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