The Queen’s Highland ponies which she stables at Balmoral are as tough as the granite that the Scottish castle is built from.
Hardy and sturdy, they are as adept at carrying the monarch for her daily ride as they are at carrying a shot stag down from the hills.
‘They’re all bred for working, but they also need to be quiet to ride and handle and have good conformation [shape],’ says the manager of the Queen’s Highland pony stud, Sylvia Ormiston.
Temperament is absolutely vital — with a calm nature being the priority.
Mrs Ormiston is in charge of these glorious creatures whose unbroken blood line dates back to the reign of Queen Victoria, she who described Balmoral as ‘my dear paradise in the Highlands’.
Hardy and sturdy, the Queen’s Highland ponies are as adept at carrying the monarch for her daily ride as they are at carrying a shot stag down from the hills
Currently, there are three home-bred stallions on the 64,000-acre estate — named Balmoral Mandarin, Balmoral Hercules and Balmoral Lord —which have produced five foals in the past year.
The Queen is very much involved with the ponies, having learned to ride at the age of four. In an interview with Life Magazine in 1945, she joked: ‘I should like to be a horse.’
She is often spotted riding in Windsor Great Park. Indeed, her love of horses is matched only by her devotion to duty.
At Balmoral, a group of yearlings, two-year-old Highlands, two Fell ponies and two Haflingers are made available to Her Majesty and her family over the summer.
Every morning when the Queen is in residence, some of the ponies are led near the castle and she surveys them from her vantage point at a first-floor window.
The main stable block is a hive of activity with ponies and ghillies (professional hunting, stalking and fishing guides) preparing for the day’s work on the estate.
The Queen is very much involved with the ponies, having learned to ride at the age of four. In an interview with Life Magazine in 1945, she joked: ‘I should like to be a horse’
The ponies are heavily relied on, as much of the Balmoral estate is inaccessible by vehicle and, during the height of the season (mid-July to mid-October for stags, while hind-stalking is from the end of October to mid-February), hunting is done six days a week.
Horse & Hound magazine was given unprecedented access to the stud last summer, when the Queen was in residence. It offered a fascinating insight into the daily routine.
Working pony groom Lucy Fernie oversees the ponies and also trains the ghillies. Before the start of the season, she’ll get the animals fit for the immensely physical work they undertake on the hills.
There are six ‘beats’ on the estate, each requiring two ponies that are used to carry the bodies of shot deer back down to the castle.
With such a big estate, ponies are left in hill paddocks, only to return at the end of the stalking season.
Sometimes in summer there are grouse shoots when ponies will be used to carry picnics for the Royal Family and their guests, and then to bring back shot grouse in pannier baskets.
Early rein: The Queen is pictured keeping an eye on six-year-old Charles
Tragically, in recent months the Balmoral stud lost three of its young ponies to grass sickness, a devastating condition about which relatively little is known — though it is believed to be caused by a toxin that damages the nervous system.
Mrs Ormiston is careful with the ponies’ diets and places blocks of essential minerals, which the ponies lick to ingest, in each field.
In recent years, some Highland ponies have been taken to show —Balmoral Mandarin was reserve male champion at the Royal Highland Show in 2010 and Balmoral Lord was junior male champion last year.
But Mrs Ormiston, whose husband, Dochy, is the farm manager looking after Highland cattle, says the thrill of winning a rosette is outdone by ‘seeing a pony come off the hill with a stag for the first time’.
It may be a far cry from Royal Ascot, but these ponies are just as close to the Queen’s heart.
© Horse & Hound / Time Inc.