My day starts with a bleary-eyed cup of tea at 5am followed by a by a two hour drive to the ferry terminal. Travelling to work by boat is one of my great joys, and today its a three hour commute on an iconic Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to a remote Hebridean Island. My husband Dave is coming to assist. We fill ourselves up with a delicious Calmac breakfast then go up on deck to look for whales while tasting the salt spray and basking in the liquid autumn light. The journey flies by, no whales spotted but a multitude of sea birds wherever you look, and most eye catching of all are the white bolts of diving gannets.
We land on the island and are met by Paul, he is the owner of the 30+ Eriskay ponies that live here. He and his wife moved to this remote place almost 20 years ago to breed these tough and friendly little grey ponies. Sadly Paul’s wife died a few years ago, so now he’s solely responsible for their welfare and has fallen behind with the hoof care. My role here is to trim the ponies’ feet on a regular basis. This is not as straightforward as it sounds. Many of the ponies are unhandled and some of the older ones have had very stressful experiences with vet procedures; this has left them deeply suspicious of people.
The ponies live in small, stable herds with one stallion or gelding living with a few mares. There are also smaller satellite herds of younger ponies living around the main group.
I’ll be working with the Cloud herd today, so called as their stallion is named Sgòth (pronounced Sco) which means ‘cloud’ in Gaelic.The work takes place in a high sided pen in the middle of the ponies’ field. My system is to entice two or three ponies into the pen so I have a secure area in which to work. I give them some feed once they’re in and allow them time to settle before starting to handle them. By scattering hay around outside the pen I keep the rest of the group close to hand. This also has a calming influence on the ponies who are being worked with.
This is the third time that I’ve worked with the Cloud herd. Two confident mares who know the drill push into the pen to get at the feed, along with them comes a small black colt. I’ve seen him a few times at a distance but as he is very shy he previously avoided coming into the pen. This time though, he has literally been caught unawares. He seems a bit surprised to be confined but settles quickly as there is some juicy grass in the ungrazed pen.
I start to work with the mares, moving around them, feeding them then lightly touching and stroking them. This way they are getting used to the idea of being handled again. The small colt keeps the two mares between us, not running away but not allowing me close to him. I don’t mind as my focus is on the girls hooves and i don’t intend to trim such a shy foal. I hope that his being in the pen while the mares are handled and having their hooves trimmed will help him begin to feel more at ease around people.
I soon forget about him as my attention is taken up with the two mares. I progress from slowly touching them to introducing a rope and halter. I can work through this process quite quickly now as the mares are familiar with the steps. Dave comes in to start handling them. They are a bit wary at first but soon settle with his gentle and quiet way of being around them. I get on with trimming hooves while Dave stands by their heads, lightly holding the lead rope and encouraging them to keep still.
These ponies lead a wild life so their instincts and reactions are lightning fast. Working with them is always a lesson in how to remain constantly present in each moment. Their feet have grown a lot since their last trim and I’m drawn into the work of cutting back and shaping the hooves. I am careful to work at a pace the mares are comfortable with. My aims are to build their confidence while at the same time getting the job done and improving their hooves.
I finish trimming the two mares and turn them out, then bring in another two. The small colt is settled in the pen and makes no move to leave so I let him stay. I start again with the routine of preparing to halter the mares, and this time the colt doesn’t make such an effort to keep his distance. I even get close enough to stretch out my hand for him to smell, he tentatively reaches out with his nose and has a sniff, I’m delighted!
We work our way through the next few mares and whenever I get the chance I move close to the colt and we get to the point that he is almost ignoring me. He seems quite at home in the pen so we let him stay in as the others come and go.
We eat lunch sitting on the ground with the ponies beside us.
The mares are very interested in our sandwiches so I scatter some hard feed on the ground for them to pick at. The colt obviously doesn’t know about hard feed so ignores it. Kneeling, I hold some out to the colt, he has a good sniff then lips a bit off my hand, dropping most of it on the ground. One of the mares spots the feed and comes over, pushing him out of the way so she can eat. This is a breakthrough moment as suddenly the colt, his attention caught by the mare’s behaviour, is really interested in what I’m holding and wants to get closer. I drop the feed on the ground for the mare, move away from her and offer him some more. Confidently he comes over to me and takes a small mouthful, this is a strange new taste for him so he curls his lips and snorts, but he enjoys it and tries more.
Lunchtime is over so we get back to work. As I trim hooves I notice the colt getting as close as he can to us as he now has a reason to be near people. My focus is on the mares again so I leave him to his own devices. He decides to see if Dave is worth getting to know. I’ve been working low around him so as not to be intimidating, but it seems I needn’t have bothered. Dave is 6’2″ and the colt casually walks up to him and starts nosing around his pockets. The two of them get to know each other, the colt is fascinated with Dave’s face and keeps reaching up to gently nuzzle him.
We’re reaching the end of the day and all the Cloud herd are trimmed bar the colt. We still have some time before the ferry docks. I’d had a good look at the colt’s hooves while I was working and they are really quite long. I’m aware that with the winter storms coming, and with a limited ferry timetable, I won’t see these ponies again for at least another six months.
As we have time to spare I decide to see what the colt thinks about me touching his legs and hooves. I ask Dave to stand and feed him so I can get close enough to work. The colt watches me out of the corner of his eye but is calm and busy with Dave and the food. I gently reach down and stroke his legs, he turns to watch me more closely for a short time and then turns back to Dave. I ask him to tilt his hoof off the ground which he doesn’t really understand, so I add some more pressure and then lift his foot, almost instantly placing it back down. That’s fine with him too. My tools are close and the next time I lift his foot off the ground I pick it out then nip off the excess wall and bevel the edge of his hoof.
One hoof trimmed, I can’t quite believe it, but he’s making no move to leave. He’s not restrained in any way and is choosing to be with us. I move around to the other front leg, he’s watching me all the time but remains settled. I go through the same procedure with his other hoof, again calm acceptance from him, and a trimmed hoof in a unbelievably short space of time. Gently stroking him I work my way to his hind legs. He’s so relaxed that he’s resting one already so I lift it then trim it. I’m now at the last foot and as if he’s been doing this all his life, he lifts his foot off the ground and lets me trim it – incredible.
That’s it, the work is finished so we open the gate and let the remaining ponies join their friends, the colt ambles quietly out. I quickly jot down some notes for my records but I don’t have a name for the colt. I ask Dave for a suggestion, ‘how about Cirrus’ he says.
As I sit on the ferry and watch the island disappear I mull over my experiences today. I am deeply moved and somehow altered by my experience with Cirrus. The generosity of spirit that this young pony showed in his interactions with me have made me profoundly and lastingly humbled. After today what I ‘knew’ about equine behaviour and what I have now experienced are on a completely different level. Cirrus has assuredly taught me that the true nature of equines is to look for harmony, connection and ease, and that the ‘ease’ can be easier than I ever imagined.