River Valley … one step ahead

Freelance journalist Pippa Brown looks at how an experience riding horses using a "Natural Horsemanship" way of doing things can be so much more rewarding.

Tired, bored, plodding horses – nose-to-tail, following the leader, just going through the motions. It could be just like any other trekking business and Brian and Nicola Megaw, owners of River Valley Lodge and Stables, “knew things had to change”.

Unlike their successful rafting business the trekking operation was going nowhere. Nicola, who runs River Valley Stables, had been feeling despondent and frustrated about it all, until five years ago when she came across a demonstration by international Parelli instructor and horse development specialist Russell Higgins.

“We needed to introduce something unique. “I was ready to try these new ideas, for myself, our staff, our customers and the horses.”

It was the first time Nicola been exposed to the idea of natural horsemanship, where the human-equine relationship is taken to another level – a meld of human personality and horse “horseanality”.

The Parelli system is a fun way of understanding the world from the horse’s point of view. Building up a partnership on the ground, around the principles of love, language and leadership it advances to one of ultimate trust between horse and rider and riding free, without contact and any form of bondage.

Riding with a loose rein, in a halter as opposed to a bit and bridle, can be a bit difficult for experienced riders to get used to she says.

“Some people want to try it again, or with their own horse. “Others don’t know what the difference is, but no one has refused to go a trek because the horse is in a halter.

“While some are happy just to sit on the horse and not try anything new, for those that are interested we can show them more, or give them some idea of where they can gain additional knowledge once they leave us. “We have a package called The Home on the Range, which is an opportunity to spend up to five days riding and learning more about these methods as well as having fun with the horses.”

Nicola says it's hard to remember what the horses were really like before they adopted these techniques. “It’s been a gradual change - if they went too fast you could bring them to a stop by pulling on their mouths and if they didn’t move you could always make them go with a stick,” she says. 

“One of the most touching things is when you see the horse actually wants to be with you. “They do want to get along with us if we can let them.”

The horses are happier, more expressive, trusting and relaxed. Brian, who seldom works directly with them, says the biggest change he’s noticed is he can walk up to any of them in the paddock and they’ll greet me with an alert ears-forward stance.

Everyone at River Valley has benefited from these new partnerships. The staff embrace it and want to learn more. “It’s a journey for all of us.”

Brian cannot imagine it any other way. “I see happy horses in good condition, and staff, and sometimes riders - definitely on half day or longer treks - making real connections with their horses. “For me this is part of the whole deal of being connected with the landscape, and ultimately with each other.”

“I’d support closing the trekking operation rather than revert to the sad sight of lines of bored horses, doing the same thing day in and day out,” says Brian.

River Valley is near Taihape, about halfway between Auckland and Wellington and a short distance off State Highway 1. For more information go to www.rivervalley.co.nz

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