Thursday, 30 July 2009

The Farrier Comes...

I'm certain that Mick Cross is a first class farrier - he did a lovely job on Doogs, always a bit of a challenge. I'm not sure how good he is at looking at lame horses though, as he didn't get to demonstrate that. No amount of trotting on concrete, turning sharply and everything else we could devise could persuade Yeoman to take as much as one false step. I'm well prepared to believe the very special Cliftoncote is an very healing place - but miracles?

The plan had been to ride the Five Valleys Challenge through the Cheviots with my friend Shonagh, who'd come down to meet us. Yeoman's hiccup however, left us unwilling to commit to what was some serious riding over longish distances, however sound he might seem. So for the first couple of days we just did some shorter rides from Cliftoncote, one of them to look at the immense amount of flood damage from the week before.

The Bowmont valley, in common with other Cheviot valleys, had just about recovered from the devastating floods of last September: roads, bridges and fences had been repaired, the mess had been tidied - when it all happened again. Tremendous flash floods had ripped out the repaired roads, carried away bridges and removed whole fences - in fact, the valley had been cut off a few days before we got there and many roads in the area were still closed. How disheartening (and expensive) for the farmers who try to make their living in what is already testing ground. The mess and destruction was (and is) everywhere.

As Yeoman coped well with a couple of shorter day rides, we decided he was up for something a bit more testing. So we rode to England (!) along the route known as 'the Street', and back to Clifoncote via 'Clennell Street' - some of the finest upland riding I have ever done. More details in the next post - but Yeoman coped brilliantly over some testing ground without the slightest sign of lameness. The wheels are back on our wagon - for now, at any rate!

Always Trust a Fairy Pony

Wiltonburn outside Hawick is the farmiest of farms - like something out of a children's picture book. From the moment you are met on arrival by twin smiling collies to the geese larking in the puddles, to the kitchen garden bursting with good things, it's just enchanting.

It also has a range of good outbuildings which we had reason to be grateful for as the thunder and lightning cracked overhead in a major storm - our timing isn't always quite so impeccable!

We set off east from the supremely comfortable Wiltonburn towards the Cheviots on a still-wet morning, accompanied for the first few miles by our host Sheila on her lovely big gelding. The farm lies directly on the Hawick Circular Riding Route, but due to rapidly rising river levels we skipped the optional loop with ford...

We parted company with Sheila near Hawick Racecourse and squelched on, picking our way across country lanes and tracks towards Denholm and Jedburgh. A couple of guys out mending hunt fences gave me excellent horse-friendly directions (completely contradicted by an old gravedigger we met subsequently - it happens! - but which proved to be spot on.)

The weather improved, lovely country and my enjoyment of the riding was only slightly marred by Yeoman, who obviously thrilled to be back in the team was in full fruitcake mode and very irritating! Lots of snorting, leaping and cantering sideways (never really quite seen the point of that sort of thing myself - Doogs).

We followed a small part of the very scenic Border Abbeys Way from Denholm to Bedrule through pretty fields and woods. Although the Way is of course a footpath, this section was quite suitable for horses. The huntsmen hadn't been quite sure if the fully-loaded Doogs would squeeze through a couple of narrow gates without the packs being unloaded but he managed - just!

Thankfully, Yeoman was by now beginning to settle down and stop acting like a silly git when what I had been dreading happened - a spook, a bit of a buck and damn it, he was lame again on his injured leg - not crippled, but definitely not sound either.

That was a low point - and so disappointing after all Bill's care at home. I had deliberately planned easy-ish days when he rejoined us, but his antics had clearly put more strain on the leg than it was ready for.

Now what? I was still some fiftenn miles from our next planned stop at Cliftoncote in the Bowmont Valley. Even leading him, he wouldn't manage that. We limped on through the woods when I picked up the tracks of what must have been a fairy pony - the smallest hoofprints I have ever seen!

Well, might as well follow them - at least they might hopefully lead to somewhere which had horses and might be able to help us.

The fairy pony tracks led down towards Bedrule and sure enough, eventually past fields full of high quality youngstock, in great excitement at the sight of us! They might have been used to fairy ponies, but the coming of the trolls was obviously something else. Ah - there's a house...

The entrance to the house was on the first floor, up a flight of steps. I shouted an enquiry to the man i could see in the entrance porch: "are there stables near here please?" Craning my neck to hear his answer I suddenly realised he was -er- starkers - well, it was very early in the morning in a quiet part deep in the country!

He directed me on to Wells Stables along the road a little, and the three of us - tired, dishevelled and a bit despondent (me)- found ourselves washed up in a smart National Hunt yard. I really wasn't too sure what I was going to do next - try and arrange some transport for my limping horse probably.

I hadn't counted on the amazing Mactaggarts (whose yard it was) who seemed completely unfazed by our sudden appearance. The ponies were turned out in the outdoor lungeing ring, much to the interest of the gleaming bay heads looking on from their boxes. A passing groom glanced at the ponies as she went by and without breaking stride said to Mrs Mactaggart: "Well, they might stay three miles but I doubt you'll get them fast enough"!!

The Mactaggarts were dubious about getting local transport, but unbelievably said they'd run us to Cliftoncote! This may have been the most rapid way they could think of to stop us lowering the tone of the neighbourhood, but I think it was because they are truly kind and genuine folks. The fairy tracks which had led us there turned out to belong to a grandaughter's tiny pony...

So the boys (and all of our smelly gear) were loaded into a smart racing lorry and chauffeured to Cliftoncote.

How many saints can a person handle in a day? Angela Freeland- Cook took one look at the raggle-taggle band before her and prescribed a lovely field for the ponies and a bath (naturally!) and a sleep for me. "We'll get the farrier to look at your lame horse in the morning, don't you worry..."

Early mornings...

...of these, we have seen plenty. Partly it's the camping (especially without - er - the express permission of the landowner, best get moving) but mostly it's because it's truly the most lovely part of the day.

Our routine is simple: on waking, I move the electric fence a little to give the ponies a fresh bite of grass while I'm making a quick brew and striking camp. Breakfast comes later - mid-morning usually.

Especially on a fine morning (and we've had quite a few), the day is so full of promise...If the sun is out, the hedgerows are full of heady scents and glistening cobwebs. Fruit is ripening everywhere, including those delicious wild rasperries (never to be matched by Tescos).

A good time to spot wildlife too, going about their quiet business: we've seen weasels and stoats out hunting, foxes, deer and one morning a badger. In spite of being close to many rivers, we haven't yet seen an otter, but plenty of tracks and spraint.

I often walk for the first hour or so - a good way to unkink a body afetr a night on less-than-forgiving ground! (Aye, there's none of us getting any younger - Doogs)

Near the Jed we saw reed buntings, oystercatchers and a pair of goosander; on the open hill there are plenty of skylarks, wheatears with their dancing flashes of bottom (wheatear is supposedly a corruption of 'white arse') and in the Cheviots, merlins and an eagle.

I rarely see anyone else in the mornings (come to think of it, I rarely see anyone at all, excepting the odd dog-walker near a village or a farmer in the distance). In the mornings, the countryside seems to be just for us, although undoubtedly we will have been spotted!

The early morning pace is gentle, serene, our world newly-washed, sparkling and full of beauty. Now that's worth getting up for!

Monday, 27 July 2009

The Philosopher and the Gingerbread - Peebles to Traquair

From the comfort of our sheep fank home (er, not) we followed the beautiful grassy Roman road to Lyne, west of Peebles. The line of the drove road we had been following the previous day actually goes pretty well through Peebles (to take advantage of the bridge) but since this was a Monday morning, and it's a busy town, I thought not!

The route I picked out on the map skirting the town to the south and west was on the whole very quiet, apart from a short section on a very busy road... Luckily there was a wide verge, which unluckily an
extremely smart house had incorporated into their garden. Normally I try not to go on mown verges, but as it was that or sharing the road with lorries and buses belting past - hmm, no contest really!

Even so, it was nerve-wracking for us all and it was with relief I turned down a small lane, sweating and grumpy (THAT MAKES A CHANGE - DOOGS).

"You look rather hot," came a voice from the cottage garden at the corner, "would you like a cup of tea?" The voice belonged to the simply delightful Joyce, who by her kindness turned my day around completely, and we spent a quiet hour chatting, while the ponies grazed the verge.

At the risk of sounding fey, I have for some time had a growing sense that someone - or something - is looking after us on our journey. Whenever things start to unravel, a person appears to help - long may it continue! It has left me feeling quietly confident and without
worry, most of the time anyway.

Meeting people like Joyce - so calm and thoughtful- reminds me what this journey is about: not accruing mileage or achieving anything, but simply making the most of the experience and trusting that things will work out as they should.

Joyce and I chatted about philosophy (while I scoffed her delicious gingerbread) - a welcome change from looking at maps! (Every night, as I'm dropping off to sleep, an OS map is dancing before my eyes...)

In the best tradition of 'Millionaire', Joyce phoned a friend, so, well armed with directions through the maze of lanes, we set off again to negotiate Peeblesshire.

The day became really hot: with that and a very early start we were delighted to come across a beautiful spot by a river - time for a graze, a paddle and a snooze to fortify us before negotiating the southern suburbs of the town to rejoin the Drove Road.

There is an information panel at the foot of this section, which points out that the early drovers didn't mind about the steepness of the ground as long as the grazing was good. That, and a passerby in Peebles description of our route as 'a bit of a hike' should have been a bit of a clue perhaps!

The 'gypsy Glen' as it is known locally does in fact start off very steeply...and then gets steeper! (FOR BLOODY MILES - DOOGS). But breathtaking (in all senses of the word) especially on such a beautiful evening. We ended up on what felt like the top of the world , making our way between the parallel drove dykes (as well as guiding the sheep and cattle they served as a means of keeping the flocks separated.)

A newly erected march fence however, meant that we had to go a few miles further than anticipated in order to get off the hill beyond Traquair and double back along a minor road to meet up with Bill for his weekly visit...and this time he'd brought Yeoman! Horses are
amazing: I would swear that Doogs somehow knew Yeoman was going to be there for the last three miles or so by his demeanour. Yeoman meanwhile had apparently been testing out his soundness by charging around the silage field (cut!) we had kindly been loaned by the
Renwicks at Traquair Knowe.

Our unexpected detour meant it was getting late by the time we trudged into Traquair...the Renwicks offering us a bed for the night rather than have us camp - and supper, even at that late hour! Bless you both - your kindness is, well, pretty humbling actually.

One small sadness would be saying goodbye to the extraordinary little Ladybird, who had so gamely and bravely stepped in at the last minute, and who had shown every sign of thoroughly enjoying her trip (once the initial astonishment had worn off!) The same little mare who had balked at crossing a drainage ditch on her first day completed her journey having calmly waded the river Tweed on her last.

But just great to see the goofy, quirky Yeoman again, looking fabulous and ready for adventure...

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

West Linton to Peebles

It took a little while until the lump of Mendick Hill was left behind...the same landmark I couldn't wait to get to last night!

It's a common horse travelling experience: you see a loch, say, and think 'nearly there' but it can take two hours or more to actually reach it.

Physically the ride has been fairly tough - I knew it would be - although knowing something intellectually and actually experiencing it are two different things!

At least we can on the whole take our time and savour it. It has pretty much been all at walking pace, with plenty of grazing stops for the ponies. They are looking in fabulous order at the moment, well muscled up. Frequent stops keeps them enjoying it and their guts in
good order...but it does make for some long days.

Today was one of them. We travelled cross country to meet up with the Cross Border Drove Road- a short section of old railway (again), then through a couple of estates where we were kindly offered free range eggs at a cottage (sadly an offer better declined!) and had a chat
with a shepherd as we sheltered from a downpour in his barn.

For the first time we were chased by a huge dog which came belting out of a driveway. No real harm done, except Ladybird shot forward and trod heavily on Doogs' heel. I'm treating the resulting wound with Wonder Dust (I know it sounds like something out of Disney!)

It was recommended to me by Thrums Vet group (they import it from America I believe) and it's excellent stuff. Bill chuckled when he read the 'ingredients' though - almost identical to the mixture he used to grind up in his father's vet surgery in the late fifties....

After riding up a beautiful glen in the late afternoon sunshine and finally joining the drove road which we then followed for a few miles, we set up camp. In a sheep fank- not QUITE up to the standard of last night's Mendick luxury!

Crossing the Rubicon (well,the m8)

After discussion with the mounted police, I decided to trailer across the m8 for safety reasons (and aesthetic ones). They warned me of the likelihood of missiles being thrown at us in some of the less salubrious areas, as well as the more obvious traffic hazards...north of the motorway has a better network of off-road paths and tracks than the south.

This meant our first sojourn was from Lasswade (great hospitality from Pauline and Chris - thanks for everything including the shower. Practically the first thing all my hosts have said is,"You'll be wanting a shower"...well yes, I'm just sorry it's so obvious!)

The most notable feature of crossing over was - no clegs!! Either they're much more God-fearing people there, or just possibly the weather had cooled down.

It was fun to ride across the Pentlands with some company, for a change (although Ladybird didn't think so - she has become so fiercely attached to Doogs and is VERY possessive. She was in rather a funny mood all day actually- bolshy and a bit of a madam - perhaps the presence of the others, or perhaps wandering the hills has turned her into a misanthropist.)

Lovely riding across the hills - good tracks, well marked with some splendid views - well until nearly the end when we suddenly came across some very unfriendly stiles. Nothing more dispiriting to the rider (or pony) than having to go back UP the hill you've just come DOWN, especially when (naturally) it's by now peeing with rain!

I then rode on alone to West Linton, down an old Roman road (the Romans, as well as Dr Beeching, have contributed lots of riding routes for my pleasure, on this trip ). Bless 'em.

We stayed overnight with well-known Highland pony breeders John and Kate Dykes (Mendick Highland Ponies) in their lovely home. I was so glad to see them for lots of reasons but one of the principal ones was that today was the day I finally discovered that it IS possible to get wetter than wet!! Ponies delighted to be knee-deep in grass (only ankle deep by the morning though).WELL,A GUY'S GOT TO KEEP HIS STRENGTH UP - DOOGS

Time in the morning for one of life's great pleasures, looking round other people's ponies (cracking young gelding for sale if anyone's looking) before bidding farewell to the landmark of Mendick Hill and setting off Peebleswards! As someone said recently, it's amazing how far you can get if you just keep walking...

Friday, 17 July 2009

Gartmore House

Today I had been invited to visit nearby Gartmore House, former home of RB Cunninghame Graham, horse adventurer (and founder of the Scottish Labour Party and later, the Scottish National Party).

It's a magnificent William Adam pile (with later Balfour additions - he was a pupil of Charles Rennie McIntosh). The house has a chequered history - since being Cunninghame Graham's family home, it has variously been army barracks during WW2, a List D approved school, European headquarters of 'The Way' ( a cult organisation who put locks on every room (oo-er), and now used as a base for Christian faith camps and conferences.

It is still simply splendid inside, despite the obvious difficulties and expense of upkeep. Wonderful panelling, leaded windows and magnificent views, too.

Of interest to me as well as the Cunnighame Graham factor was the connection with the Cayzer family (now of Kinpurnie, near Newtyle - near my home) - in fact there were old photographs of Kinpurnie being built on a bare hillside - very different to the wooded policies of today. Sir James Cayzer is still an occasional visitor to Gartmore.

I would have loved to spend much more time there, but as equestrian explorers we couldn't stop Balfron and a couple of days' well-earned rest for the ponies.

The map shows a disused railway line running from Gartmore to Balfron Station. Perfect - except it ran out after three miles or so and I can promise you that diverting onto the nearby A811 is not a good substitute and not for the fainthearted - even the traffic-proof Doogs nearly peed his pants as the lorries hurtled past with inches to spare.

Rather than risk being completely flattened, we took our chances across country (and have the bramble scars and nettle stings to prove it! This worked pretty well with only one or two dead ends, and we arrived at Carbeth Home Farm for a rest, and a chance to catch up on laundry (bit overdue) and a few minor repairs. We arrived to find not one but TWO farriers working in the yard...sadly all I could find for them to do was replace one lost nail! Still, you know the old rhyme about 'for want of a nail the shoe was lost...'

On the whole all the kit is holding up well (so far) although bits of duct tape are starting to creep into our ensemble. I've also been pleased to find that I've not been carrying anything which I haven't needed, yet I seem to have got everything - up till now!

The ponies too look well - definitely a bit tired after the longs days they've done recently, but in excellent form, and still sound. The news from home is also good - Yeoman is now sound, though a few more days' rest is recommended - so he will be joining us sometime soon. I have missed him (although on balance I'd say that Ladybird is probably a little easier!)

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Treading the Trossachs

Sadly, having given it away that he was not in fact dead by the twitch of a nostril, Doogs was forced to get up and carry on. Another long day ahead, but things would be easier thereafter with a couple of rest days planned. Meanwhile...onward to Gartmore (south of Aberfoyle).

Bill was going to meet us in the evening to check on the ponies, and as he would be passing Balqhuidder on his way, I took the chance to leave Ladybird's packs there for him to transport on for us. She hadn't shown any signs of fatigue, but since I'm conscious of her lack of preparation, I'm keen to spare her as much as possible. In fact Doogs had carried the packs now and then for a couple of hours while I walked, like the gentleman he is. (Hadn't realised there was any choice - and anyway, they're way lighter than YOU are - Doogs).

Today's route saw us rejoin the cycle track for a mile or so until it runs out at Kingshouse; we then took to the forest tracks as far as Strathyre. Great views of the Braes of Balqhuidder (Rob Roy country). We also saw a couple of foxes - there had been some discussion the evening before about the problem of urban foxes being released into the area (and the consequences for people's poultry).

Once through Strathyre we picked up a track which runs down the west side of Loch Lubnaig. Due to my new-found friends of the night before we had excellent directions and they also arranged for a critical gate to be unlocked - ( we would have been stymied otherwise).

The track goes on for miles through woodland beside the loch - we were all starting to feel a bit wearied when we suddenly came across - a vending machine! In the forest! Which sold Mars bars! (Well it did, hope they've restocked it by the time YOU ride past).

The vending machine was part of a Forest Holidays lodge complex. While we were raiding it, three staff members appeared, apparently more surprised at the sight of the ponies than we were at the sight of their vending machine! "We know who you are - we saw you on the telly," they said. Now I know how Kate Moss must feel (though she's not often caught scoffing mars bars, methinks).

Truly fortified now, we positively zoomed down to Loch Venachar, but you know what these sugar highs are, they never last. By now, we were all dragging our feet slightly, with still about another 10 miles to go. That may not sound a lot to YOU, but...

Another look at the map showed a much more direct route over the hill which would bring us out above the Lake of Menteith. No way of knowing if there might be a locked gate though. After a lot of deliberation (on my part) and eating (on the ponies), I decided to GO FOR IT and take the shorter more direct route, reasoning that as we were in a national park (Loch Lomond and the Trossachs) where access was actively promoted, we ought to be OK. A risk of course, as today I had no packs, no tent , no food, no nuttin'. (I don't recommend this folly!)

Thankfully in this case I turned out to be right (occasionally I have been known to be very, very wrong - yes really) and as we came over the hill we could see the Lake of Menteith and much of Stirlingshire spread out below us in the evening sunshine. We didn't stop to admire it for long as the Trossachs midges were having their annual clan gathering and banquet. We trooped down off the hill, meeting Bill at the bottom (I swear that man is following me.)

We unsaddled the ponies and I set off to lead them to our overnight stop at Easterhill Farm, cross country along the most exquisite track past Flander Moss (an old Roman Road, I surmise - dead straight and we passed a Roman camp.)

No locked gates here either (phew) - the only slight problem being having to navigate through a herd of Ayrshire cows and calves. They followed us, playing 'grandmother's footsteps' as cows will. "It's OK, " I reassured the slighly snorting ponies...then glanced back to see the herd being led by a very fierce-looking bull! Bloomin' heck! We darted out of the first gate I could see, having decided that if he took a run at us the ponies were going to be turned loose as they can run a bloody sight faster than I can. And don't think we'll forget that in a hurry - Doogs.

We arrived at Easterhill Farm, sopping wet as it was by now pelting with rain - and dark to the saintly Roz and Ross (yes, I was a wee bit confused to start with too). Well either we were there or we'd died and gone to heaven: hot bath, hot meal, and lovely cosy stables with deep beds and warm feeds for the troops. Bless you for ever - I have emailed the Pope demanding your immediate canonisation.

Wouldn't want to do too many days like that one...but we all survived, and the next day would be a short and easy one for all - or would it?

Glen Lyon to Balqhuidder

We got up before the midges (ha! fooled 'em) and set off across the pass to Glen Lochay. No ecstatic drivelling about beautiful views here: the fog was so thick we could only see a few yards. To keep the ponies' spirits up I sang them old show tunes: they were pretty unimpressed but at least it cleared the sheep out of our way.

The fog lifted to make way for - pelting rain. We stopped for breakfast and a brew once we'd crossed the pass which seemed to cheer the troops up rather more than my a capella verion of 'Summertime'. There we met a couple of German hikers who seemed to have great difficulty in understanding what we were doing up there...(probably a language thing.)

The day started to brighten up as we made our way down Glen Lochay which meant only one thing - clegs! So moved on briskly, bumping into a botanist we'd previously met at the Fearnan bunkhouse. The briefest of chats but no lingering - still many miles to cover!

Glen Lochay comes out at Killin. Perfect timing (not) - as we were making our way up the main street to pick up the track on the other side (no alternative), who should we meet marching the other way but the local pipe band, eek. Ponies remarkably unfazed by skirling pipes and swirling kilts , although Doogs did have an involuntary evacuation of his bowels (startle reflex) over someone's posh parked Audi. We're so very sorry - hope it washed off ok.

Getting through Killin with its pipeband, tourist buses and milling crowds (funny, hadn't looked like this in February) was less than an ordeal than it might have been as we chanced to meet Heather, the 'Frilly Ghillie', who cheerfully grabbed a pony and steered us determinedly through the throngs. Thanks Heather! We got through alive (and without vandalising any more posh motors...)

From Killin we followed the path of the old railway (now Cycle Route 7). Wonderful riding with a good surface underfoot - the best part was riding over the viaducts high above Lochearnhead. Progress a bit slow due to the abundance of wild strawberries - pity to let them go to waste, we thought.

I was interested to see how few people were using these tracks - I only saw a handful all day. Perhaps there is some truth in the oft-quoted staistic that 90% of the population never go more than 400m from their

It had been a long long day by the time we finally staggered into Balquhidder Braes Caravan and Camping Park, to a wonderful reception from hosts Alice and Richard and a collection of local riders, come to support us (or possibly gaze in disbelief). A super evening with much talk of horses (of course) and too much to drink (of course). Doogs and Ladybird had a fine paddock in front of the house and were much pampered by Alice (so was I) - a step up from the bogs of the night before, that's for sure! Doogs liked it so much that he pretended to be dead in the morning.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Glen Lyon

From memory, I think this is Scotland's longest glen - no doubt someone will correct me if that's not the case. (Definitely the longest - Doogs). It is certainly one of the loveliest: we rode up a track which runs south of the River Lyon - exquisite riding (marred only by the unfeasibly large number of gates).

We have it to a fine art now- I lean down from the saddle and unsnib it and Doogs 'breasts' it open with his mighty chest - bad luck if it happens to open towards us though!

The afternoon saw us plodding up the glen in the afternoon heat: the ponies' expressions suggested this was becoming 'trudgery'. The heat and insects started to become oppressive, but we made the most of a breezy paddock at Cashlie hydro power station (no-one about on a Saturday afternoon) for a couple of hours grazing and snoozing.

The ponies were able to have a good drink and rehydrate - their pee had been getting a bit darker and their droppings firmer through the afternoon, although skin pinching thankfully showed no real signs of dehydration. (Apologies if this is too much information - but it is a good way to monitor how the ponies are doing. I'll spare you reports on my pee.)

Along with lots of gates goes a proliferation of cattlegrids - these were no real problem until the last one by the dam - nailed firmly shut, for ever and ever amen! I corralled the ponies and went in search of the shepherd, who wasn't home. Luckily I ran into the lovely Ken, who managed to produce a painter's board (all of 18" wide) which we laid over the cattlegrid and the ponies ballerina'd their way across, bless'em.

I do have to apologise to Ken for the shape of the board after Doogs had crossed it en pointe: slightly bananaed, to say the least.

This all took time...which meant we ended up setting up camp (in a midgey bog, in desperation) about 11pm. Not recommended for peaceful slumbers for any of us - closer to nature, my ****.

Thanks to the lovely lady in the Bridge of Balgie shop, Bev and Julie from Meggernie estate who separately stopped to see if we needed any help; the tourists who gave us donations for World Horse Welfare, and of course, the cheerful Ken, who gave up a large part of his evening to spite of commenting that he'd 'never heard of anything so weird' (as riding around Scotland.) Promise you Ken, there's a lot weirder than that (perfectly normal) activity!

Friday, 10 July 2009

Attack of the Killer Bs

An early start then, from Fearnan to Kenmore to meet the farrier. Glorious riding through mixed forest - the sequence being familiar to all equine wanderers: excellent track becomes grassy ride becomes footpath becomes overgrown footpath becomes footpath which has run out altogether. Only when you've gone too far to make it seem worthwhile turning back, of course...the map SAYS it continues to Kenmore!

Luckily, as we were going to the farrier, Ladybird wasn't loaded with packs, so we battled on through the woods. She was initially slightly astonished to be turned loose (counting on that piggy-bonding with Doogs having lasted!) but soon got the hand of hopping neatly over downed trees, boggy holes hidden by waist-high bracken - you know, the usual. Luckily it wasn't for too long and we got to Taymouth Trekking Centre in plenty of time for the farrier (who, somewhat unbelievably, comes up from Fife).

He reassured me there was no real harm to Doogs' foot - 'mainly cosmetic', he said, although it does look a bit wrecked. Sorry, Messrs Balfour the Farriers, after all your hard work as well.

Waiting for the farrier I nipped into the schmaltzy deli next door - not the type of place I usually buy my groceries! I did buy a fine looking loaf and the most expensive apples ever (one each) for the troops.

My friend Pam refers to Doogs as 'Robopony' and after his wheel change he was right back to his usual ears pricked marching self and we positively zoomed back to Fearnan (different track, same outcome as above...) The day was by now pretty hot, and after washing the ponies down, turned them out to snooze in the sunshine. Not for long: within 5 minutes they were cantering round like maniacs, dripping blood, trying to escape the attack of the killer clegs.

These were not just any clegs - these were M & S clegs: they came in their hundreds, swarms of 'em, Red Baron drill formations from every direction. I have never seen anything like it. The three of us spent the rest of the afternoon cooried in the corner of a barn between a ping pong table and a ride on lawnmower - but a GREAT relief to be away from those damn clegs. As the ponies dozed off, it was finally time for a very late lunch - I nipped out to retrieve my designer loaf and gold-plated find the very free-range piggies rummaging about in my saddlebags. Bacon sandwich, anyone?

Thursday, 9 July 2009

The Lord Takes Care of Children, Drunkards...and pony explorers!

Or so it seems... I had been sort of wondering what the third disaster might be, after Yeoman's injury and Ladybird's cut leg. I didn't have to ponder long, since for the first time ever in his life, Doogs pulled a shoe off in a fence last night. Damn horses, they'll do anything rather than go a thousand miles.

I carry hoof boots for these sort of emergencies, but still, I would need to find a farrier before too long (hen's teeth are more common). A bit of phoning around - and yes, there's to be a farrier at Kenmore in the morning! Only problem - we're quite a long way away...still, an opportunity not to be missed - difficult to say when I might locate the next one. We couldn't do it all in one day (well, we could, but the ponies would never, ever speak to me again), so we rode part of the way. We set off through the Murthly estate along what local riders call the 'M1'...a broad, dead straight forestry track which cuts right through the estate. Pleasant riding, especially in today's perfect weather; the one teensy problem being it cuts straight across the busy A9.

Heart in my mouth (ponies had grass in theirs) we waited for what seemed like an age for a gap in the traffic before dashing across - well, brisk ambling anyway. I knew we wouldn't make it all the way to Kenmore: consideration for Doogs's foot and Ladybird's lack of full fitness meant we hitched a lift some of the way! Farriers are not to be kept waiting and I'm so jammy to have found one so quickly...

We've stopped tonight at the remarkable Culdees Eco-bunkhouse at Fearnan - some of you may remember it as the Boreland Trekking Centre in former years. The bunkhouse makes much innovative use of recycled materials: walls of plastic bottles and bracken roofs, and many international visitors, including monks and nuns from Japan who are investigating the possibility of rice -growing on a Perthshire hill farm - watch this space!

Lots of grass for the ponies, although Doogs's worst nightmare - he has to share the field with cows. (Well, it used to be his worst nightmare, then he saw the free-range pigs. ) Sadly I don't seem able to post pictures on this bunkhouse computer (think it runs on lentils actually) but I will, soon!

Tomorrow we plan to ride across Drummond Hill to meet the farrier. Drummond Hill is a long wooded ridge overlooking Loch Tay - it was the place where capercaillie were first reintroduced into Scotland in the 1870s .Would be just excellent if we saw one!

Then hopefully up Glen Lyon (although, frankly I think I might as well tear up that silly bloody itinerary and make it up as I go along).

Ponies both well, if still slightly in piggy-shock. One good thing - the threat of these alien beings has drawn them closer together and they now appear joined at the hip (well, stomach)!

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Made it to Murthly...

...across the hills from the Bridge of Cally side. Beautiful riding through the Snaigow Estate. In the distance I could see the site of the former 'Tin City' near Craigie. In the years pre and post the second world war, the local berry farmers housed their itinerant workers from Scotland's major cities here during the raspberry picking season. Apparently it was regarded as a holiday by many, with a communal kitchen and dance hall (all made out of tin of course!)

Continuing up past Ninewells farm I met an old fellow who kindly explained where the wells were - all nine of them -which took a little while! Stunning tracks through the estate, some a tad overgrown at this time of year, but Doogs just bulldozed through of course, followed by little Ladybird. She has clearly decided that the best place to be is following that great white bum (er Doogs's I mean, thank you) and follow it faithfully she did, even past some rather aggressive cockerels and a very dead cow in a farmyard. The only good cow is a dead cow - Doogs

Unfortunately she drew the line at some rather odd drains in the track and leapt sideways over one, putting the first dent in herself... Bless June, who just happened to be passing (going up to feed the carnivorous cockerels I think). As a thoroughbred owner, June is well practised at dealing with leg wounds (only kidding June) and gave me a hand to wash and put a wee dressing on the leg before I was reported to World Horse welfare! We had a good chat - and many thanks to her for her help.

Like cuts on the leg often do, it was bleeding profusely from what, thankfully, turned out to be something pretty minor. Not much to see tonight anyway.

Stopped outside a dilapidated old farm building en route to let the ponies graze for a while and was rewarded with the silent white rush of a barn owl. Delightful, and more enchanting than the silent rush of a thousand clegs which we experienced in the woods coming down off Caputh Hill - nature is not ALWAYS wonderful.

Ponies in good fettle tonight - only nine hundred and eighty-odd miles to go!

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Good to Go

Well nearly...a few minor niggles to sort (before they come back to haunt me). Finally the load is balanced and packed to my satisfaction, tack adjusted, and ponies fit and ready. A couple of photos for the album - probably the last you'll see of us looking reasonably clean for a while, but hopefully not the last where we look enthusiastic and smiley!

Getting the load right for Ladybird has been a bit of a keep the weight down but still keep the panniers in shape I have had to include some padding (bodged up from old Tesco coolbags packed with plastic bags). They have the added benefit of providing some protection between her and the heavier parts of the load also.

Have we got everything? Well, perhaps not - but let's face it, it's not Outer Mongolia, I expect we'll manage.

Many thanks to Karen, who in her calmly efficient way helped us get it all together over the last day or two (well, she is used to looking after a five year old, so dealing with tantrums and hunting for lost items are second nature). Thanks also for all the 'good luck' messages and cards.

At least the weather has improved - no longer blisteringly hot, nor any sign of a repeat of the horrendous thunderstorms of yesterday. I do at least like to start dry. See you on the road!

Monday, 6 July 2009

Getting There...

We are getting ready to leave...Plan B (or Z I think it is now) is to ride Doogs and use Ladybird, the little Welsh section C, as a pack pony for a few days until the self-harming Yeoman is fully fit to join us. Because Ladybird is smaller than a Highland, today has been spent with a hole punch and duct tape, making everything fit. I also repacked the packs so that she doesn't have to carry too much weight - the total is about 50 lbs which hopefully she will manage without too much difficulty.

I loaded her up today and we went for a test run (or walk): all went fine as she is well accustomed to the pack job. Only problem was she was very cheeky to Doogs - although I expect that a few hills will knock that waste of energy on the head!

Upward and onward, then...well, perhaps a little bit sideways will do, for now.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Too Much Excitement...

We have spent the last three days at the excellent Scottish Game Fair (in the grounds of Scone Palace) with some Highland ponies. It was most interesting to see the resurgence of interest in using ponies for estate work, even from young keepers and stalkers. Many estates have areas which are inaccessible by vehicle - either for reasons of the terrain or because of conservation issues - where ponies can happily be used for stalking or thinning timber.

The principal difficulty for estates is recruiting people with the skills to handle ponies - and the interest and enthusiasm to care for them properly. Still, it is heartening to know that they still have a place on the hill.

Many interesting people to talk to at the Fair - although as you can see not everybody was so very thrilled! This little guy was part of the 'Name the Foal' competition we have each year for kids: his name has to begin with 'F' (this year's letter) and be suitable for a boy. Some inspired suggestions: Fergus, Fion, Faro, Ferdie, Fiddle, Fang (!) , Flash, Fearnoch, Feshie, and Fingal were some of them. Judging from the picture, 'Fed Up' seems appropriate!

It's a good outing for the foals - so much for them to see and absorb. As we're close to the clay pigeon shooting, I can definitely confirm they aren't gun shy (although we have yet to teach them to retrieve...)

I'm pleased to add that Yeoman continues to improve day by day - he's sound in the field now. I know that's not the same as being sound climbing a hill track, but definitely moving in the right direction.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Yeoman Update

Thank you, thank you to everyone who's emailed, texted and phoned about Yeoman...and those who've offered an alternative mount! You are all angels.

He is definitely quite a bit better, but for safety's sake, at the moment I don't feel inclined to set off with him on Tuesday. Even if he's completely sound by then, he would benefit from some more rest - after all, he's not exactly being asked to go for a gentle hack in the park. The last thing I want to do is to create a long-term problem, and the second-last thing I want to do is to start off and have to have him trailered home limping!

Although there are alternatives, and I haven't yet fully decided, the most likely scenario is that Doogs and I set off as planned, but with the minimum of gear. As we are on (almost) 'home territory' this is feasible as we have overnight stops planned with friends anyway. Luckily Doogs is a sensible guy who is happy going places on his own. Hopefully by the time we get a little further away, Yeoman will be fully ready for action and can join us.

It's disappointing of course (especially after all that preparation and fittening work!) but hopefully a temporary blip - and a scenario which every single horse owner is familiar with, from the little kid whose pony goes lame before the much-anticipated local show, to top event riders who have to withdraw from Badminton after months or years of preparation.

At least it is temporary and he will be back to full fitness sooner or later - could have been much much worse.

I remember teaching a child to ride some years ago. Her Mum commented one day that ponies were such a good method of teaching kids to deal with responsibility, pain, frustration and disappointment...she then added, "and then, when they've grown out of ponies, they're fully prepared for marriage" (!)

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Disaster Strikes...

Having never taken a lame step in his life, the bold Yeoman picked today to show that he, too, is, equine. Looking in fine fettle at 10 pm yesterday, by 6.30 am this morning he'd managed to pick up an injury which left him unable to put his near hind to the ground - totally non-weight-bearing.

Closer inspection show a contusion - rather as though he's trodden on himself, on the inside rear quarter above the hoof.

Time will tell how serious this injury is - he's more comfortable tonight and at least able to use the leg, although still very lame. After seeing to him (he had to be trailered in from the field to the yard - it was that bad), today has been investigating Plan B, C, D & we are due to leave in six days!

It seems unlikely that he will be fully sound by then, and even if he is, may benefit from some more time off before he (hopefully) joins us a bit later on the ride.

All I can say is - that's horses. The irony is he has been feeling so fit and well recently that there has been a bit of carrying on and whooping it up in the field with his mates - possibly what's caused the injury.