the Rare Breeds Survival Trusts Watchlist.


There have been many show successes along the way, but few can have given The Queen more pleasure than at this years Windsor Horse Show when her five-year-old home-bred mare, Balmoral Leia, emerged not only as champion Highland Pony, but also as champion mountain and moorland in competition with 12 other breeds.

The victory was all the sweeter because Leias sire, Balmoral Lord, was one of two Balmoral stallions lost to the pernicious disease equine grass sickness in May 2018.

In all, Balmoral is home to about 40 Highland Ponies, three Fell ponies and two Haflingers.


Stud manager Sylvia Ormiston, who has been in post since 2007, says: The policy here is that the ponies are
bred for working.

They do a job and that is to carry deer off the hill or to carry pannier baskets.

One of the great advantages of using ponies is that they can travel across a sensitive landscape without making a mark. They are much kinder to the terrain than vehicles.

We breed first and foremost so that we have replacement working ponies but if we have surplus then we
may sell one or two.

The showing is enjoyable of course but it comes second to having a pony that is safe, sound in limb and with a
brain that can cope with the work.


It is substantial work which involves miles of trekking into the hills following stalking parties. On the return journey they can be carrying a stag carcase weighing between 76-127kg.

Ponies work in pairs during a season, beginning in July and lasting through until October 20 for stags,
then they go straight into the hind season.

Not every pony is suitable, however, and it takes careful training to get them used to the hill work. Using her
experience, Mrs Ormiston can spot the youngsters who will not take to the task and they are then sold as riding or driving ponies.



Since her arrival at Balmoral 15 years ago, Mrs Ormiston has steadily built up the stud, with The Queen involved at every stage.

The Queen is incredibly knowledgeable. It is not enough to say she is keen on her Highland Ponies, she is
passionate about them.

I prepare a book each year with updated photographs and bloodlines for each pony.

I send Her Majesty my suggestions for breeding for the season and she decides whether or not that is the way
to go.


Highland Pony history

The Highland Pony is a native breed with its roots firmly entrenched in Scottish history.

Breed historian Sandra Yeaman collaborates closely with Mrs Ormiston at Balmoral and runs her own Morayelphin stud near Coupar Angus.

She is certain that the horses depicted on many of the Pictish Standing Stones, particularly those at Aberlemno, Angus, are clearly of the same type with very recognisable heads.

Royal connection

Mrs Yeaman has also studied the royal connection, with the breed gong back to Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert.

Even before they purchased Balmoral Castle in 1852, they were well used to travelling prodigious distances across the Highlands by pony. In The Queens journal written at Blair Castle on September 18, 1842, she wrote: We set out on ponies to go up one of the hills, Albert riding the dun and I the grey, attended only by Sandy McAra in his highland dress.

We went out the back way across the ford, Sandy leading my pony and the water coming abovehis knees.
In more recent times the present Queens grandfather, George V, enjoyed riding across the hills at Balmoral on Jock, his favourite Highland Pony.


Mrs Yeaman says: The breeds development owes much to war service. The Lovat Scouts took hundreds of Highland Ponies with them to the Boer War and that generated a huge demand for remounts and for replacements at home.

At the same time, it showed up some of the shortcomings, especially the need for a stronger pony nearing the maximum height of 14.2 hands. They were often used as small draught horses on crofts and small farms. Many of the bloodlines in the improved breed go back to the mare May Dew which was one eighth Clydesdale.

There was obviously a need for a breed register and the first meeting to organise one was held in 1912. This led in 1923 to the formation of the Highland Pony Society.

It is very fitting that as we near the centenary, Her Majestyis the society patron and that her Balmoral stud manager Sylvia Ormiston is the current president.

The stallion is only 50 per cent of the equation, so we pay great attention to selecting the mares and unlike
cattle, in general, the older a mare gets the better the foal it will produce.

The ponies are bred from three family lines.

The aim is to produce an animal with a suitable temperament. Quality limb with plenty of forearm and second thigh.

The body should have depth of heart and stride that can walk all day.

Strong flat bone is essential and of course their feet have to be very sound and large to spread the load on soft

All of the stallions in use at Balmoral are home-bred, but older bloodlines have been brought in from time to time.


Mrs Ormiston knew of an 18-year-old stallion on Islay, which had not been used for breeding for four years, but
which had desirable bloodlines having sired her own 2018 Royal Highland Show champion, Danny Boy of Croila.

Brought over to Balmoral, it sired three colts and three fillies, some of which will be used in the breeding

The aim is to produce between two and seven foals per year.

This years crop of four are all on the ground now. Three are by the fouryear old Balmoral Sport, a son of
Balmoral Hercules, the other Equine Grass Sickness casualty.

The other is by five-year-old Balmoral Major.

Other stallions at the stud are fiveyear-old Balmoral Squire and twoyear-old, newly licensed, Balmoral
MacLeod, with the up-and-coming yearling colt, Balmoral Jasper.

The stallions are used to cover visiting mares and semen is sold UKwide and for international export.
Not only is The Queens Balmoral Stud producing fine working ponies, it is ensuring that the breed has a secure future based on the best of genes.

It is a remarkable legacy.


The Balmoral Girth


Through carefully observing the Balmoral ponies at work, Mrs Ormiston could see that improvements needed to be made to the saddles and harness.

A traditional deer saddle is heavy, hard and has high centre of gravity.

She thought a better solution could be found by going back to a World War I pack horse design modified to use modern materials.

The new saddle envelops the ponys body much more closely thanks to flexible seams and a hinge system.
Mrs Ormiston also uses her sewing machine to make what is called the Balmoral Girth.

This ingenious use of a threebuckle design, where the centre buckle is fixed, but the outer two are inter- connected, allows them to work in conjunction with each other.

A double width fabric girth also ensures the weight of the saddle is well distributed and can be comfortably and securely carried.

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