Riding high in New Zealand

  • If I close my eyes now, I’m back on a striking grey horse, the sun beating down, clip-clopping along a dirt road — on one side rise snow-tipped mountains, on the other a roaring river twists far below. The wind is strong, and as we round a corner I grasp my hat and lean in against the horse’s mane as he steps out, heedless of the elements.

    It was October (spring) when I joined a five-day horse riding holiday expedition in North Canterbury on the South Island, riding from sheep station to sheep station. Hurunui Horse Treks (after the Hurunui river) has a made a name for itself for its ventures into fabulous scenery, and offers trips ranging from one night to a nine-day packhorse expedition high among New Zealand’s backcountry.

    Spectacular vistas, plus a chance to integrate with the locals, come top of my holiday list, and the station-to-station ride delivered in bucketloads.

    Guests billet overnight with farmers and cross their land during the day — and though the temperatures dipped with the altitude our welcome everywhere remained warm. And I learnt more about New Zealand in four days talking to guides and farmers than I would have done in four weeks pottering around on my own.

    For the first night, we stayed — myself, and two Swedes, Janne and Madeleine — with Pat Shepherd in Hurunuri’s base town of Harwarden. Greeting us with tea, chocolate muffins and éclairs, and expecting us to do justice to a three-course supper 2hr hours later, Pat set the theme of the trip. Guests are fed and watered like troopers each night, with plentiful picnics packed for the following day’s ride — you want for nothing bar 10hr of sleep.

    New Zealand’s seasons are of course opposite to ours, but like the UK, its weather can be unpredictable. In late spring and early summer, when I went, you can literally experience four seasons in one day.

    Rob Stanley and Mandy Platt set up Hurunui Horse Treks, which was last November bought by Liam and Heather Naden. The couple have since upgraded and expanded the facilities at base camp to include a dressage arena. They now have 45 horses, from the local St James, a large, sturdy breed, to New Zealand Thoroughbreds, offering something to everyone except “extreme novices”.

    The horse you’re paired with can make or break a riding holiday, and having explained that I was happy to ride anything and “liked a bit of spark”, I was given Mandy’s hunter, Ted.

    I instantly and shamelessly fell in love with this 16.1hh eight-year-old grey gelding, who used to hunt with the local Brackenfield hunt. There are no foxes in New Zealand, but the country’s 30-odd packs hunt hare — and fearlessly jump wire.

    Sprightly and sharp, but hugely obliging, Ted soon revealed a great sense of humour (he peppered day one with bucks and tried to eat my picnic each and every day) as we set out on the ride, winding our way toward Jack and Nancy Inch’s home, through fields filled with sheep, along a river and past native New Zealand cabbage trees oddly clattering with tins of possum poison.

    Full-length Drizabone coats are provided, so despite the rain setting in, I remained snug as I peered out, trying to distingiush the shapes of New Zealand’s trademark mountains that were shrouded with mist. Ever since The Lord of the Rings, I’ve been dying to see this country and prayed the mist wouldn’t thwart me.

    Horses here come first — guests are often asked to dismount and walk — and luggage, horse feed and rugs are transported ahead of the riders for each night. Before turning in ourselves, the horses were brushed and checked over, rugged up and turned out.

    On the first night, they were turned out by the Inch’s woolshed, where we watched Jack and Nancy’s son Graham press fleeces — squeezing 60 at a time into big bags for export. I could have talked to farmer Jack for days, but, more used to life at a London desk, the pure, clear air wiped me out — and I was spark out by 8:30pm.

    The station ride follows Lake Sumner Road, an old gold-mining dirt trail, lashed by wind but coloured by vivid yellow gorse and the turquoise waters of the glacial Hurunui below.

    New Zealand has water everywhere — lakes, rivers and streams — and scores of Paradise ducks continually circle the skies as you ride along. Guides Kim and Jan ask riders to allow their horses to drink freely, and ours often stopped for refreshment as the temperatures rose. The horses were more settled after the previous day’s ride, and day two was sprinkled with canters on verges — and less bucks from Ted.

    Lake Taylor Station is the destination of this ride — a 1½hr drive to the nearest town. Owners Rosemary and Dave Gunn understood just what riders needed after long days in the saddle — we found hot water bottles tucked into our beds.

    Being so remote, this family is almost entirely self-sufficient. Everything from the honey to the bacon is home-produced, and
    the couple’s youngest son, Drew, is in the last year of home schooling. He’s 12, and off to boarding school next year: “We do have internet connection but it has to go through two telephone exchanges before the town,
    so it’s a bit slow.”

    Lamb and wool are New Zealand’s lifeblood. At the last census in 1999, it had 45m sheep and in the high country, Merinos are kept to produce the finest wool, since meat can’t be fattened on the barren grazing.

    The Gunn’s flock is characteristically large — they run 6,500 Merinos over 18,000 acres, with 350 cattle, about 10 dogs, a few pigs, chickens and a couple of ponies.
    Despite dagging 350 of her sheep that day (back-breaking work, trimming dirty fleece around their rear), Rosemary had cakes and supper waiting for us on our return from a 6hr ride to their summer house.

    As I bade farewell to Madeleine and Janne, guides Kim and Jan and the lovely Ted, I felt like new. Months later, the feeling of contentment I had after five days in the saddle in wide open spaces among the most amazing scenery on earth, is still strong in the memory. It does that to people, New Zealand.

    A real equine adventure

    • Drizabones, hats and saddlebags are provided for riders
    • Except in high summer, pack for all weathers. One day you’ll need thermals and waterproofs, the next T-shirts and sunscreen
    • Snaffle bits and Australian stock saddles are used — a Western/English saddle hybrid
    • All standards of riders are catered for, apart from extreme novices. There are 45 horses to suit all types
    • Pack walking/riding boots and half-chaps — but wash them first. New Zealand’s import restrictions are very strict and require all outdoor equipment to be free of mud, hair and grass seeds
    • Take collapsible water bottles and plastic bags. Riders each carry a grooming brush in their saddlebags and a bag avoids hair covering your spare layers
    • The trip costs from £1,895 with Equine Adventures (www.equineadventures.co.uk or tel: 0845 130 6981) including flights
    • The writer flew with Air New Zealand (www. airnewzealand.co.uk or tel: 0800 028 4149)
    • This feature was first published in Horse & Hound (22 June, ’06)

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