Monday, April 19, 2010

Christchurch, New Zealand - Part 2

Day 2 at Kowhai Riding School
by Pauline Wong

We had a 2-hour lesson in the morning and a 3-hour trail ride in the afternoon. The team of 15 riders was led by the chief instructor who was an elderly lady (at least in her 60s) who rode in shorts, no chaps, and had a military-style training regime...

Riding with such a large group was already quite a challenge but on top of that we had to canter together in single file. It was fast, and at times we accelerated into a gallop. 90% of the trail was in fast canter, over open farmlands, along footpaths, up a treacherously steep cliff and down again and then charging across plains. For 3 whole hours, we cantered and galloped, with 15 energetic horses and some nervous riders, the thundering hoofbeats and howling wind behind us adding to the excitement and thrill. It was a nerve-wrecking ride and I had to admit I had my heart in my mouth the whole time, with every muscle tensed and wanting it to end.

Remember Opal the obnoxious bossy horse? I had her the day before and had such a good relaxing ride on her that the hack was a breeze. That day it was the same horse, in the same place, doing the same thing, but I didn't enjoy the ride because the instructor was yelling at us and scaring us out of our wits. In fact I was so happy to have my feet on the ground again after the 3-hour hell-ride. I thought long and hard about the vast difference between the 2 days and came to a realization: That your confidence can be taken away from you within a short encounter and we must be careful not to let that happen. I am a good rider (in my own rights) and I will always love riding.

Day 3 - Rubicon Valley
I returned to Christchurch and called up another horse ranch at Rubicon Valley to book a 3-hour trail ride for NZ$120. They provided free return transport to Christchurch City Centre. The owners were a nice friendly couple who owned only 18 horses.
I had a standard-bred named Monty. I’ve heard a lot from my friends about how awkward riding such horses can be because they “paced”. I soon got a feel of what they had been talking about! Instead of trotting in diagonals, he sort of went parallel, so it felt like he was wobbling and it was impossible to sit to the “pace”. But I soon got the hang of it and stood up when he paced and then kicked harder to make him go into canter. They used a stock-saddle (similar to a western saddle) and the horses go on a loose rein, so once Monty knew I was game for a fast ride, it became a breeze getting him to canter. Oh how we cantered! Besides myself there was a Canadian rider who last rode many years ago and was both rusty and nervous. But she was soon smitten by the cantering bug when she saw me having a whale of a time charging across acres of farmland, amid scattering and bleating sheep, until we reached the gate and Monty would automatically slow down. Yes, there were many gates, and the guide had to keep hopping on and off her horse.

The weather had taken a turn for the worse that day and it began to pour minutes into our ride. But it became a rare treat because we got to wear the famous "dry-as-a-bone" raincoat. It was a long trench coat and there was a buckle at the calf. Besides the thrill of looking like real cowboys, it also kept us dry and out of the wind. I don’t think I could have continued the ride without the coat because despite wearing a jersey and a windbreaker, I was shivering and my hands were numb in my soaking-wet gloves. My nose was also runny by then. But we kept going and decided that nothing was gonna stop us! The trail was much more rugged than the one at Kowhai; there were broken branches strewn everywhere, prickly wild plants sprouting up here and there, and most interestingly, we occasionally ran into sheep and goats. They were really a playful lot, dashing around us as we approached.

We stopped midway to take pictures and to marvel at the long winding Kamawari River(I think it means freezing cold). The guides had packed scones and hot cocoa in their saddle-bags and we were supposed to stop by the river for tea. But because it was raining quite heavily, we just stopped for a short while and only had tea back at the barn at the end of the ride.

Because it was the rugged outback, it was inevitable that we had to be careful not to have our eyes poked by prickly branches and to have to duck low-hanging ones. So alertness was of paramount importance. At times we had to trust our mounts and let them gallop up the cliff and other times, we had to sit far back with long reins to let them manoeuver their way down the cliff. We had to maintain our distance between horses and at the same time, ensure that they did not run down the slope because they would tumble head down and we would all be a mangled mess if that happened. (Ok, that was a bit of an exaggeration.)

All too soon, we were back at the barn - cold, tired and hungry. They had prepared tea for us and what a lovely treat it was to warm our hands and body with some piping hot cocoa and home-made scones! We lingered a while longer, took more pictures with Monty and the guides and then we hit the road again, with cold feet in wet boots, and warm hearts...

What's Up Next!

We are working on a review of Morocco, and hopefully one on Gallop stables in Singapore (depending on work!)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Christchurch, New Zealand- Part 1

Equestrian Adventure- Part One
By Pauline

I took off for NZ Christchurch at a whim on New Year's Eve last year with boots, crop and helmet. I stayed with a host family in Oxford which was only an hour's drive from Christchurch City Centre and a 10 min drive to Kowhai Riding School which I chanced upon on the internet. Being accessible was one big draw, being inexpensive was another. A day’s ride ( 1 lesson+1 trail ride) including lunch cost NZ$215.

Day 1: Kowhai Riding School

I arrived at Kowhai (which is the name of a small yellow flower) at 9 am and it was back-breaking hard work from then on !

There were about 30 riders that day as it was a public holiday and we were put into groups of 4 to 6 according to age and/or riding experience. First, we each had to catch our own horse from the paddock. Under the guidance of our instructor, we each grabbed a handful of barley and a halter and went looking for our assigned horses. It was indeed overwhelming for riders like me who were so used to stabled horses and were always waited on hand and foot by stable helpers. There were some 80 horses in the paddock and they were amazingly peaceful and harmonious! We did not have to worry about being kicked or bitten so it was so exciting to be in such close proximity with so many horses. We soon located our ride and the instructor gave us a demonstration on how to put the halter on the horse’s head while they were happily munching on the barley. This was but the first of many more demonstrations to come.

We led our horses back to the yard and I had a big tall dark bay mare named Opal. I soon learnt that she was like the Alpha female and both of us have something in common- greedy and obnoxious! More on that later... We had to learn to tie a special knot with the halter rope around a pole at the yard and attach it to our horse. We had to be careful to attach it to the raffia string (which tears easily) and not to drop any metal part on the horse or they might injure themselves if they spooked and tried to pull away.

After spending a long time figuring out how to tie the wretched knot ( they call it the butterfly knot i think), we had to go to the barn to collect a brush, a curry-comb and a hoof-pick to groom the horse. It was literally back-breaking trying to do Opal’s hind legs. She would rest her weight on me and swish her long thick tail across my face! I swear she was giving me two tight slaps across my face, left then right, and it hurt! I proceeded to put the saddle pad on, then the saddle (you had to be quick yet gentle because the saddle was both heavy and expensive) and lastly the bit which soon became a tangled mess in my hands. The instructor helped me with it and finally we were ready to mount. We had taken a total of 1.5 hours doing all that!

The lesson lasted about 2 hours, in an arena which was just hard ground and not sand-filled, so I had a good mind to stay on the saddle no matter what... It was a pity that the lesson soon became boring and laborious for me because they actually put 2 beginner-riders with me and another experienced rider. The experienced ones were asked to canter in the later part of the lesson and boy, that alone made all the hard work in the morning plus the boring bit all worth it! Opal was very forward-going and she had such a lovely gait that it was almost effortless cantering her and we just went on and on, for some 10 rounds, on both the left and right rein. Unlike those horses we get so often in the regular riding schools where you have to kick and push so much, especially round the corners, horses at Kowhai are a joy to ride! They are so lively and so well-schooled that it’s no wonder many of their relatively new riders are able to go on a cantering spree in the open farmland as compared to our local riders who probably had to take many many lessons before they could even get to transit into canter. That’s why people often say a good horse actually teaches you a lot more than you teach the horse.

After the ride, we had to untack the horse, give it a sponge bath, clean the tack with soap and water, and feed our horse. After a quick lunch, we went out to prepare for the afternoon hack and we had to do the morning chores all over again! Yes, everything and this time Opal decided to give me some variety: she pooped! Oh my! it was such a huge mound that I had to empty the shovel (which was darn heavy) 4 to 5 times before the ground was clean again.

My group went up the Canterbury hills and it was simply delightful! While the morning was blazing hot, the afternoon was cool and breezy. In fact, it got rather chilly up on the hills and the wind was making a ghoulish howl. Opal was her usual greedy self. She simply had to eat all the way, all the time! If I so much as paused for one second, she would pull the reins out of my hands and stretch her neck for whatever she could stuff into her mouth. Then she would chew on the grass as we moved along. There was no point trying to resist her, she did not take “no” for an answer; she would bend her ears and show you how mean she could be when she got upset!

I had brought along my new Canon Powershot waterproof camera and was merrily snapping pictures with one hand while holding the reins in the other. This was a big no-no but I didn’t want to go home without any evidence of my wonderful time with Opal and my new-found friends. It was extremely relaxing as we trotted up the winding path to the top of the hills. The view was breathtaking; all we saw below was large squares of farmland and as we were lucky to have a clear sky that day, we could see miles ahead to Christchurch! Canterbury Plains has the the flattest land in NZ, so we had an unobstructed view all the way to Christchurch.

I did some good cantering, though not as much as I would have liked. The trail lasted about 2.5 hours and after that, we had to repeat the chores yet again! After the horses were sponged and clean again, we released them in the field by the river. There was a trough of water in there and that obnoxious, bossy horse of mine actually chased away 2 others who were drinking there. She simply bent her ears and “elbowed” her way between them and the 2 horses briskly moved away; they didn’t even try to “argue” with her. Opal got her way, all the time, but I was so proud of her and also felt such an affinity with her. She could have been my twin!

For more information and rates:
Kowhai Riding School

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Photos and text courtesy of Noreen
One good thing about riding in Mongolia- the local ponies are small and are less intimidating to ride than horses...

Mongolian ponies. Don't judge them by their size- they are strong and sturdy

The local riding style is different but not too difficult to pick up. To get the ponies to move faster, we say “chu” instead of walk-on, trot or canter. Also, the saddle may take some getting used to- it’s very unlike the English or Western saddles we are accustomed to. Traditional Mongolian saddles are actually made of wood (ouch!) Thankfully, for us tourists, they have custom-made saddles with cushions, which made it more bearable to sit on!

A traditional Mongolian saddle. Made of wood and does not look comfy at all

Initially, we planned for a 3 day, 2 night ride but because of the rain, we only managed to do a 2 day, 1 night ride and a separate half-day ride.

The half-day ride brought us past Lake Khuvsgal and up to a hill where we picnicked on local “curry-puffs”, which were yummy and reminded me of Singaporean food. The view was amazing and the horses (ponies actually) were calm- maybe a bit too calm as we were hoping to go faster at some places.

The breathtaking view of Lake Khuvsgal from horseback

Our trusty steeds

Sadly, we didn’t get a chance to canter much, as (a) the ponies don’t seem to know what canter is. (b) some trails are only 30cm wide (by the cliff!) so it’s pretty dangerous to canter.
We were also introduced to the local flora, most of which seemed to have medicinal properties to cure sore throat, fever, flu etc. Amazing right?

Gorgeous green trails- a haven for riders
Our guide, Jaime, spoke great English. The owner of the horses also joined us, along with his dog which followed us throughout the trail.

Taking a well-deserved break

We started off the 2 day, 1 night tour by driving to see a reindeer family. And yes- they do have real reindeer! Apparently, they aren’t easy to ride (and normally no one rides them) because they have loose skin and it’s difficult to keep a saddle in place on their backs. After the reindeer expedition, stayed with a local family. We spent the time chilling and exploring the Mongolian woods. The night was cold, but luckily we had our own “heater” in the house, which was fuelled by fire-wood.

A common sight along the trails - traditional Mongolian houses or "gers"

The next morning, they brought over our ponies- all 6 of them (2 for us, 1 for the guide, 1 for the herd leader and 1 young foal that just tagged along the entire way). The weather wasn’t on our side and it started raining not long after we started riding. At one point, the rain got so hard that it got difficult to see! Luckily, we had our rain jackets which kept our bodies dry and warm. Alas, our rain jackets could only do so much- our breeches and gloves were soaking wet by the time we arrived at our lunch check-point. Thankfully, the family who hosted us for lunch had a big “heater” and we were able to dry ourselves a bit and fill our tummies before getting back into the saddle! We continued on in the rain; which was, thankfully, not as heavy as before and only reached our camp-site in the early evening.

That pretty much sums up our riding experience in Mongolia. Here’s some information about how we planned our trip:

Time of travel - Aug 2009 (for 16 days)

- Mongolia - Ulaanbaatar, Gobi Dessert, Terejl National Park & Lake Khuvsgul

Cost : Around S$4000 in total
Air Tickets: We booked our air tickets in Singapore (you will have to go from Singapore to Beijing to Ulaanbaatar- we paid around S$1500 altogether)

Accommodation: Hostel style. There are lots of hostels to choose from in Ulaanbattar itself (e.g., the Gobi hostel, UB hostel, Golden Gobi etc)

Tour Agency: In Ulaanbattar, we used this agency. It’s run by an English-speaking couple. They were very helpful in arranging for accommodation and tours, which range from a few days to several weeks. You can contact them for more information.

We took the following tours:
- Gobi Desert tour (6D5N) – no horse-riding on this tour
- Terejl National Park – day trip. I would not recommend it. We did a 2 hour trail ride which was only so-so.
- Lake Khuvsgul, also known as the Switzerland of the East. It was really beautiful and we did a lot of horse-riding here. The duration of the tour is pretty flexible and you can choose how many days you want to ride.

The Happy Ranch, Siem Reap, Cambodia

(Adapted from Rachel's 2008 Cambodia travelogue. Unfortunately there are no photos!)

There's something vaguely, charmingly dodgy about Cambodia. The roads are dusty, the traffic is of that genially lethal quality that you get when large numbers of insouciantly ridden motorcycles are combined with rattle-deathtrap cars running on the village's bootleg fuel. The fields were undulating, a verdant emerald green that made you think of Vietnam war movies, dotted here and there by a pensive water buffalo. The people were almost uncommonly friendly: I don't think I've ever had a child wave a giant spider at me by way of greeting before or been treated to a lengthy discourse on corruption in schools by a driver named Phat.

Most people go to Siem Reap to take in Angkor Wat, but after three days of sculpture and stone we were quite templed out and other diversions were accordingly sought out.

Accordingly, we went riding on two of the days, our nice guides and instructors hailing from Siem Reap's Happy Ranch. Everything in Cambodia is called "happy something" for some reason; I theorised that this is because being "happy" is something of great novelty and importance after the Khmer Rouge.

The Happy Ranch, founded by Mr Sary, touts itself as "the only Western-style horse ranch in Cambodia" and is 20 minutes away from the main streets of Sieam Reap by tuk tuk. The tack was of good quality, though a bit makeshift: some of the horses had rope for bridles and stirrups that looked like they were made out of what used to be rubber tyres. The horses were of a small, intelligent Cambodian breed, and there were well fed and groomed.

The first occasion was a rather ambitious one for the Boyfriend, him being the equestrian virgin than he was. We went on a two-hour trail ride together with two Cambodian guides to Wat Athvey, a cluster of small temple ruins way off the beaten tourist track. The ride took us through landscape that looked like it came out of The Killing Fields, with paddyfields as far as the eye could see; random loud ethnic music, complete with drum and cymbals, issuing from a house under construction in the middle of nowhere; some guy riding a motorcycle to which a horse was conveniently tethered. There was the odd water buffalo wading through the paddy. It was utterly beautiful in that rustic simplicity sort of way.

The countryside was dotted with all sorts of interesting sights, from plots still being de-mined to roadside vendors hawking all sorts of weird and wonderful things. We passed Nissen huts donated by Japanese charities, boys leading cows to the fields and then back home again, children leaping into muddy pools and pulling out small fish, women carrying their babies and shouting out the usual litanies of "Hello! Bye Bye! Bonjour!"

Unfortunately the Boyfriend got into several sticky situations, especially one involving the horse tethered to the motorcycle. His mount, a horse named - yes, you guessed it - Happy, decided it didn't like the tethered chap and they both got into a bit of an altercation. Nevertheless, Boyfriend managed to stay on and look appropriately terrified.

The second time we went, it was for a lesson with one of the European instructors. Unfortunately I cannot remember her name, but she was relaxed, competent and - a rare quality in riding instructors - not at all shouty. It was mostly flat-work, and the Boyfriend picked up a lot while I aptly demonstrated my rustiness with the canter.

The Happy Ranch provides several trail and lessons options for its riders, including day trips to Phnom Krom. More experienced groups can canter and gallop, but less confident riders are also catered for and have the option of enjoying the scenery at a comfortable trot. My only regret is that I didn't get to ride for longer!

For Information and Rates:
The Happy Ranch, Siem Reap

Trail rates start from US$19 for an hour to US$64 for four hours
Classes start from US$19 for a one-hour group lesson to US$25 for a private lesson