QUEASY RIDER

A geld­ing named Stout and an en­counter with mad cows is enough to send a girl gal­lop­ing to a pub, writes Caro­line Gladstone

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

WHISKEY, VB, Bundy, Mar­tini, Co­gnac and Rose (as in wine) wait in the cold, snort­ing steam from flared nos­trils. I am about to sad­dle up for a Great Aussie Pub Crawls on Horse­back week­end in coun­try NSW and am very ner­vous. I’m champ­ing at the bit for a drink, but it’s only 10 in the morn­ing.

The horses, with their in­tox­i­cat­ing names, stand still as we brush them and I try to fig­ure out bri­dle and reins. I am served Stout, a 10-year-old black geld­ing with white hooves, and do my best im­pres­sion of a con­fi­dent rider at the break­fast brief­ing.

Soon we will head out from Bul­lock Moun­tain Home­stead, 18km from Glen Innes in the New Eng­land re­gion of north­ern NSW. Apart from its Celtic con­nec­tions, which cul­mi­nate in an an­nual clan gath­er­ing (May 1-4 this year), Glen Innes is known for its chilly win­ters; for some ab­surd rea­son, my horse-lov­ing sis­ter, who’s tak­ing rid­ing lessons in Syd­ney, and I have booked a chilly ‘‘ Christ­mas in July’’ trek.

Alison and Steve Wood — one-time city slick­ers who orig­i­nally came to Bul­lock Moun­tain just for a ride — now run the equine pub-crawl op­er­a­tion. They sold their Syd­ney home and moved up to work for the then owner, Steve Lan­g­ley. Even­tu­ally they bought the busi­ness and Lan­g­ley, quite the lo­cal ec­cen­tric, moved to a prop­erty down the road where he runs the Three Wa­ters Au Naturel nud­ist colony, com­plete with horse rid­ing. But that’s an­other story.

The Woods have 35 horses, which do duty on week­end and reg­u­lar three and five-day treks to the one-pub towns of Deep­wa­ter, Em­mav­ille and Tor­ring­ton, the last­men­tioned the for­mer haunt of the bushranger known as Thun­der­bolt.

My sis­ter Gemma and I ar­rive at Bul­lock Moun­tain the night be­fore our trek, along with our fel­low rid­ers. Over din­ner and drinks we swap horsey tales as Steve tells us al­co­hol is not al­lowed while we are ac­tu­ally astride; over break­fast, Alison matches us with ap­pro­pri­ate mounts ac­cord­ing to our claimed abil­i­ties. (With hind­sight, I will re­gret ad­mit­ting I had a lit­tle ride 12 months ago and man­aged, on that oc­ca­sion, to rise to the trot.)

Our group con­sists of Heather, who was thrown from a horse 20 years ago and is get­ting back in the sad­dle for the first time, two novices and Gemma and me.

Alison gives a brief les­son in horse psy­chol­ogy. Horses, she tells us, are just like naughty chil­dren and will take over if we give them the chance. We are warned to watch their ears, which shoot straight back when they are an­gry, and told which horses like and hate each other and which ones are moody.

Once we are off, with Alison’s beau­ti­ful cream horse Sam­buca lead­ing the pack of Aus­tralian stock horses and a trio of Cly­des­dale-crosses, the peck­ing or­der and per­son­al­i­ties kick in. We are to ride for a while, eat lunch and have our first drink in the late af­ter­noon. Sounds per­fect.

Pony club:

Stout loves to hang out with the Cly­des­dales, one of which is be­ing rid­den by Heather, who yells down to tell me that it’s like sit­ting in an arm­chair.

Gemma’s horse, Bundy, de­spite its name, is not a good mixer. She is a madly hor­monal mare and the other horses, in­clud­ing Stout, keep their dis­tance. The ex­pe­ri­enced rid­ers eas­ily mas­ter the trot and are ea­ger for a can­ter when­ever Alison and her as­sis­tant Jo give the sig­nal to cut loose. Stout and I can­ter a lit­tle here and there and I feel a mix of ex­hil­a­ra­tion and plain fear; the rest of the time we just hap­pily walk and I imag­ine I have bluffed Stout that I have some ex­pe­ri­ence in the sad­dle.

Then we en­ter a pad­dock full of cat­tle. Jo dis­mounts from Mar­tini, opens the gate and we walk through, past the watch­ing cat­tle. Our plan is to pro­ceed slowly down a hill to­wards the next ex­panse of open coun­try­side. But the cat­tle clearly don’t like this idea.

A rogue steer charges at us and Mar­tini goes into a blind panic. The other horses stand dead still, ex­cept for Bundy who rears and al­most throws Gemma, as a dozen in­quis­i­tive cat­tle cir­cle, moo­ing loudly.

The cranky steer has an­other go at pro­tect­ing its pad­dock and lunges straight at Stout and me. Vi­sions of the stam­pede scene from the movie CityS­lick­ers race through my head and I pray I can hold on if Stout de­cides to bolt. But the steer sud­denly stops just a me­tre from us as Stout stands de­fi­antly.

Even­tu­ally Alison and Jo scare the steer away and can­ter to­wards the other cows that have sur­rounded us. When we ex­tract our­selves from the scrum and walk gin­gerly down the hill, my right leg is shak­ing un­con­trol­lably. At the bot­tom of the hill Stout stops at a creek for a drink and I pat him warmly for tough­ing it out in our mo­ment of ad­ver­sity. But we are way be­hind the oth­ers and Stout des­per­ately wants to catch up with the Cly­des­dales.

I give Stout the or­der to trot but we break into an er­ratic can­ter, side­ways, back­wards and com­pletely round in cir­cles. My arms, I am later told, are pulling Stout to stop, but my legs are squeez­ing his sides and giv­ing him the mes­sage to go. I re­alise that I re­ally have no idea how to ride.

Fi­nally we stop for lunch. Steve turns up with a truck loaded with hay for the horses and sand­wiches and lam­ing­tons for us; Alison can’t wait to tell him the mad cow story.

Re­luc­tantly I get back in the sad­dle and set out with the oth­ers to ride the fi­nal 4km to the out­skirts of town. I am de­ter­mined to keep up with the pack but af­ter half an hour a fox runs out in front of the lead horses, which shimmy and shy and jump about. Stout doesn’t flinch.

It is get­ting dark when we reach the Glen Innes sale yards and I ea­gerly dis­mount, take off the heavy sad­dle, lead Stout into a yard to spend the night with Rose, Mag­num and VB and climb into Steve’s ute. We speed off to our first pub, the Sta­tion.

Ev­ery­one, even the ex­pe­ri­enced rid­ers, is talk­ing of aching limbs and bruised be­hinds and Bundys and coke are downed at a fu­ri­ous rate. Our next stop is the Club Ho­tel to check into our rooms and have a drink in the bar, and then head across the road to the Im­pe­rial for our Christ­mas in July din­ner.

Steve, dressed as Santa, doles out lit­tle gifts and we settle in for a fes­tive roast din­ner, pre­tend­ing the cat­tle en­counter was just a huge joke.

Later when the juke­box cranks out 1970s hits and we limp to the dance floor to boo­gie away the aches and pains, I re­alise I am hav­ing fun at last. Even Gemma ad­mits she wouldn’t mind a day of rest in­stead of get­ting back on our horses to­mor­row.

But ride we must and at a very cold 9am we are head­ing back to Bul­lock Moun­tain, with Alison now pack­ing a stock­whip. We take a dif­fer­ent route and man­age to give those dreaded cat­tle the slip.

I try again to as­sert my author­ity with Stout but as we travel side­ways and in cir­cles, I think a more re­al­is­tic goal is to sim­ply stay on and sal­vage some of my dig­nity. But that doesn’t work and when I nearly come a crop­per down a not-very-steep slope, Alison teth­ers Stout to her horse and drags us along be­hind her.

Mean­while, the con­fi­dent rid­ers are al­lowed to can­ter off, while I ponder the in­jus­tices of life.

As the home­stead comes into sight Alison lets the oth­ers bolt the last few hun­dred me­tres but Stout and I bring up the rear. Back in the cor­ral we take off the sad­dles and Stout and the Cly­des­dales gal­lop off to the back pad­dock and Bundy wan­ders off alone.

On the drive home to Syd­ney, Gemma, who’s had a suc­cess­ful day can­ter­ing with the easy rid­ers, says she’s keen to tackle the three-day pub trek. I stare silently out the car win­dow. Post­script: De­spite my poor per­for­mance, the Woods and Jo oc­ca­sion­ally drop me emails to in­vite me back for more rid­ing. The good news is that moody Bundy has gone on to hap­pier things as a brood mare.

Check­list

Week­end rides are $375 a per­son. Three­day rides, $995 a per­son; five-day rides, $1850 a per­son. Prices in­clude ac­com­mo­da­tion, meals, hel­met, rid­ing tack and trans­fers from Glen Innes. Ride the Di­vide an­nual trek and Celtic Camp Out: price on ap­pli­ca­tion. More: (02) 6732 1599 www.pub­crawl­son­horse­back.com.au www.gleninnes­tourism.com www.aus­traliancelticfes­ti­val.com

You can take a horse to the wa­ter­ing hole as th­ese pub crawlers at Em­mav­ille dis­cover, main pic­ture; Steve and Alison Wood keep their rid­ers on the straight and nar­row, right

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