Occasionally – well maybe more often than admitted – the 'best day ever' occurs in this job.

And so it was recently when I agreed to meet equine podiatrist, Bonny Mealand, at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park to talk about laminitis – only to find myself with an introduction to a herd of wild ponies. The ancient creature that is the Przewalski’s horse.

Pronounced 'shu-val-skee' these are considered the only truly wild equines in the world and the small collection at Highland Wildlife Park is part of a carefully managed global effort to pull these beautiful animals back from the brink of extinction – there are only 2000 in the world currently.

The Przewalski's were actually the first animals to arrive at Highland Wildlife Park in the 1970s and they are beautifully managed today by senior hoof stock keeper, Becky Pink. Becky has been working with Bonny to make life easier for these untrainable equines by gradually using a risk assessed approach to handling so that their management can be easier on them.

In the recent past, these ponies have had to be darted to have any treatment whatsoever and the drugs can have extremely unpleasant side effects.

Using animal behaviour techniques which focus on building a trusting relationship between horses and humans Bonny can now trim the hooves of some of the herd.

Przewalskies are 'hefted' just like Blackies on the hill, such is their basic instinct and the stallions can be extremely protective of the mares, so Highland Wildlife Park has a few cohorts of bachelor groups around and about. The current stallion at the park is Chagatai and he is quite a lad – one eyed from fighting – and proudly alpha.

I was placed behind a barrier in the large handling pen and he came in by his own accord to sample the vegetables Becky uses to persuade them to familiarise themselves with humans. These horses could never be handled or domesticated any more than an Amur tiger or polar bear (yes, I saw them too) could.

To use a canine analogy they are to the domesticated horse what the wolf is to the domesticated dog. No one can handle Chagatai and he commands a huge amount of respect among not just the herd he leads, but the animal keepers and privileged visitors like me. He keeps himself slightly apart from it all, but Bonny has managed to build enough trust to trim his feet.

It was remarkable to learn how near these magnificent creatures came to extinction when there were only 12 left in the 1950s as a result of predation, human efforts to tame them and loss of habitat.

Their story is as alluring as the horses themselves. Named after Nikolai Przewalski, a 19th-century geographer and explorer serving as a Russian Army officer who found a skull and became fascinated by the species. He found them impossible to hunt and that they did not survive in captivity pining for their families and home.

In 2008, the Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum and research institute, went to the extreme length of getting vets to reverse the vasectomy of a male Przewalski’s horse in one of their zoos. They live in family groups and since the 1990s some of these have been released back to Mongolia where there is now some fledgling wild herds back in their natural homeland.

Becky and Bonny have persuaded some of the older mares at Highland Wildlife Park to become more confident and trusting enough have their hooves trimmed. I met older mares, Sara and Ieda, and some younger ones, Oyun and Tuya, and felt small in their presence.

What did I think? – how well settled they looked in their Cairngorm home yet how primitive and ancient they are too. I was impressed by Becky and her team and the lengths they have gone to make life easier for these magnificent creatures. Theirs is a story of preternatural strength and an old way of life – they live at the park as nature intended and allow themselves to be handled on their own terms.

It a great equine conservation project in the heart of the Scottish highlands; no wonder they are known as the holy animal of Mongolia.

For more information go to: https://touching-wild.blog/