Gary Coutts on growing up at Balmoral, runaway Highlands and working with The Queen, as told to Madeleine Silver.
I moved to Balmoral in 1969 at the age of just three, when my father was employed as the estate carpenter. It was the same day Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. I don’t think it really ever fazed me that I was living on The Queen’s estate, it was just something I grew up with.
My mother always said that I wanted to be a gamekeeper from when I was knee-high. My grandfather was a keeper on an estate near Balmoral. Doing things like fishing for trout and skinning rabbits always captivated my imagination.
We have 12 working ponies at Balmoral during the height of the season.
They work in pairs on the six different stalking beats to carry the carcasses off the hill. During the hind season, we tie two ponies together, often pairing a more experienced pony with a young one. They tend to settle better with a bit of company.
On a typical day, the ponies will be walked out from the castle, or sometimes they will already have been transported out to a paddock near to the beat. Visually it looks so much nicer for guests to see the quarry taken off the hill on the back of a pony rather than a machine.
The ponies are also more adept at getting in and out of the more inaccessible areas, and they don’t churn up the ground in the same way as a vehicle.
You want a good, thick-set pony who is steady on his feet and can feel his way in the ground. Temperament is key, but a lot of it is about building up the training from a young age. If they can dispel any of the fears of blood and skins early on, it stands them in good stead to carry the deer themselves.
We mainly use Highlands, but we also have a few Fell ponies that were initially used by the Duke of Edinburgh for driving. They’re a little bit slighter in the hoof, but are particularly good in the soft ground.
In 1969, two Haflinger ponies were sent to Balmoral from President Jonas of Austria, and that breed has been kept on the estate to this day. They’re similar to the Highlands in their conformation, just a bit feistier.
During the stag season we’re fortunate enough to have the Royal Guard, made up of soldiers from one of the Scottish regiments, covering the pony work as well as their ceremonial duties.
A lot of these guys don’t know the back end from the front end of a horse when they arrive. It’s a steep learning curve getting them ready to go out on the hill with the stalkers.
Years ago, one of the soldiers was leading a pony and lost control of it altogether. It was heading for home and I remember watching on with the head keeper at the time. All we could see was a cloud of dust. In front was a pony and behind was a soldier trying to run his fastest to catch up with this pony down the track. He didn’t have a hope in hell.
The Queen has always taken a passionate interest in the ponies and the young foals. When she arrives at Balmoral, the stud is one of the first places she’ll visit. And if we’re near a track coming off the hill when we’re stalking, occasionally she’ll meet us and see them being worked in-hand.
When I was 15 years old, I got a summer job with the head keeper here, doing all the mucky jobs like cleaning kennels. I got my real break the following year when I left school and was taken on as a trainee. I was always hell-bent on being a gamekeeper, but I never imagined I’d be head keeper at Balmoral. Not in my wildest dreams.
Ref Horse & Hound; 30 January 2020
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