Explorer Paul Murton goes for a hack with intrepid Perthshire horse rider Karen Inkster in his new TV series about Scotland’s lochs. Gayle Ritchie finds out more.
When presenter and filmmaker Paul Murton asked if he could accompany Karen Inkster on a hack through Perthshire on one of her rescue ponies, she was struck with a combination of emotions.
“I was so excited but I was also really worried about my Spanish Mustang pony’s behaviour,” reveals Karen, 45.
“He’s what I call a ‘rehab’ – having had 15 previous owners in seven years.
“I had nightmares of him galloping across the moor with me screaming, never to be seen again!”
Karen, who lives near Dunkeld, was contacted by the BBC in March last year, and told TV personality and documentary maker Paul wanted to ride from Comrie to Loch Tay for his new series of Grand Tour of Scotland’s Lochs.
It seemed Paul had been admiring Karen from afar, and dreamed of connecting with a fellow adventurer.
In 2017, Karen had travelled the length of the Outer Hebrides, unsupported, with her Standardbred rescue pony Connie and deaf collie Pip, to raise £8,500 for seven animal charities.
The gruelling 19-day journey saw the daring trio trek 270km from Vatersay near Barra to the Butt of Lewis, visiting 13 islands along the way and camping out under the stars.
Karen went on to give talks about the trip and wrote a book about her adventure called The Deaf, The Daft and The Ditsy, donating proceeds from both to charities.
“The BBC had heard about my Hebrides trip and wondered if I could help out with Paul’s show,” says Karen.
“It took me a few minutes to process the request.
“I knew of Paul but I haven’t owned a TV for years so I didn’t know too much about the series.
“They asked me to look at possible routes that Paul and I could ride along.”
Karen, who works as a field officer for ScotWays, the UK’s oldest outdoor access group, did a recce of potential rides along old rights of way.
When lockdown lifted in September, they were able to film at Glen Lednock near Comrie.
“It was quite wet but the autumn colours were stunning,” recalls Karen.
“The initial plan was just to hack from Comrie to Loch Tay but when they realised I worked for ScotWays, they decided to incorporate that into the filming.
“We start the hack at an old ScotWays sign and I explain what the organisation does.
“I talk about the history of the route, which was an old drover’s road and right of way, stretching from Comrie to Ardeonaig.
“We also discuss some of the work ScotWays, which celebrated its 175th birthday in 2020, has done on access rights.”
While Paul was keen to find out about Karen’s Hebridean trip and her accompanying book – a book which won the International Equine Travel award from the Equus Film Festival 2020 – he was a little bit anxious about getting on board rescue pony Connie.
“He’d done a wee bit of riding on trekking ponies when his daughters were younger – but that was a while ago,” says Karen.
“Although Connie is a lovely horse and I had no concerns about her not looking after Paul, she’s very forward-going and walks quite fast. It took him a little while to get used to her and to relax.”
As they rode – Karen on Monty and Paul on Connie – Karen was secretly worried about Monty’s behaviour.
“He’s had quite a few issues and it was touch and go if he was ever going to be a safe ridden horse,” she explains.
“When the BBC first got in touch, I actually thought I’d need to find another pony.
“Monty had a couple of moments of refusing to budge as he was fed up going back and forth filming, covering the same ground, something like seven times.
“In his mind, he was out for a hack and wanted to go from A to B. Other than that, he was OK.
“The film crew had these huge silver sound things and Monty was wondering why these people were climbing up hills and hiding, so he was a bit suspicious.”
The intrepid duo spent around five hours in the saddle, and Paul was “a little stiff” dismounting, says Karen.
“But he really seemed to enjoy it. We blethered the whole time, spoke about his family, plans for Christmas… and Covid!
“He was amazed by my Hebrides trip and wanted to know about other trips I’d done.”
Paul was also fascinated by Karen’s experiments with different forms of equestrianism, whether cross-country, endurance riding, show-jumping or dressage.
And he discovered there’s a major difference between her style of riding and that of many other riders… in that she uses a bitless bridle on her horses and keeps them “barefoot”, as opposed to getting a farrier to nail on shoes.
To Karen, it’s a more humane way of riding.
In 2019 her endeavours attracted the attention of the World Bitless Association, who were so impressed they named Karen the very first World Bitless Champion Ambassador.
It’s a role that sees her promoting bitless riding globally.
“Paul was interested in being bitless and barefoot. We had a long discussion about the ethics of horsemanship and he totally ‘got’ the reasons why I don’t agree with bits,” she says.
“Anyone who rides bitless has their horse’s welfare and comfort at heart.”
After the hack, they stopped for a cuppa and biscuit, and Karen took the opportunity to give Paul a signed copy of her book – and asked him to sign his own book about the Hebrides.
“It was a bit cheesy but I had to do it!” she beams.
“Paul was really nice, very easy to get on with, and we had a great day.
“My friend Colin Fridge came along too. He was a total star, taking photos as we rode. He’s allergic to horses and not the most comfortable around them.”
Karen plans to watch the episode on her mum’s TV when it airs on March 10.
And she’s already looking forward to her next big new expedition – walking the Cateran Trail in Perthshire with Monty. That’s a staggering 65 miles.
“As soon as lockdown lifts I’m hoping to do it,” she says.
“I’ll just be leading Monty, not riding him, but he can carry all our equipment.
“I’ve been wanting to do the trail for a long time but locked gates and stiles have prevented doing it with a horse.
“Perth & Kinross Countryside Trust are working on replacing the stiles with multi-access friendly gates so I can’t wait to walk this great trail.
“We’ll be unsupported and carrying our own camping, cooking and corral equipment.”
At some point Karen hopes to do an epic 1,000-mile trip with Monty and Connie, saying: “I have a route in my head. Watch this space.”
Meanwhile, Karen is setting up a natural equine centre near Dunkeld called Equine Unlimited, with the tagline, “where the horse comes first”.
It promotes barefoot and bitless riding and positive reinforcement training techniques, allowing owners and riders to seek the best relationship with their horse without use of dominance, force or pain.
When Covid restrictions lift, Karen plans to offer courses, some run by professionals, covering a range of topics, from clicker training and trimming horses’ feet, to how to pack for an overnight camping trip with your horse.
The Grand Tours of Scotland’s Lochs episode featuring Karen airs on March 10 at 7.30pm on BBC One Scotland.
It takes Paul Murton from Loch Venachar in the northern Trossachs to Loch Tay and Breadalbane, a land of “giants and mighty peaks”.
He hears about kelpies lurking in the lochs of the Trossachs, lends a hand bringing in cattle and questions whether Rob Roy was a hero or just a thief.
At Rob Roy’s grave, he meets a man who casts doubts on the clansman’s last resting place and travels along a disused railway Loch Boltachan to Comrie, known as the Shaky Toun due to the high frequency of earthquake tremors during the 18th and 19th centuries.
After trekking through Glen Lednock to Loch Tay with Karen, Paul visits the Scottish Crannog Centre at Kenmore and scales mist-wreathed Ben Lawers.
The series, which kicked off last month, included an episode at Loch Glashan in Argyll where Paul met Hamish Lamley of Perthshire-based Pictavia Leather.
Hamish, who is passionate about Iron Age and Pictish culture and lives near Tibbermore, showed Paul how to paddle in a coracle he had built – basically a wicker basket covered in cured deer hide.
- Grand Tours of Scotland’s Lochs is on BBC Scotland on March 10 at 7.30pm.