Tuesday, 1 June 2010

A few weeks in the Manga

“The Mangatarere Valley eh? It's just batteries and horses up there mate” he said with a grin.

And he was right. Power from domestic hydros, and farms managed from the saddle. Sweet.

A huge thanks to Pippa, Steve, Emily, Jess, Sophie and Vicks for a wonderful stay. It was a fantastic end to my trip through NZ - experiences I will never forget - and I will miss you all heaps!

The most beautiful thing I ever saw

I'm just following in the sun. I have no idea what to expect, I'm sitting on Cochese just trying to look like I can ride. I'm so busy making connections with Cochese that I don't realise we've come across the cows we're supposed to move.

They lie in a gut below us, and need to move up to the gate way up ahead of them. Vicky's already stopped. She says something but I realise it is not to me, it is to her dogs, or her 'ladies' as she puts it. They've been running with us since we set off. A low hum from Vicky gets all the dogs around her, barking loudly. I don't know what's going on at this point, but find out later that the barking up tells the cattle it's time to move. The herd lift their heavy heads from the grass.

In a word she sends “Green”, one of her header dogs out from the pack and around the back of the cattle. Then “Ngaio” into the middle to get them moving. She speaks to Ngaio and Green as if they were only yards away, but in fact they are nearly 50 meters away, down in the gut. Miraculously they hear her commands, foreign to my ears. In between breaths, she whispers to the dogs at her feet, keeping them calm as the cows start heading off to the gate.

We walk parallel with the herd. I keep a distance as Vicky talks with her animals, handling five dogs and one horse, all at the same time with ease. I am stunned into complete silence, seeing the cows move as planned. We continue walking for a minute, then stop in a position where Vicky can talk the dogs into pushing the cattle through the gate.

As she works them through from the saddle of her horse, I feel overpowered by the experience. There's an incredible natural beauty here, something words can't even touch on. The animals moving steadily through the lie of the land emphasises an amazing connection between it all, and seeing Vicky doing it so naturally, with a skill beyond belief... it brings a tear to my eye.

Pig feeding!

For a few days I fed Steve and Pippa's pigs in the morning. Getting the feed in the bucket was a mission. Slithering through mud to throw the peas in the bucket before getting stampeded by the wholes herd. There were times when I was hanging at 45 degrees from a tree, my legs swept away in a current of pigs. I got to know a few of them by the end of it. They all had unique personalities. The medium-big sow that jumps into the feed trailer, the orange male that always got infront of the quadbike etc etc.

The final job was to hack into the bush to find Shadow. She'd had piglets and gone bush to look after them, so she needed a special trip. It meant hacking over a superb off road track up a large gulley on the quad, Milo the dog hairing on in front. Occasionally she'd be at the feeding spot when I arrived, and she'd always say hello before eating.

The last time I saw her she came out with her piglets. I felt really honoured – they all looked in great health, she must be a good mum.


I sit on Cochese, napping, watching Vicky expertly move the cows (these are the earlier days before I started to help herding). As I watch, I notice two dogs are missing. I turn around to see them behind us, returning a loose cow.

The cow is moving fast in a bid to rejoin the mob, and it is with a sick stomache that I realise I am directly in the way. All of a sudden the cow is bearing down on me and Cochese, and as it gallops towards T-boning us both I can see the whites of its eyes. It weighs half a ton and could destroy us.

I think of asking Cochese to jump forward, out of the way, but know that cows being cows it might choose to run right into where we'd go. Better to give it a chance to see us, give it a known location, and somehow will it away...

I hold fast and looked into the eyes of the speeding animal. I use every bit of mental communication I can, forcing the message into the cows eyes, and, at the last second, it chinks its stride and passes infront of us, missing us by what feels like a whisker. Exactly over the spot we would have moved to.
I look around. Vicky and Scoot are facing me, smiling. I realise my mouth is open, and exhale.

(After that I stop napping, and get helping).


I saw how Vicky talked to her animals. Every dog moved with her as she told them what she needed. As I watched, I guess I picked a bit up. These wonderful animals were no "pets", they were working members of a team, obediently waiting their command. There was little shouting or mayhem, just spoken words from Vicky's mouth, and lo and behold it happened.

I tried talking to the animals, especially with Cochese, and could feel that I was exercising the rear lobes of my brain. As soon as I did this I could feel their minds too, and it would attract immediate eye contact awaiting instruction. I only got a fraction of the full experience that Vicky was able to demonstrate, but it blew my mind.

The boys

Cochese is smokin hot. In bike terms he's a Honda CBR Fireblade. A speeding bullet, but with huge intelligence and control. We both looked out for each other, and he was amazingly considerate at all my rookie mistakes. Man, I miss him when I think about him.
Vicky's ride, Scooter Mahooter, was so named when he slipped all the way down to the bottom of the hill in his mother's afterbirth. As a youngster, when Vicky came into the field he would gallop up to her feet, slide to a stop inches away from her, do a 180 and double hoof kick at her. He was an outlaw as Vicky put it. He went to get trained twice, and the final cowboy said he was the hardest, wildest horse he'd ever tried. Now, at 10 years old, he is a stunning animal - Vicky rides him effortlessly, to watch them move together is close to seeing perfection. I am in awe.


I didn't know what fingertip riding was until Vicky and Cochese taught me. And man, is it good.

Imagine a joystick in the air. Obviously the joystick is the reins, but you're only holding onto them with one finger, and you can't even feel the mouth. Move hand right, we go right. Move hand left, we go left. Lift hand up, we go forward – the higher up the faster you go, from walking speed up to speeding bullet. Put hand down on the neck, we stop. Move hand backwards, we go backwards. Flick hand left, we spin 180 to the left. Flick hand right, we spin 180 to the right.

But the majority of riding on Cochese was through thought alone. Use of the reins was merely confirmation of thought, and towards the end, barely needed. As we galloped over the ridges, along side Vicky and Scoot, our minds were connected – I could feel the occipital lobes in the brain working overtime. Like Avatar, but for real. If I hadn't experienced it I wouldn't have believed it. Western riding is phenomenal, less like riding, more like flying.

First ride

I have slowly realised that, for me, epics usually start with thoughts like: "tell me you're joking?".

I'm in the Wairapa again (North Island, NZ) at the base of the Mangaterere valley, standing outside Vicky's ranch, badly hungover. Four months ago I'd asked if I could share a couple of weeks with her. Vicky runs her entire farm on horseback – it sounded incredible. After a good look up and down at me her last words had been “well you better toughen up then!”, laughing. So to some extent, that's what I went away and did.

Now it's exactly how I imagined – I'm back and she wants to find out who I am, and whether I can cut it on a horse. But I haven't ridden for ages and after that beer, wine and rum last night my guts are about to fall out of my arse. Even if I wasn't half dead, she's a professional rider and I'm just a kid with no clue. I learnt to ride on a farm as a kid, and I've spent one year riding a horse once a week, but that was like school yard footy. This appears to be the premiership. The huge steep sides of the valley (/riding country) loom overhead like an arena where inexperienced Pommes come to die.

I turn round to see her expertly clip clop into the yard. Steve makes my excuses for me: "Ed might be a bit vague today, we had a bit of a celebration". She laughs from her western saddle. "Well I guess we better rattle his head then eh! Ha!". My stomach rolls.

She shows me to my ride – Cochese - a nine year old, red stock horse in his prime. He's full of muscle, full of strength, full of speed, salt of the earth. His presence is huge. We make eye contact for the first time – his look is one of supreme intelligence, wisdom and a hint of surprise – who's this new joker? To break the awkward silence I turn away and ask Vicks "His name, Cochese – what does it mean?". I'm sure she enjoys the next few words... "RUNS LIKE THE WIND" she licks. I absorb this for a few seconds. And then that thought kicks in... "tell me you're joking?".

I look at Vicky. I don't think she's joking. Nope. She's not joking. I look back at Cochese. Cochese looks back at me. He's not joking either.  

But in the real

There wasn't the camp fire in front of me as I'd imagined, or the night, but the rest of a dream from the UK was realised as I sat in the horses field and Cochese freely wandered up to me and nuzzled my shoulder. I gave his nose a stroke, and we looked out over the mountain ranges together. We'd be flying over there again tomorrow, and neither of us could wait...