While one part of the so-called civilised world were slowly waking up to celebrate Independence Day, we were day-trekking from Pitlochry in the south east Highlands more than halfway across Scotland to the south west. We were heading just north of Glasgow to celebrate our little girl’s 9th birthday by visiting the Blackstone Clydesdale farm near Cumnock. Maybe in our keenness to incorporate some horse-riding on this trip, we may have slightly oversold the Clydesdales to her, but the farm also only had availability on that particular day. Anyway, it worked out that on her birthday our very shy petite little 9-year old, with her limited pony riding experience was to meet the Clydesdales – the second largest horse breed in the world.
Our agreed program was one hour riding, one hour working with the horses and then an hour farm tour. Well, things don’t always work out as planned. Actually, she did the same to me before – on that same 2017 trip we stood for half an hour in the rocky mountain railroad queue only to have her nerves get the better of her as we were about to get into the ride… So there we were, having met the horses, they’re all saddled up and we’re all dressed up in hi-viz vests, boots and dublins, and ready to mount them, when she suddenly chirped up “I don’t want to ride, I want to stay here with you daddy…” Awkward situation – Patricia had already mounted, there three people were waiting with the horses, and now I had to diffuse this situation first. Fortunately John, the owner, stepped up and said she could walk back to the office with him. Very reluctantly she agreed…
We went for an amazing outride with our guide Maddie. What an experience! We went along many different forest paths, up and down ridges, through parks, along busy roads (with very accommodating local traffic), through a forest stream and finally cantering through some open fields for the home stretch. I wish I could explain the sensation of riding such a huge powerful but super gentle animal. Incredible. Lying low on Gandalf’s neck as we duck below the branches. Amazing. So our one hour ride turned into a two-hour long experience of a lifetime. But emotionally it was a bit hard – on the one hand you’re enjoying one of the most amazing experiences ever, but on the other hand you’re concerned about your poor shy little girl sitting in the waiting room with complete strangers for two hours.
Fortunately when we arrived back at the farm, Micaela was in her element. Bailey, which is quite young herself, took Micaela on an extensive farm tour – so she met all the lamas, pigs, chickens, geese, highlander cows (called coos) and with great excitement she told us that she had met and patted each and every horse in the stables. So knowingly or unknowingly Bailey helped her overcome her fear of the big horses – personally I think she engineered it brilliantly.
Next up all of us went on our farm tour with big John Duncan, a gentle giant himself. What a rapport he has with his animals! He treats them with more affection and personal touch than many people treat their kids. First stop was the highland coos. Stout, powerful, hairy – they look scary when at first you get close up, but in fact they’re so gentle, we could rub and hug them. Or maybe it’s just John’s presence and voice that puts them at ease? Ha ha – only coos can fully understand that heavy Scottish accent!
Then we did the Clydesdales in depth. At one stage we walked into a camp where the mares were grazing far off. John just called them and they all responded at once – what an experience when seven such magnificent creatures come galloping at full speed to you. It’s almost scary when those 910 kilogram (2000 pounds) big and strong animals jostle around you for position, just in case John has a treat in his pocket. But John just picks the leader, gives her a big fat man-cuddle and the next second they’re all as tame as sheep.
One special encounter we had was with a huge French horse called Sherman. He doesn’t stand back for the Clivesdales. He’s equally big, as broad as a tank, as gentle as the rest of them, but in that paddock, he’s the top dog. We thought John was joking when he wanted to put Markus on him, but the next moment he was up before he could even doubt the decision. Next was Micaela, and she spend quite a while enjoying Sherman’s broad back.
Next up was Patricia – and after a few minutes John gave Sherman a firm nudge and sent him trudging towards the top gate. There went mommy riding off into the sunset amongst the coos – bareback on one of the biggest horses we’ve ever seen. To make matters even more interesting, when the two other Clydesdales had had their man hugs from John, they decided to canter over to Sherman, which sent him off on a trot with mommy desperately clinging to his mane. Funny thing, when Patricia got to the top gate, Magi who was showing some guests around up there, told her that Sherman wasn’t always as gentle as John made him out to be – if he didn’t like you, he would just buck you off. But just watching John operate, I think he has a pretty good read on animals of the people kind too.
It’s still not clear how we’re going to get involved in agritourism, but I know even though it’s very, very hard work, it’s the kind of living I want to do. But of course, the reality is – it can’t be done in this form where we currently are, and more crucially – those skills John has, you can’t go and learn that – it must be bred and formed into you over decades. But no wonder John is such a natural, he grew up on this farm, and he bred and broke most of these horses in too. And what a splendid job he’s done.
I don’t have a bucket list, I find the concept a bit of a depressing reality – I need a more positive, even dreamy outlook to keep me going – but I know this, if I ever get the chance to visit Scotland again, even with so many other things to see, explore and experience, another visit to Blackstone Clydesdale farm would definitely feature on the itinerary.