Four beats to freedom - a horseback journey through New Zealand

Information about the Journey

A journey of this distance, on horseback in a strange country, is always a challenge.  Mary explains some of her thoughts, and concerns, and the planning that must always be undertaken in advance.


Prior to departure 

When I first started to think seriously about this trip, in 1999, I contacted Rob Stanley through the internet, outlined what I was planning and asked if he had any advice .
His reply was short and to the point:
'We do occasionally pick up people like you. They are usually under prepared, ill-equipped and in difficulty. They cause nothing but trouble to those of us who live and work in the high country, and ultimately it is their horses that suffer. I suggest you think again.'

I thought again and have been thinking ever since. I spent two months in New Zealand on October/ November 2000, talking with many people , assessing the viability of the whole project and trying to identify a possible route. To plan things with military precision is not my style - serendipity is the art of finding delightful things in unexpected places and I subscribe to the school of thought that states that 'if you know exactly what you are looking for you never have any surprises'.  However an old family friend used to say to me 'hope for the best and prepare for the worst' and that is the basis on which I am putting this whole exercise together.

New skills
My first action was to book a week with Rob, on one of his 'High Country courses' - i.e. how to look after yourself and your horse in the high country. By no means did it equip me for such a major undertaking - but it did teach me how much I have to learn! e.g.

Packing a pack horse
Using hobbles safely
River crossings
Navigation techniques
New Zealand weather patterns
I have found a friendly blacksmith who is prepared to teach me how to replace a lost shoe - not something I would expect to tackle in the UK.

Finding horses

Having seen the nature of the High Country I realise I must have horses with good mountain experience, who are not going to freak out at river crossing or scree slopes. I have had 'scouts' out in New Zealand since January... They need to be comparable in make and shape so that they can share saddles, and need to be reasonably matched in pace. Not easy to find...

Personal fitness

'Why present your problems to the horse?' I am working out regularly at the gym, focusing on cardiovascular fitness. Given the foot and mouth disease , riding has stopped in my part of the world, so I am a little concerned about the state of my bottom - it will put the Heather Moffatt seat protector to a very real test. 
I admit to having reached the age when joints start to crack and muscles arent as flexible as they once were, but I am reassured by having the support of Patrick Kempe, healer, throughout the expedition. He is a gifted man with remarkable 'healing hands'. I am a pragmatist in many ways, but I believe that when there is something that works, but that cannot be explained, we should accept it as a gift and put it to good use....

Problems I know I shall have to face

Foul weather:  Whilst I set out at the beginning of summer, snow can fall in the in the high country at any time. Rivers will be high with snow melt water, and I may decide I have to take a different route - many horses and experienced men have drowned. Nights will be cold and days are sure to be wet. In common with other mountain climates, the weather can change terribly quickly, and the most experienced 'old hand' can be caught out. I am working on the principle that I should always be well enough equipped that in case of foul weather I can sit it out, rather than have to put myself and my horses at risk by battling on.

Sore Backs:  Prevention is better than cure. On long marches, the British army policy was for troops to dismount and walk for at least ten minutes in every hour, and to massage backs for ten minutes after unsaddling since sore backs are essentially the product of circulation problems. I hope to find two horses that can wear the same saddles, so that he who carries the pack one day can be ridden the next. The Riding horse will have the benefit of a Heather Moffett back protector which is a foam with a 'memory' designed for Nasa space flights! Backs need to be checked in minute detail every evening, and action taken to relieve the pressure point the moment there is any sign of tenderness.

Loneliness/ boredom:  Many people ask me about being on my own. I like my own company, and I like that of horses. I don't need other people around me. However, Tschiffley often commented on the boredom on long faceless bits of road and no doubt I will too ...

Reading List
Animal Management - published by the veterinary department of the war office, 1930. This is an excellent source of information on management of equines on long marches!
High Country Journey and other books by Peter Newton - definitive accounts of the high country stations in the 1950s and 60s
A Fragile Eden - Robin Hanbury Tennison 1989 This is a fascinating account of a journey through the High Country .
Tschiffley's Ride - surely the starting point for so many horse borne journeys in t the 20th century. AF Tschiffley rode from Buenos Aires to Washington DC. Starting in 1925 he took the same two horses all the way, spending nearly 3 years on the journey. I read about him when I was 9 years old

Other books about journeys on horseback
White horses over France - Robin Hanbury Tennison
A girl a horse and a dog - Belinda Braithwaite
High Horses - John Labouchere (an attempt to follow Tschiffley in South America)
Saddle Tramp and Vagabond , both by Jeremy James - vastly entertaining
Edge of Blue Heaven - Benedict Allen - an amazing journey through Mongolia
The Great donkey Trek - Sophie Thurnam (a bit different!)
And of course...Travels with a donkey - Robert Louis Stevenson



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