Riding the Old Man Range

April 10, 2011 Comments Off on Riding the Old Man Range

Finally, we got in the horseback riding that got postponed from Dunedin! The horse trek place never picked up their phone, so we started off anyway, without a reservation. We stopped in Collingworth for a fantastic breakfast with cool metal art on the walls. The metal tuatara with paua shell eyes was particularly cool, and Simon and I talked about it all through breakfast. Eventually (and to my happy shock) we bought it!! And it will be my totem for our next place. Wahoo!

Next up: stalking the horse place. The parking lot/headquarters had a sign up that said to go up to the house if there was no one there. So we did, but we loitered suspiciously in the driveway for a long time, because it was Sunday and we were worried they’d be closed and angry with us. Finally we (I) chickened out and turned the car around, and a girl appeared in the driveway. I got out and asked if she was the horse people, and she said yes, come on up, and before we knew it we were being offered tea at someone else’s breakfast. It was embarrassing. And the girl, Misha, wasn’t exactly nice, although she was polite. I think she was pissed that we were so lily-livered about coming up, and had no interest in guiding us right then. But she set us up for 12:30, which meant that we had nothing to do to kill 45 minutes.

Fortunately, she wasn’t our guide. We showed up early, but right as we got out of the car in the deserted parking lot, a middle-aged woman who looked uncannily like my old roommate Brittany pulled up next to us and greeted us enthusiastically. Her name was Charlotte, and she was unflaggingly cheerful during the paperwork and saddling and so on. She introduced us to the horses, whom Misha was bringing one by one: Simon would be riding Arnie, I would be on Scooby, and she would ride Homer.

Is this the prissiest thing you've ever seen, or what?

As she put their gear on, she explained to us that they were old racing horses, and not regular racing, but harness racing, where they only trot, and they pull little carts with their jockeys sitting in them. Simon and I think this is very silly. She showed us the tattoos on their necks that tells how old they are, and just generally was a font of equine wisdom. I mounted first; Scooby is a small horse, and even so I could barely get my foot up to the stirrup. Eventually I did, and then I had a good vantage point from which to be amused as Misha tried to get Simon to mount the same way. Arnie was significantly taller than Scooby, and Simon is less flexible than I am and a novice. Charlotte called to Misha to use a mounting block, and Misha replied with a frown, “You really think so?” Obviously so experienced with horses she couldn’t believe anyone might need a mounting block. Eventually we were all up, and, since the trek was just Simon and me, we were ready to go.

I got Scooby because he was slightly less obedient than Arnie, and I had slightly more experience than Simon. But as we started riding, I realized what a big difference it made to ride on a trail with rocks and ups and downs, versus my riding lessons ten years ago where I rode around in circles on flat, soft dirt. Immediately after leaving the mounting area, Charlotte reminded us that when going downhill you should lean back slightly, and going uphill you should lean forward. It made sense, especially in terms of a backpack sliding up over your head as you bend over, but I had never even considered it. Also, this time I became slightly obsessed with the horse slipping and falling. As it turns out, I hadn’t ever considered a horse being able to catch itself before; it eventually assuaged my fear to have spent an hour or so watching Homer in front of me slip on loose rocks and catch himself, but until I felt better, I was quite nervous, and in the meantime we were doing a lot of ups and downs on rough terrain.

See the Old Man?

We were riding the Old Man Range, which took two and a half hours. We started on gravel roads, then cut across a salt marsh and a sheep pasture, then rode up, up to the top of the ridge and rode all along it, with fantastic views all around, including Wharariki Beach (more on that in a moment) and Farewell Spit, which is a 35km sand spit that’s almost completely protected. It was a nice, semi-windy and bright-overcast day, not wonderful visibility but good enough, and it was much better than having bright, hot sun the whole time. The trail was at times very narrow—horses can handle a tiny path when they need to! And it went up and down on rock covered with slippery sand and loose stones. The worst were the downhill parts, where you had to lean back and your horse was heading away from you at a very steep angle. Being a normal girl, I’ve read lots of horse stories, and a lot of them are about how you have to trust your horse, how the horse won’t go if he thinks you don’t trust him, and how horses have saved unconscious or blinded riders who had enough sense to let go of the reins and hold on. And indeed, Charlotte said the safest way to do these paths was to let the horse pick where he wants to go. If he tries to go the way that looks best to him and you tell him to go a different way, she said, he gets freaked out and that’s when he’ll make a mistake and slip. And in general, I found that Scooby seemed to know what he was doing. Not surprising, I guess, because they do this path all the time.

A word about Scooby, though. He was a bad boy. Every time we stopped, he would rush to get a mouthful of grass as if my mission in life was to keep him from doing just that and he had to quick get it in before I caught on. Occasionally he would stop on the trail, obviously thinking, “You know what I need? A mouthful of grass.” And down would go his head. Do you have any idea how hard it is to pull a horse’s head up? Think about their beautiful powerful necks. Yeah, it’s not much of a contest. Bits save my life, man. If you pull sideways, then you’ve got a chance. Charlotte kept telling me I just had to show him who’s boss. The climactic confrontation came on top of the first bluff we topped, when we stopped for water and pictures. “Aha! Grass!” thought Scooby, and put his head down. But I had learned the trick of looping the reins over the saddle so he couldn’t do that, and he got very offended and kept trying to get me to un-loop the reins by going forward a few steps so I had to pull to stop him, and then he’d try to duck his head again. I was too fast for him, though, and he got progressively more frustrated, until finally he lost his temper. “Fine!” he seemed to say. “Then I will prance in circles!” and I had to wrestle the reins to get him to stop it. But after that, he was pretty obedient—I guess I won. He only stopped to eat a couple more times—although once was on a downhill, that was bad—and he gave up pretty easily when I started hauling on the reins. But boy was he lazy. Charlotte was spending a lot of time with Simon (who had never been on a horse before), and a couple times she said why didn’t they see what it was like going a bit faster? And she and Simon kicked their horses up to a trot, and left me in the dust, ineffectually kicking Scooby as hard as I could, and he kept walking, occasionally turning his head peevishly as if to say, “What? Do you mind? I’m walking here!”

So it went. Both horses kept stopping to do their business, which is totally normal horse behavior and it was fine except Simon and I weren’t ready for it, and we kept wondering why they’d stopped and kicking them until Charlotte yelled back, as she always did, “He’s just havin’ a poop, Simon!” She actually taught us a lot. She was from Cornwall originally (I think she was surprised we couldn’t tell from her accent) and had moved to NZ a couple years ago, and she had the newcomer’s zeal for learning the names of things. It was she who told us the names of the paradise ducks and the pukekos (swamp hens), and she told us all about how manuka flowers are where you get the best honey, and what a feijoa is. She was a great person to ask about anything. And she told us about the time eighty-odd pilot whales got stranded in Golden Bay, and how she went down to help and in the end they “refloated” all but 14. She was fantastic.

I told her how at my old lessons they hadn’t ever let me brush the horses or saddle them or unsaddle them or anything, and she was outraged. How else are you supposed to get comfortable with horses, she wanted to know. So when we finally got back to headquarters, she had us unsaddle the horses and brush them, and taught us how to walk around behind them without getting kicked. It was really nice; it felt good to do something for the horses after they’d done so much work, carrying us around. She even let us feed them apples, and it was hilarious to watch, because they acted exactly the way YT does when we get out the treats, and the way Heidi acted when we got out her treats… it was funny how similar they all were, even though they were from completely different groups. I guess “ooooo I want to eat that!” is a pretty universal sentiment, and it makes sense it would look similar on everybody. Like a smile.

Us with Scooby! He really was very sweet, just lazy and piggy.

The ride was exhausting, but it didn’t feel any better to sit down—our butts were too sore. So we drove a little ways to Wharariki Beach, which was a bit of a trek to get to, but was very beautiful. It was a sweeping, dune-y beach with cave-riddled rock outcrops tightly spaced along it. We climbed up one and jumped to a little island where you had a great view of the sea washing through a four-foot-wide chasm in the rock from the other side. It splashed all up the sides and threw spray everywhere—you could barely make out anything in the cave, there was so much spray in the air.

There was supposedly a seal colony at one end of the beach, but we never found it. We were too tired to do much. We saw a stream running across the beach with a big egret (or something) standing in it, and then we called it a day. Barely managing to drag ourselves back across the hills to the car park, we showed up exhausted for dinner at the Mussel Inn, on the way back to Takaka. The food was straightforward and very good, but the part Simon liked was the warm, cozy, relaxed atmosphere and decor, and the part I liked was their own manuka beer, which was sour and flowery—which are two terms I would never have expected to use to describe a beer I liked—and absolutely delicious. The only thing that would have made this day better would have been a hot tub back at the hotel. There was a sign for it, but to our great disappointment it was closed. Ah well. Settled for very hot showers instead.

[back-posted]

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