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Horsing around

By Catherine Pattison on Mon, 23 Mar 2015

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Most little girls want a pony. Aged 3, Catherine Pattison was lucky enough to be given one by her grandfather. The pony was small, white, named Porridge and she loved him. Leaving home 14 years later she farewelled her four-legged friends and hasn't been back in the saddle much since.

The opportunity to revisit my enjoyment of riding came about when I signed up for a three-day goldminers' trail horse trek with Adventure Horse Trekking New Zealand recently. Based at Mount Studholme, on the outskirts of Waimate, the treks are run by John Wall and his partner Angie Leckey ... Driving up the gum-tree-lined entrance the welcome sign is spelt out in horseshoes. It is a fitting salutation because horses are not only the cornerstone of this couple's business enterprise, they fill many of their leisure hours as well. Eight years ago when the pair got together, John took his new lady on many an adventurous horse ride. She gamely got to grips with riding and gritted her teeth in the gnarly patches. John roars with his characteristic laughter recalling Angie briefly losing her cool with him after one particularly challenging section. ''Can't we just go on a [expletive] normal holiday, she said to me,'' he chuckles. The couple's equine wanderings helped form the routes for their trekking business which they started up two years ago. There are eight options, which range from two-hour ambles around the local area through to a 12-day epic taking in the stunning landscapes high in the Lindis mountains up to 1900m and back down around Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka. John freely admits Angie has infinitely more patience than him, so she deals with the paperwork, menus, social media, bookings and packing. With Doc, he deals with the landowners to secure access to high country stations and the huts and shearers' quarters that are the trekkers' accommodation. His affinity is with the horses and his involvement first began as a child, as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all involved with training and riding them. Twenty years ago, John bought a horse to keep his son and daughter company on newly acquired ponies. Since then he has been the huntsman for the Waimate Hunt for 10 years and has also enjoyed recreational riding. ''I've ridden all over the place, since I was 30. I've done some amazing rides,'' John said. Once he and Angie decided to set up a trekking business, they began breeding what he believes are the right kind of horses to do the job.

The 40 horses on the property are all bred by them from a Shire stallion, leaving him with a calm pool of Shire/standardbred-cross trekkers to choose from. ''They are quiet in their nature. They are good walkers and they are strong,'' John said. Angie, like the horses, is a perfect fit for a trekking business. She is warm - welcoming us with a hug - and is a fine cook. Delicious baking issues forth from her oven before we are due to leave and her goodies were supplied as morning and afternoon teas and desserts throughout our three-day trek. Originally from Liverpool, she swears she is used to cooking for many, having come from a large family, and efficiently packs for all 10 of us heading away into the hills. Much of the fare is locally sourced meat, and vegetables from their bountiful garden. Once we are Western-saddled up, issued our Driza-Bones (quintessential oilskin riding coats) and have our packed lunches stowed in our saddlebags, it is time to depart. Except my horse Hazel is stubbornly reluctant to leave the yard and no amount of gentle cajoling will set her hooves in motion. Angie talks nicely to her and John swears loudly at her and after a mighty kick in the guts on my behalf, we are off. John sets the leisurely pace, leading one of the packhorses, Hank, who stoically bears his 70kg of food and our belongings without complaint. His sister Jane carries the rest and there is something appealingly pioneering about setting off on an adventure with all your belongings in tow. After leaving Mount Studholme homestead, we ride down into the Waihao River and following the Old Coach Road, used by the first settlers, we descend down into the river valley. After a good stint astride Hazel, it is quite a relief to stretch the legs and enjoy lunch in the heart of the Hunter Hills. We continue the ride upstream through the river, then rising up the track to the top of Mount Studholme. The wind picks up and I am thankful for the Driza-Bone, which cocoons me from its chilling effects. Although clouds chase themselves across the sky, no rain arrives and the view is spectacular, stretching as far as the Waitaki River to the south and to Banks Peninsula to the north. Following the main ridge along the top of the Hunter Hills, we arrive at a privately owned hut, which is our accommodation for the evening. It must be all that fresh air, because although Hazel has been doing all the hard work, I find I am ravenous and the hearty evening meal goes down a treat. John is a hilarious host. A Waimate man born and bred, he is full of local knowledge, amusing anecdotes and canny insights on life in general. We wake to a still morning and expansive views out over Canterbury. Despite the size of dinner I can still pack away a good cooked breakfast and after saddling up our steeds we are on the trail again. The second day in, I find I am relaxing more into the pleasantness of pottering through the landscape that a horse trek entails. I left my mobile phone - and two young children - behind and it is a luxury to spend hours with no demands on my time. I either ride in easy solitude or chat with my fellow trekkers, who hail from Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. The biggest excitement comes when we are descending a steep, shale-laden hillside. Hazel stumbles and some long-buried muscle memory stirs in my thighs and they grip the saddle, vice-like. She rights herself in a composed fashion and with (my) heart hammering we continue to the bottom. Home that night is beside the Waihao River, where we camp out on a site that is an old goldminer's claim, known as Chinamans.

After a hot day the swimming hole is a welcome reprieve and both the four-legged and two-legged plough in to cool off. That night we choose the stars as our roof and with my multifunctional oilskin doubling as a duvet, the dew is unable to dampen my morning. Day three dawns a scorcher, so I seize the opportunity to take a quick dip before we leave. By the time we reach our lunch destination, everyone is more than ready to plunge into another river pool. This final day reminds me how lucky we are to live in New Zealand, where we can enjoy the unspoilt beauty of this river, with its pure, clear water. Even up high on the ridges, looking down, its green/gold pools look like jewels in a meandering necklace. We return to the Mount Studholme homestead via the Old Kaiwarua Coach Road and unsaddle our friends for the final time. Hazel has nothing more than a roll in the dust on her mind as I turn her loose but I experience a small pang as I say goodbye to my hard-working mode of transport for the long weekend. My knees are a little tender but my behind and legs are surprisingly chipper given they haven't been bent around a horse for nearly 15 years. I feel invigorated instead of exhausted and genuinely believe horse trekking is the embodiment of a relaxing Kiwi holiday. You are active all day, without exerting yourself. You eat generous portions of delicious meals and man, they taste great after a day on horseback. You swim in the rivers. You can sleep under the stars (or in the tent if you can tune out John's snoring). Thank you to Adventure Horse Trekking New Zealand for reacquainting this grown-up girl with the wonderful memories of a childhood on horseback.