I’m resting on a bed of soft moss, the earthy smell surrounding me made all the more intense by the warmth of the sun. The soft dense plant conforms around the shape of my body and I feel completely supported in a green embrace. Above me seabirds soar and wheel in a pristine blue sky and I hear and feel the vibrations of the Atlantic rollers as they break against the rocky shoreline far below me. I lick my lips and taste salt as a fine mist from the breakers drifts upwards. The storms from a few days ago have increased the ocean swell and these waves have surged across vast distances to reach the shore of this beautiful island, Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland.
My legs are tired from the steep walk/scramble up Beinn Sciathan, the highest hill on the island. I’ve been looking for the small herd of Eriskay ponies who call this special place home. With multiple nooks, crevices and large rocks to shield them from view I’ve seen no sign of the group yet. Moving through this landscape whilst surrounded by the ever changing silver tides of the Atlantic doesn’t make that feel like a disappointment.
From this vantage point looking north I can see the thickly heather clad hills of South Uist. Between us flows the turquoise blue Sound of Eriskay, Caolas Èirisgeigh. It is notorious for its shifting sandbanks and shallow waters. Here in 1941 the SS Politician ran aground with a cargo including 22,000 bottles of whisky. Before she was fully submerged the islanders organised a rescue mission, first to help the crew and second to retrieve the delicious cargo. An event that inspired the classic Ealing comedy Whisky Galore!
The extraordinary clarity of light that I have only ever experienced in the Hebrides sparkles in its intensity. Everything seems magnified and vibrant. At the edge of my vision I catch sight of white movement and a small pony walks into view. Wide awake now I sit up and nestle comfortably back into the sun warmed rock beside me. My binoculars are to hand and my notebook ready. Does pony watching, (or ethological study) get any better than this? I don’t think so.
Ethology is the study of animals living in their natural environment who are able to express the behaviour that evolution has equipped them for. It teaches us about who horses truly are and helps us move away from our flawed, anthropomorphic interpretations. Instead we get to see the true essence of a horse. Studying them living life on their own terms helps to explain why their bodies and behaviours are as they are. It provides a wealth and depth of understanding which can positively inform how we handle, train and care for them. When a horse is leading a species appropriate life, in the domestic setting, they are happy, healthy and willing companions.
The nourishing experience of staying on this island would be wonderful in itself but I’m lucky enough to be here with a group of fellow equine enthusiasts. The rich conversations and sharing of experience and knowledge adds different perspectives and much joy to our learning.
Equine research scientist Dr Emily Kieson and I collaborate to be able to offer insightful learning opportunities which we call “Learning Wild”. These are for horse owners and people who care for horses, equine professionals, ecologists, anthropologists, in fact anyone who is interested in developing a deeper understanding of equines and learning ways to co- exist peacefully with mutual benefit, and to also consider the environment they inhabit. We run courses all over the world in places wherever we can observe free living equines. A week on the Isle of Eriskay is one such experience. Staying in a comfortable, cozy house on the island and being able to walk out of the back door then up Beinn Sciathan enables convenient access to the home of these ponies.
There is a strong pony culture on the island and in living memory stories are still told about shared lives on the crofts with these tough west coast ponies. They made survival in this challenging environment possible. We make strong connections to the local residents and include them in the teaching. Being guided by locals and experienced professionals provides a unique, real life learning experience. Supporting community and businesses and learning about the shared history of people, ponies and place are all part of what’s on offer.
The goal of Learning Wild is to provide you with an in depth understanding of the equine species. This information can equip you to care for and work with horses in a way that aligns with their true natures. The experience of immersing yourself in the wild life of a horse will stay with you forever.
This is part of a blog series: