History of the Highland pony, the stalking ‘garron’

Ruaridh Ormiston’s family have been working with Highland ponies for more than 150 years. As he prepares to showcase this hardy pony’s historical significance at the Royal Highland Show 2024, he explains how stalkers use it.

For example, his great-great-grandfather was a professional salmon fisherman and he used a Highland pony to transport his catch to the towns and cities. Of course, they are probably best known for carrying deer off the hill and Ruaridh explains the specialist saddles used for that job. Some also take woven panniers, so the ponies can carry grouse back to the larder.

Garron or Highland pony
Stalkers use a garron with specially adapted saddle to take a beast off the hill

A symbol of strength and resilience, this pony has a long and fascinating history intertwined with the rugged landscape of Scotland. Today, these animals are beloved for their versatility. Their origins lie with their duties as ‘garrons’ – the indispensable workhorses of the Highlands.

Pinpointing the exact origin of the Highland pony is challenging. There’s evidence of two distinct types roaming Scotland in the past: a lighter riding pony found on the Western Isles and a larger, more robust type on the mainland. Over time, these two types interbred, giving rise to the modern Highland pony. The breed also benefited from infusions of bloodlines from France, Spain, Hackney, and Fell ponies, as well as Norfolk Roadsters and Arabians, solidifying its characteristics as a reliable farmhand.

The term ‘garron’ originally referred to the larger, heavier Highland pony found on the Scottish mainland. These hardy creatures were perfectly adapted to the harsh conditions. Their thick winter coats provided insulation, while their wide hooves ensured stability on the often-wet and boggy terrain. Garrons were the backbone of Highland agriculture, used for ploughing fields, hauling timber, and transporting game after hunts. Their surefootedness and strength made them invaluable companions for shepherds navigating the challenging terrain.

The evolution of agriculture and transportation methods lessened the need for heavy draft animals. However, the Highland pony’s versatility ensured its survival. Breeders began to emphasize traits like temperament, athleticism, and a more refined build, making them ideal for riding and driving. Today, Highland ponies excel in various equestrian disciplines, from jumping and trekking to carriage driving. Their calm disposition and impressive weight-carrying capacity make them excellent choices for children and adults alike.

Many estates still use garrons as a vital part of the Scottish hillstalking experience that hass attracted so many to the Highlands.

The royal family’s affection for the breed dates back to the 19th century. Queen Victoria loved hers so much she banned anyone from riding her Highlands at Balmoral if she felt they weren’t decent enough riders. Queen Elizabeth did much to popularise the breed. 

For more from Ruaridh, visit HighlandHorseFun.com

Watch a garron in action:

Feel free to share this story with the these buttons


Was that story useful?
Please support our work. Fieldsports Nation is the collective name for members of the countrysports community who have banded together to support our work promoting hunting, shooting and fishing.
We make an impact by funding a movement that informs the public and government policies.
Please click here.


Free weekly newsletter