open country

Doesn’t every girl dream of riding horseback over a moor or along a sandy beach – but I was terrified of the woman who gave my sister and me riding lessons at Busby, south of Glasgow. The fear she instilled in me meant I could never remember my left from my right. This being the seventies, my mum purchased a pair of red tartan sandshoes for me that had left and right written on the white rubber toes.

One time, we turned up at the riding school and the scary lady had been replaced by a man with a black moustache. Unfortunately I was terrified of any man who was not my daddy. This softly spoken American restored my faith in the male species but he did not make me believe I could care for my own horse. So the beautiful saddle that my sister and I had sat on was sold to another girl.

Despite not choosing to devote my leisure time to horses, not helped by intense allergies, I have not forgotten the beauty of their shape and their association with the romantic and the mythical. When they were the main mode of transport, whims of fancy about being scooped up by a handsome man on an even more handsome charger would not have represented such longing desires.

I hear about people being frightened of horses, which I find difficult to comprehend. I understand that people can be injured or even killed by them. The statistics for car accidents are dreadful, but I don’t hear people say they are afraid of cars.

Recently I was witness to the quiet and gentleness that a horse can bring.

I have noted the horse logging demonstrations have appeared a couple of times in event listings for the Festival of the Horse and the Forest Festival but I have never made it along – sometimes you just need a wee nudge from a friend. So I drove across the Border country from the end of my walk survey in Broughton to Bowmont Forest near Kelso.

The road to the forest along the flat fertile landscape of Roxburghshire was like an elegant drive that evening – in my senses the remote passes through Broughton Heights contrasted with the sun-enriched greens of late spring verges and arable fields.

When I drew closer to the scene on foot, it was like arriving at a community gathering in times when people came together for important events – the harvest, a birth, a death. There was a quietness about the time of day and the way people spoke and moved. I believed it was respect for the beautiful beasts as they worked.

Scout and Angel are black and white cobs and they humbly walk while dragging the felled logs behind them. Their hooves make a soft sound on the earth, the chains that link them to their load a muffled jingle and the logs rustle the dried leaves on the forest floor. Cob is not a specific breed but rather a body type. To be classified as one, a horse must be between 14.2 and 15.1 hands and is characterised by short legs and a sturdy body.

Cobs are also described as having strong bones and large joints. Most pertinently, it is said they have a steady disposition and are capable of carrying a substantial weight. I spoke with Rab Erskine, who was tenderly placing a collar and bridle on his horse. He went through some training that the horses must have to do this work.

They have to be taught not to be startled by the sound of trees being felled and the sound of the logs scraping the woodland floor behind them. They have to learn to stand patiently while tethers are untangled from their legs, or trailers are hooked up, logs being unloaded.

After learning more about cobs I was not surprised that the demonstration of horse logging had a serene aura like clapping a dog or water lapping on a loch’s shore. That hour or so in the woodland was like going back in time, the fact that the process has little environmental impact is clear.