Cowboy up, cupcake

Craig Tansley discovers his inner high-country wrangler on a horse-riding adventure through the Snowy Mountains.

IT HAD all seemed straightforward to this point. There were three things I was told I'd need to ride a horse. One: confidence. That didn't seem a problem; my trusty steed looked fairly placid and I'd donned some pretty mean-looking cowboy boots. Two: kindness. That was easy, I was patting the thing, wasn't I? And scratching its big, bony forehead with my knuckles, even whispering sweet nothings into its floppy ears. If anything, I might kill this creature with love. Three: control. OK, so this was a grey area; I was no horseman but then I figured I was the one holding the reins and I was sitting on top, not the other way round. Surely that made me boss.

Doubt crept in about the time I got in a conversation with Meredith, our lead guide today. She'd had her face rebuilt after being kicked by a horse 10 days before starting this job. What's more, she'd had to hold her broken face together in her hands for seven hours until help came.

Then there was the fact that every horse in the enclosure had a dossier of personal issues thicker than those of problem prisoners (although this is the norm for any horse-riding ranch; horses are, you know, complicated). There was my horse, Red: he needs to lead, apparently - not wants to, needs to; if he doesn't, well, it's just best he leads. Buddy over there's fairly simple to work out, he just annoys everyone, so keep away from him. But Soldier's the main obstacle, look out for him all weekend. He doesn't like any horse but especially Red and if I get close to his back legs on Red, he'll lash out. That means he'll kick ... hard. Now the problem here is that Red has to lead so if Soldier gets in front, Red will try to get around Soldier at all costs but then Soldier won't take to Red getting so close and he'll kick.

So, the three things I had to master - confidence, kindness and control - were sliding away from me and I was yet to mount my horse.

But horses, like us, are not machines; they're living, breathing creatures with minds of their own. Put them into some of the most challenging landscape in this country - think The Man from Snowy River; steep, steep hills; wild brumbies; fog; and forests of trees to bump into - and you have to be on your game every step of your weekend.

But I have complete faith in the owner, Danielle Ternes. She seems the sort of no-nonsense horse lady you don't find in the city. Probably because she just told me to "cowboy up, cupcake". She warns that the horse I'm on is no "half-dead trail-riding horse who can't shift out of a walk"; she says anything can happen but that if it does, chances are it's my fault.

Strange things can happen out here on the edge of Mount Kosciuszko but I get the impression Ternes has seen it all. These days her job is to make sure we don't. So, with horse-riding tips swirling through my brain, we take off at a smooth saunter from our lodgings at Old Ingebirah - the Ternes's working cattle station 25 minutes' drive south of the town of Jindabyne - and into Kosciuszko National Park.

There's a chill in the air this morning and mist lies low over endless stretches of alpine ash and naked snow gums. Limestone rocks balance across the plains like marbles from a game giant Aborigines never got to finish; roos leap all around us but the horses hardly seem to notice.

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The horses follow head-to-tail, Red leading, of course. We climb up narrow bush trails; branches flick back in our faces. The land shifts and soon we're climbing hard, leaning forward in the saddle, grateful for the chance to stretch our legs, heading up past 1600 metres into the coolness of a foggy alpine forest where my horse sinks hoof-deep into the tundra.

It's so cloudy I can scarcely see more than 20 metres ahead but there are brumbies close by; Meredith reckons she can smell them. She gets off her horse and looks closely at fresh horse dung. "Oh yeah, they're near," she says. The landscape opens up, the mist shifts and, above us in a clearing, six brumbies stand at attention. They whinny loudly, race back and forward; we edge closer but they take off into the forest.

This is true The Man from Snowy River stuff, right down to the Driza-Bones. Ternes reckons she owes royalties to the makers of the movie and Banjo Paterson, who inspired it with his poem. It's 28 years since The Man from Snowy River hit the screen but people are still enchanted by the notion of riding these parts.

"It gets the Americans," Ternes says. "Twenty per cent of my customers come from overseas; I'd say half of everyone who comes saw the movie and wants their own Man from Snowy River experience."

At times, the going up here is hard work. We slide down mountain tracks and twist and turn our way through subalpine forest, banging our knees on trees as we walk past. But then we'll find a clearing and, with the sun shining above, trot across a landscape as dramatic as anything this country can offer. Sometimes the trees clear out enough and we can see just how high we are; on one side the view is all the way to Victoria, on the other Mount Perisher looks a close trot away.

Ternes says anyone can canter a horse; that what we're doing up here in the high country is learning about horsemanship. We have to keep on our toes. At times, creatures crash out of the undergrowth (one day an emu gallops out of nowhere in panic) and when they do, our horses are prone to flight, so it's up to us to stop them in their tracks. We ride until our backsides ache - saddles were invented by sadists, after all; when we stop it's to lie on the cool ground and fill our bellies with lunch and cups of coffee straight from the billy. On an average day we'll cover 30 kilometres and I feel every one of them the next morning when I open my eyes.

But this weekend's hardly about hardship. In the evenings when the shadows grow long, we ride gingerly back to the homestead for generous servings of rib-eye steak, grilled prawns and cheesecake. My muscles slowly retract from their prolonged state of shock as I soak in a bathtub big enough for three.

I'm not sure that I ever master big Red, although as long as I keep him in the lead and far enough from Soldier we seem to get along fine. But as we trot along mountain passes I forget about my awkward riding stance and the way my bottom slides around the saddle and I feel every bit the high-country horseman.

There's a euphoria that's hard to explain to those who have never ridden; it's that dry-mouth feeling of the canter, the fear in your guts that turns so quickly to pleasure. It's like you can't understand why you feel this way and you know if you analyse it later you'll feel a little foolish. So you go with it now, for all you're worth, because it will never feel this good again and people just don't understand if you try to tell them.

The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism NSW.

Trip notes

Getting there

Snowy River Horseback Adventure is 25 minutes' drive from Jindabyne, which is a 5-hour drive south of Sydney.

Riding there

You can book a two-, three- four- or five-day riding package that includes accommodation, three-course dinners, gourmet lunches and cooked breakfasts (plus beer and wine with dinner). Some riding experience is needed for multi-day treks. Shorter rides are offered for novices. (02) 6457 8393, snowyriverhorsebackadventure.com.au.

More information

snowymountains.com.au.

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