A passionate breeder of Highland ponies who is the stud manager for HM the Queen at Balmoral, Sylvia Ormiston MVO, certainly knows the answers in the industry having been brought up all of her life with ponies and Blackface sheep.


I was born and bred on the Old Kilpatrick Hills, above the river Clyde, with a keenness for ponies and Blackface sheep. I helped out at Muirhouses for several years and discovered the Royal Highland Show in the early 1980s when helping to show Blackies.

This is when I met the Ormiston family and where my love for Highland ponies began – and also where I met my husband to be, Dochy Ormiston! I had worked with many breeds of horses and ponies but once I discovered the Highland pony, I was a convert.

Tell us a little bit about your career?

I worked with many of the Ormiston’s Croila ponies until I moved to Meggernie Estate to live and work with Dochy. I bred, produced and showed the Meggernie ponies for more than 15 years. I was very lucky to have the chance to use my late father-in-law. Cameron Ormiston's stallions wherever I was working at the time.

As a breeder, you are looking to bred a quiet temperament and sound conformation. Unless you have a trainable brain to work with, then they are not fit for purpose. Living at Balmoral and producing a working hill pony is prime example of temperament, conformation and correctness. These ponies all need to be physically and mentally fit to do the hill job!

What is it you are looking for in an animal?

The Highland pony is native to Scotland and is designed to cope with the rugged terrain and harsh climate that this country can throw at them. This hardy breed was traditionally used to work on the croft pulling carts and ploughs, being ridden around the hill at lambing time and also being on its best behaviour to take the family to church on the sabbath.

They also must be able to work on the hill to carry the grouse pannier baskets and to recover the red deer carcases during the stalking season. I am sure they will have many more purposes that I have not touched on, but most of these are the main chores that are still being performed today by these trusty little work horses.

Chosen breed’s place in the commercial market?

In relation to the Highland pony herd, at this time the demand outweighs the supply. The breed is currently on the RBST Watch List and the Highland Pony Society is being very active in preserving the future of this native breed.

Has the breed changed for the better?

Like all breeds, ‘type’ is dictated by ‘fashion’ and it is up to all breeders to maintain ‘the type’ and not to let ‘fashion’ sway standards. One person’s opinion in the show ring can set a standard for many years and this is not always a good thing!

If you had to choose another breed to go into, what would it be?

Hens! I love them. They are always there to chat to when you have a problem.

What got you involved in showing to start with?

Having discovered the Royal Highland Show at a young age, I suppose the annual visit was something big to prepare for and then the bug grips you! It becomes part of the calendar year and everything revolves around the season.

Biggest showing achievements?

My first year showing for Meggerine in 1997 I was female champion and reserve overall with seven-year-old yeld mare, Shastra of Meggernie.

When starting to show for Balmoral in 2010, I was reserve male champion with Balmoral Mandarin, a yearling colt which was one of the first home-bred ponies to do well.

Having bred and owned ponies over the years that have been overall in hand champion, there is always something on the go.

Best animal you have ever shown?

I struggle to choose as there have been so many and I don’t have a favourite.

But what is the best animal that you have ever seen?

I feel that I could choose Danny Boy for this. He is the epitome of a Highland pony stallion. He is masculine, strong, correct and kind.

Abiding memory?

Being affected by equine grass sickness in 2017-2018. Losing those beautiful souls still breaks my heart.

Biggest disappointment?

I don’t feel disappointed about much. You are in charge of your own feelings.

Most influential person in your career?

My late father-in-law and my husband.

Best stockman?

The late Andy Buchanan, from Meggernie. I learnt so much from Andy. He was always so helpful, encouraging and kind.

Who has got the best kist parties?

This would have to go back to the days when we lived in the wooden huts onsite at the Royal Highland Show. Some were turned into home from homes during that week, with optics hanging from the wall! We had a fair ‘kick’ o the ball’ then. If the weather was kind, then the parties would spill out on the street. Such fun memories and far too many to pick one!

Favourite quote?

‘What’s for you won’t go by you!’ I am a huge believer in this.

If you could change one thing, what would it be?

To have made more time for my parents! Work gets in the way – and then all of a sudden, they are gone!

Best advice?

Make sure you are doing it for the love of the breed and follow your own heart. Encourage the children to be keen on your breed as they are the future.

Best investment?

A caravan to sleep in at the Highland Show. Too many years of sleeping in trailers takes its toll!

Judging experience?

Travelling to the Southern Highland Pony Show earlier this year to judge the supreme at the end of the two days and not being able to complete the judging as a pony that I had bred was in the final line up. I had to ask the umpire to stand in, while I watched from outside the ring. I had never been to the Three Counties Show Ground at Malvern before, so it was a lovely outing for me.

When can you tell an animal will be a show star?

Sometimes as soon as they are born, but usually by three weeks you can certainly see their potential.

Problems in the industry?

Humans tend to be the problem in any industry and as long as humans can admit to being a problem then there is no problem!

Do what’s best for the breed, not what’s best for themselves.

Something you thought you would never achieve, but have?

Working for HM The Queen and Dochy and I being honoured in 2020 with our MVO.

Do you with you could have done anything different in your career?

I have no regrets in life, everything happens for a reason.

Are you involved in any committees or hobbies?

I am currently president of the Highland Pony Society and have served on council for more than five years so far.

I am also an Ambassador for the EGSF (Equine Grass Sickness Fund) and an Ambassador for the GUL Charity, Outdoor Equine therapy for disabled children and adults. I enjoy my Border collies when I get time!

The future of the show circuit?

I am very lucky to not have showing constantly on my mind. I breed ponies to do a very important job and to have some time to show now and again, is a bonus.

I hope people enjoy their ponies for what they are and not for the prizes they can win. The show rings will come and go, as will the enthusiasm for the shows. It'll thrive as long as people remember what showing is all about, enjoying yourself with your animals and catching up with like-minded folks.

Could you imagine your life without showing?

I think 2020, the year of Covid-19, gave us all a look at what life would be like without shows and I am sure it has made us appreciate them all the more however as I have said before enjoy your ponies for who they are and let them enjoy life out with the show ring too.

* Buy next week's edition when we feature Sylvia's husband, Dochy Ormiston.