Gayle goes for a hack in a remote part of Royal Deeside with new trail riding centre Highlands Unbridled.
Snow-capped mountains, an ancient drove road used by whisky smugglers and thick Caledonian pine forest – the view from horseback is absolutely breathtaking.
I’m on a hack with Highlands Unbridled in the heart of Royal Deeside, having set off from the secluded riding centre on Ballogie Estate.
My trusty steed for the morning is Brooke, a gorgeous 15.2hh Appaloosa-cross-warmblood, while senior ride leader Dominique Mills is on 15.3hh Friesian Breagha – definitely the poster girl for the business, with her plaited mane and flowing tail, pricked ears and soft eyes.
Anyone who knows me will understand this is my heaven. Horses, hills, rugged moorland and forests – absolute bliss. The centre offers day rides, short breaks and riding holidays but I’m here for a two-hour hack.
There’s no shortage of fun to be had and within minutes of leaving the centre, we find ourselves trotting, and then cantering, through a lush green field.
The trail takes us through heather and bracken, winding its way through pine forest, on to open moorland and into the Forest of Birse, a remote upland area in the upper catchment of the Water of Feugh. We pause to drink in the views – of the rolling hills and farmland of Aberdeenshire, of the snow-peaked Cairngorms, down into the valley of Glencat and across to 525m Carnferg, crowned by a memorial cairn.
In the distance, we spot the Fungle road, an ancient drove road and right of way connecting Deeside to Glen Esk in Angus.
It was once a busy trade route, used by cattle drovers and whisky smugglers alike.
Our horses are sure-footed and easily pick their way across boggy ground, over rough, stony terrain and seem to instinctively know how to avoid tripping over exposed roots and boulders.
As we head back down the valley through farmland, we pass cattle grazing peacefully in a field. But Dominique is on high alert.
“A cow escaped and was running around a few weeks ago, so we best keep an eye out!” she warns.
Luckily, no wild-eyed beasts cross our path and we can rest easy… or I think we can until Dominique mentions capercaillie.
Until now, I’d always imagined them to be shy, elusive birds, hiding in the woods and making strange bubbling noises.
Turns out that’s true most of the time but when it comes to mating season, the lads can turn into aggressive, territorial terrors!
“We avoid certain areas because we know that’s where the capercaillie hang out,” says Dominique. “Don’t worry – we won’t be going that way today!”
Thankfully we encounter neither cow, capercaillie nor human being on our hack and head back to base unscathed and with huge smiles pasted across our faces.
The centre has 23 horses and ponies with a focus on hardy, native breeds, well-equipped to handle the tough environment.
Most are Highlands, or Highland-crosses, but there are a few lovely Irish cobs, a couple of Appaloosas, a Fell-cross, a Quarter Horse-cross, a Connemara-cross and a Haflinger. They go “barefoot” most of the time although they wear special boots when they’re being ridden on hard ground.
“We find wearing boots works better than wearing shoes,” explains Dominique. “There’s no risk of losing a shoe or getting a nail injury in the middle of nowhere. The boots protect the sole from bruising on stony trails.”
Experiences offered range from half-hour pony taster sessions to multi-day trips across Scotland staying at B&Bs along the way.
There’s the Outlander Ride, based on the popular TV series, various coast-to-coast trips, a Cairngorms “castles and whisky” route, and loads of other exciting themed expeditions.
Highlands Unbridled also offer the longest trail ride in the UK – a 17-day extravaganza starting at Brora and doing a mammoth 250-mile loop of the north, via Bonar Bridge, Elphin, Lochinver, Achmelvich, Unapool, Tongue, Altnaharra and back to Brora.
I can only imagine how my backside might feel after all that time in the saddle but I’m sure it would be an amazing adventure!
“We love our remote Scottish riding experiences,” says Dominique. “There’s a ride for people of all ages and levels of experience.”
Anyone who heads into the wilderness with Dominique – who moved to Scotland from Australia three years ago – is in good hands.
She’s worked with horses all over the world, leading endurance trail rides in Transylvania and teaching kids to ride in Romania, Norway and Iceland.
Riding is a wonderful way to explore – you view the landscape from an elevated position and, if you’re ambling along at a steady pace on a well-schooled equine, it’s extremely relaxing.
However, anyone signing up for a day or longer needs to be fairly fit as there are sections of trotting, cantering and even galloping! Enjoy!
- Highlands Unbridled matches horses with riders depending on height, weight and level of experience.
- The centre at Murley Steading on Ballogie Estate near Aboyne officially opened this month, having moved to the site in January 2020 from its previous premises in Tain. highlandsunbridled.com