"RIDE Highland ponies in the Highlands!" was the call that went out at an equestrian tourism conference, held as part of the 60th anniversary of pony trekking celebrations in Scotland´s Cairngorm National Park.
Speaking at the conference, part of a week-long series of events at Newtonmore Riding Centre, Dr Rhys Evans, an associate professor at the Norwegian University College for Agricultural and Rural Development (HLB for short in Norwegian) who has been working with a two-year business project explored how native breed horses can be part of a vibrant rural economic development strategy,. He urged delegates to think how they could help enhance, develop and consolidate the future of both trekking and the use of the Highland Pony in the Highlands and in Scotland as a whole.
During his presentation, entitled "Neigh-bours in the North: developing equine tourism businesses in northern landscapes", Dr Evans gave a comprehensive overview of the work that has so far been undertaken by the Riding Native Nordic Breeds project (RNB).
The project enjoys support from industry partners in three countries and features three native breeds, namely: Iceland with its Icelandic horses, Norway with its Fjord horses and the Faroe Islands with its Foroskye Ross. It has attracted generous funding from the North Atlantic Opportunities Fund with its mission statement being to create new economic imperatives for each of these breeds in their respective homelands and thus ensure that they flourish in the 21st century.
Ruaridh Ormistion, owner of the Newtonmore Riding Centre and the third generation of his family to operate treks with Highland ponies in the area, opened the conference saying: "We need new ideas to keep it all alive and to keep the public interested. Pony trekking is still a fantastic way to get out and see the countryside."
Mr Ormiston, who is the grandson of pony-trekking founder Ewan Ormiston and son of one of the best-known Highland pony breeders, Cameron Ormiston, who is carrying on his family´s 150 year dedication to the breed and is also actively involved in promoting his local area´s cultural heritage, organised the conference and explained: "Pony trekking was pioneered at the Balavil Arms Hotel in 1952 using Highland ponies by my grandfather and father. The whole project was instigated as an experiment by Jock Kerr Hunter in conjunction with SportScotland´s predecessor, the Scottish Council for Physical Recreation.
"It was a huge success – so much so that a second centre, also using Highlands, was set up in 1954 at Aberfoyle by Hugh Macgregor. Before long, there were trekking centers all over the UK and the rest is, of course, history. Now we need to look to how we should best market the industry for the future, based on the lessons learned in the past."
In his presentation, Dr Evans went on: "Native breeds were bred to work to human purposes – on the farm, in the forest or in human transport networks. Historically, the coming of machine-centered modernity meant that the economic imperative for their existence disappeared and so numbers declined precipitously. Those breeds which have flourished have done so because new economic imperatives were developed for their existence – one growing imperative being their use in tourism.
"Native breeds occupy a special sector of the equine world. Although similar to modern-bred horses in that they are the product of intentional breeding, they differ in that the things they were bred for are more linked to the geography – human and physical – and the geology of the place in which the breeding occurred. This distinctiveness makes them special."
He described the varying situations in each of the three countries in the RNB project. At the top end of the scale is Iceland with global control of some 300,000-plus horses and one of the largest equine tourism industries in the world where treks for 10 riders can involve up to 40-50 horses being taken along. Around 16% of all foreign visitors to Iceland go riding and the horse/human ratio on the island is 242:1000.Theme-based trips are also on offer and services for Icelanders travelling on their own horses are available too.
In Norway, a centre has been built dedicated to the Fjord horses and all aspects of managing and promoting the breed are carried out from there. Although the Norwegian Fjord horses are famous world-wide, less than 200 foals were born in its homeland in 2011. That Fjords were traditionally bred to pull rather than be ridden has led in some quarters to the attitude that Icelandic horses are "better" and should therefore be used instead. Not only that, but there are few tourism businesses and these can be hard to find.
On the Faroe Islands, the Foroyske Ross breed is at the micro end of the scale and the project is working on offering "endangered species tourism". The number of Faroese horses has risen from 30, 10 years ago to the 62 now in existence and there are plans to establish a breed centre which could attract passing cruise ship passengers to a demonstration/interpretation facility.
"Just as in rural and northern Scotland, the Nordic countries are all experiencing the same problem of how to keep people on the land, and especially how to keep young people in rural areas," Dr Evans told delegates.
"There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Iceland where the Icelandics, bred as leisure horses, are an integral part of the island´s lifestyle and economy. Tourism with natives can provide a reason to keep going with these breeds.
"We need to utilise these working breeds further as a means to keeping young people in rural areas and provide a further source of income," he said, adding: "The story of these horses is the story of your grandparents and ancestors and that story becomes the story of who you are. Ride Highland ponies in the Highlands, Fjords in Norway. Go whisky trail riding! Things like this really capture people´s imagination. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Iceland where the horses are selling like hotcakes! They breed a leisure horse and sell the whole story really well."
Other speakers at the conference included George Tait, training and inspections officer for the Trekking and Riding Society of Scotland, and Martin Leslie, who took part in the very first pony trekking instructor course run by the then Scottish Council for Physical Recreation (now SportScotland). He recounted his experiences of the early days of trekking at Newtonmore, where he worked for three years from 1954, before going on later to set up the Balmoral Castle trekking centre.
Flo Corrieri, who worked as a pony trekking instructress for more than 30 years for Hugh and Scott Macgregror, (the Macgregors started a second centre at Aberfoyle and during the boom years of trekking in the 1970s had seven such centres reaching as far down as the Lake District), and David Tidmarsh, a psychological therapist specialising in equine assisted learning who worked alongside Tony Montgomery of Highland Horseback which offered coast-to-coast treks from Kinlochourn to Huntly and vice-versa, were also on hand to share their experiences and thoughts as to how to best make new tracks forward.
The conference was rounded off with an opportunity for delegates to put their ideas forward and make suggestions as to how to take the trekking industry into its next 60 years. Delegates Candy Cameron of the Dores Riding Centre at Loch Ness and Sasha Pocok of Highland Trekking and Trail Riding, based at Cougie in the Glen Affric nature reserve, were agreed that there should be better communication between operators – trail rides between centres could be offered with operators networking to provide more services. Other ideas included providing information on 'loop' rides for people with their own horses, plus the provision of waterproof paper maps.