After years of saying I wanted to go to Knoydart I was surprised that it was hooves rather than hill running that finally got me over the sea to Inverie.
The remote west coast peninsula has an undeniably unique appeal, accessible as it is only by boat or foot, and I had a distinct feeling of starting an adventure as I boarded the small ferry from Mallaig.
The adventure I was about to embark on was the brainchild of Wilder Ways, an innovative provider of horse riding adventures. It prides itself on both the high quality of the riding experience and a genuine commitment to responsible and sustainable enjoyment of wild land.
It operates from several bases over the summer to minimise the impact the horses have on the fragile environment they explore. I met some of the team as they had “popped up” to spend a month taking riders out to explore the Rough Bounds.
Cara, one of the co-founders of Wilder Ways, introduced us to our horses and soon had us in the saddle and heading out along the road towards Inverie. As we walked through the small village the sound of the horses’ shoes echoed off the buildings and out across Loch Nevis. Traffic, both on foot and motorised, stopped to let us pass and it was clear the horses were a welcome temporary addition to the community.
We soon started ascending behind the village on a large track, and I felt a little bit guilty as my horse, Mango, took the strain. It was a change from the normal uphill running experience and I had the capacity to chat and enjoy the scenery passing.
The track levelled off and we had a chance to test our off-road riding skills in the search for a suitable place for the horses to get a drink from the burn. A herd of stalking ponies in a nearby enclosure were clearly excited the see new faces passing by, but other than the equine company our group was alone as we made our way steadily up Mam Uidhe in the warm spring sunshine.
We took the track that branched east into Gleann na Guiserein and, once deep in the glen, turned off the track and dismounted for a welcome break. Cara produced flasks of tea and chocolate biscuits from the saddlebags, while the horses, obviously acquainted with this pit stop, headed straight for the best patches of grass.
Refreshed and remounted we crossed the burn and joined a stalkers’ path that headed up beside the Falls of Folach further into the foothills of Ladhar Bheinn. The waterfalls were low after the dry spring but the scale of the sheer drops down to the river bed felt increased by the extra height of the horses.
We journeyed up on paths designed for horses, and we made our relaxed way through the deserted glen, always climbing. Eric (astride Denver, his “man’s horse”) confidently led the way until Denver decided it was time for someone else to trailblaze and made an efficient manoeuvre to end up at the back of the ride.
I found it easy to form a bond with my willing horse and it felt like a team effort as Mango and I took the lead and chose the best route over the increasingly rough ground. The glen rose more steeply in front of us and, to our right, wide Coire Each curved up towards the rugged ridges of the northern, wilder side of Ladhar Bheinn.
In the light wind the glen was almost silent – no distant road noise, no other conversation and a realisation that these mountains stand on the edge of civilisation.
The stalkers’ path slowly disappeared into tussocks and boggy burns and, as the hillside really steepened towards the skyline, we dismounted to lead the horses the last couple of hundred metres up the Mam Li to below Beinn na Caillich. I was surprised at how enjoyable it was making our way up the final slope on foot with the horses in hand and had a real feeling that people had been using horses to journey through this landscape through the ages.
Reaching the top of the rise the west coast revealed itself ahead of us – behind the waters of Loch Hourn and the Sound of Sleat, the jagged ridgeline of the Skye Cuillin rose up to create a dramatic distant silhouette in the blue sky.
We took the saddles off the horses and they were allowed to graze and rest while we picnicked at 500m. It was a uniquely peaceful meal, eating our sandwiches as the horses moved around us, searching out the best morsels among the meagre pickings between the dry heather.
In the warm sunshine it was easy to forget the time – it was only when Denver decided it was time to go home and set off alone down the hillside that we finally stirred from our comfy perches to laugh at Eric as he retrieved his horse from the hillside.
Walking the first part of the descent we quickly reached the head of the stalkers’ path and, despite some zigzagging to find the horses the best footing, we lost height quickly down the glen. I felt the benefit of riding out regularly at home as it has helped me become a considerate rider over uneven ground.
As always with hacking out, the return journey was definitely at a slightly faster pace than the outward leg and we were soon back at the large track. By this late time in the day the conversation had gradually slowed and it was great to enjoy the surroundings, lulled by the gentle rhythm of the horse’s walk.
In Inverie we passed the pub, the outside tables now full of people enjoying refreshment and reflection after a day in the hills. It was a pleasant surprise to find that, despite a full day in the saddle, my legs weren’t too stiff thanks to the regular stops. It felt like a bit of wrench to say goodbye to both Cara and Mango, the horse that had so dutifully and willingly carried me up into the mountains.
Have a go
Wilder Ways is “popping up” on Islay in July and in various locations in Argyll over the summer for multi-day holidays and day rides (www.wilderways.scot).
If you fancy an equine adventure closer to home why not join Equus, near Forres, on one of its Roseisle beach rides (www.equusscotland.co.uk) or Strathspey Highland Ponies exploring the Cairngorms from Rothiemurchas (www.rothiemurchas.net)?