A pony trekking company in the Scottish Highlands that has been dogged by controversy has lost its licence for long-distance trail riding.
Highlands Unbridled, which operates out of the Northwilds centre near Tain, is the only company in the area to carry out the long-distance treks, which attract clients from as far afield as Canada and the US.
The company’s owner Jan O’Neill was told by the Highland Council’s licensing committee on Wednesday (7 December) that she could no longer undertake the the long-distance rides following concerns about bio-security, staff training and a lack of adequate back-up support.
She was however granted a provisional licence for three months to carry out local hacking and lessons from the centre.
The Press and Journal reported that Mrs O’Neill was “relieved” to have had the provisional licence approved.
“I think we need to be very grateful we have got the licence and it will give us the chance to sit back, regroup, get things sorted out properly in Tain and then see where it leads from there,” she said. “I’m quite hopeful about getting back to the long distance riding eventually.”
The committee based its decision on a report from vet Charlotte Fraser following an inspection in November. The report noted that a number of the horses were mildly lame when trotted up, while several required the attention of a farrier.
She added that on a previous inspection in September, several of the animals had evidence of saddle sores — a situation that had been exacerbated by a lack of ‘spare’ horses.
“The Highlands Unbridled business model requires a highly unusual level of activity and presents exceptional challenges to the operator,” the report said. “My conclusion… is that I cannot be assured of the standard of management.”
The committee also heard 16 objections to the granting of a licence from members of the public and other local riding organisations.
Ruaridh Ormiston — a successful Highland pony breeder whose family established the area’s first trekking stables in 1952 — was among those who voiced his concerns.
“I think the reason we’ve got involved in objecting is because of the damage it’s doing to tourism and Highland riding,” he said. “Myself and other people aren’t complaining because it’s competition — we’re only objecting because we didn’t want our industry damaged by her reputation.
“It’s not just the commercial concerns – we are also concerned about the horses’ welfare.”
H&H was unable to contact anyone from Highlands Unbridled for comment.
Highlands Unbridled suffered a strangles outbreak in August this year, which led to local equestrian businesses shutting their doors and caused them to question the company’s bio-security measures.
In 2015, the business had to move from Brora, 20 miles away, and reapply for a licence after their landlord’s Sutherland Estates said they were planning to sell.
While at the premises, the trekking company had been embroiled in a lengthy planning feud over access to the nearby A9 road with Highland Council.