Making it Happen – Horse Trekking in the New Zealand High Country

Abigail Morris, one of our Tölt.Club members was fortunate enough to go horse trekking in the New Zealand high country with Carolyn Mincham whilst on holiday in January 2019.  One of the January  Facebook Talking Topics that had provoked a lot of responses was the idea of a multi-day holiday with your horse.  When we were talking about Abigail’s holiday and her riding adventures I was curious about how Carolyn, in her 60’s,  prepared and managed what seemed to me to be an extreme version of what a lot of Tölt.Club readers would like to attempt.  I messaged Abigail to ask if Carolyn would write an article about her experiences with horses. 

Abigail responded;

“I will ask her – her PHD was on the history of horse and man so she is definitely literate! She is quite something, she used to be a serious mountaineer and has climbed Mt. Cook twice. She treks with a small group of mostly retired, because they have the time, ranchers, musterers etc. They are all on big horses of course, the New Zealanders like a Cydesdale/ TB cross, but her Icelandic has no problem keeping up.”

Carolyn kindly sent us this article on how she prepares for her horse trekking adventures:

I live in the Mackenzie Country, a high inland basin surrounded by mountains and marked by glacier fed rivers and lakes. From the 1850s, a high country horsemanship tradition has evolved on the on the Mackenzie’s vast sheep stations with some aspects retained on properties that still use horses to muster sheep and cattle. The last five years, I’ve been fortunate to ride out with some of these station owners, managers and shepherds who make use their working horses to explore the many trails through other stations and publically owned conservation land. I ride my Icelandic Horse, Reykir, who has won hearts for his forward walk, stamina, intelligence and courage.

Given the distances involved, our outings are often weekend or longer trips. We are fortunate to have Department of Conservation huts dotted throughout the back country with a few having horse paddocks. We also tent, constructing temporary fencing for an overnight stay. Sometimes we have a support vehicle with supplies but more often than not, we have to be self-sufficient, carrying all that we need on our horses for the duration of the trip.

This includes my personal food, camping gear, extra clothes for wet or cold weather, horse and human first aid along with items such as a small spade to dig a latrine. Since mobile phone coverage is limited to population areas and tourist routes, I also carry a personal locater beacon (PLB) in case of emergency. We don’t carry food for the horses, where we camp depends on finding enough grass and water for the night. We often have a few pack horses along that carry standards and tape for fencing as well as farrier tools for shoeing repairs. Axes and saws are also brought for track clearing in dense bush.

Being the only Icelandic Horse on these treks, Reykir doesn’t get to demonstrate his tölt very often. With heavily laden horses, we travel at a walk and depending on the terrain, may only cover 20 – 30 kilometres a day. Fitness of both horse and rider is an individual responsibility and after a winter break, I spend a couple of months preparing by riding longer and longer day treks, including some steeper hill work. In the high country, we always get off our horses to lead them down the steeper inclines so particularly as a rider in my late 60s, I have to work out regularly to keep in shape for trekking.

We put a great deal of trust in our horses to carry us across swift rivers and over high mountain passes. I have learnt that the safest way to negotiate a river is to give Reykir his head to pick his own course. Being shorter than the other horses, he often has to swim part of the way but he has never been known to panic – the legs just work faster until he regains his footing. While we ask a lot of our horses, I’m convinced that they enjoy these outings. They bond well with each other and also with us. It’s amusing how after a roll and a feed at the end of a day’s ride, the horses will come looking for us, hanging around camp as we enjoy a beer and a chat. It’s seldom that the horses aren’t at camp the next morning ready to be saddled and packed for the new day’s adventure. Horse trekking is a terrific way to experience the wonders of our natural environment and to socialise with like-minded people. I feel fortunate to live in a part of the country where I can pursue this alongside my ideally suited Icelandic Horses.

Carolyn Mincham

On this five day trek Reykir carried all my gear in a pack attached to the back of the saddle as well as wither bags. My 1.1 kilo tent is attached to the top of the wither bag. We take lots of breaks to allow the horses to graze and to drink. I wear gloves and a long sleeved shirt to protect myself from the intense Antipodean sun. (Jan. 2019)

We prefer to ride in groups of about ten riders. Here we negotiate a headland above the beautiful Lake Wanaka. ( Jan. 2019)

All our horses are used to river crossing but here we take to the lake to avoid a bluff. Experienced trekking horses become very good at taking new challenges in their stride(Jan. 2019).

On day five of this six day trek we are travelled lightly to climb from our camp on the Shotover River up and over a high saddle into the next valley. The final day we stopped the traffic by riding through the through the popular tourist destination of Arrowtown, before making a paddock for the horses and then going to the pub for lunch (Jan 2018).

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