A packhorse trek through Victoria’s scenic High Country proves that the most rewarding journeys often require us to loosen the grip a little.
We’re about 20 minutes into our ride and have just hit a straight stretch of track.
“You reckon you’re up for a canter?” hollers third-generation horse wrangler Lin Baird from a few horses up in our eight-strong pack.
He’s leading our half-day trek through the Alpine National Park, part of a vast swathe of pristine bush in Victoria’s mountainous north-east.
It’s been a while since I was last in the saddle and I’m nursing a bad cold, so I’m feeling a little apprehensive.
Will I be able to muster the hearty vigour required for five hours spent on the back of a horse? Will my thighs survive?
I love horses and, sure, I came here to ride, but I’m not exactly feeling primed for the kind of long-haul The Man from Snowy River action my brief is proposing.
I’m secretly hoping they’ll let me off the hook so I can go at my own speed. Up to this point, we’ve been walking at a steady pace, taking in the fresh alpine air and our scenic surroundings.
My horse’s rhythmic clip-clop and gentle side-to-side movement is soothing. This, I can handle.
We’re out in nature and surrounded by huge mountains on all sides. I look around, and take a deep breath. I’ve never experienced a landscape like this before; it’s exhilarating.
I feel an overwhelming urge to break into song. The Roy Rogers tune, ‘Git Along, Little Dogies’ gets an airing and one of the other riders, Clemmie – a sassy blonde ranch hand from Delaware – joins in.
We share a laugh and keep clip-clopping along the track, like a couple of check-shirted stars in our own Western film.
There’s a nice camaraderie with the other riders, too. I’m liking this. But it’s clear the others are keen to graduate from trotting and take it up a notch.
I kind of wanted to work up to it, I think to myself. But it’s a packhorse trail after all, so I surrender to pack pressure and giddy-up.
My steed, a handsome black Australian stock horse called Midnight, doesn’t care that I’m not mentally prepared; he gets a whiff of my command to go (a kick to his flank with my heels) and is off like a shot.
As Midnight gains speed, things start getting real. I’m holding my reins in one hand while the other one grips the saddle with increasing desperation.
I’m bouncing around like a fool, my butt rebounding off the saddle like a graceless chump. There’s supposed to be a nice even cadence to it, but I’m not finding it.
My heart is pounding. Nope, not even a hint of Sigrid Thornton.
Lin sees that I’m struggling and effortlessly sidles up to offers some pointers, “Shorten your reins and straighten up in your seat a bit,” he says, with the patience of a man who’s seen countless townies pull the same stunt over the years. It helps. I’m more in control.
We slow back down to a trot and then ease into a walk. I look around. The other riders are all euphoric, smiling. I’m just relieved.
What was I thinking? Horse riding is scary. And exhausting. Why didn’t I remember this? I’m no longer singing Roy Rogers.
I start to wonder what happened to all the horse skills I learnt over countless hours spent riding as a kid, when I boldly raced up and down valleys and through creeks, the thrill of independence surging through my tomboy-ish, pre-teen self.
That feeling was incredible, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Yet here I was: a grown woman, otherwise relatively gregarious, freaking out about cantering along a straight, flat track. Sheesh.
Horse wisdom would suggest that I needed to connect with my horse. Understand its language. And relax. One of my fellow riders, Pedro (a first-timer), reckons the horse can sense my nervousness.
“If you’re feeling anxious your horse is probably picking up on it,” he says.
It’s all the stuff that came naturally to a wide-eyed country kid but is a bit more of a struggle for a wound-up urban adult. Lesson one in understanding the Zen of horseback riding. Tick.
“It’s always good to remember to breathe. Try and feel your seat, relax through your legs and loosen up a little bit,” Lin explains.
He tells me the trick to communicating with your horse is less to do with emotions or kooky voodoo energy stuff and much more to do with actual body language.
He says that horses can pick up on even the slightest physical cue, like the rider turning their head in the direction they want to go.
The more he talks, it’s clear to see Lin knows a fair bit about horses. It’s as if they’re an extension of him, and with his Wrangler jeans, button-down cowboy shirt and worn-out Akubra, he certainly looks the part.
At 33 years old he’s an accomplished horseman, having led trail rides and extended packhorse treks in the Californian High Sierras and mounting steeds in places as far flung as Cape Town and Argentina.
A half-day ride through what Lin considers his backyard shouldn’t be worrying me. I’m in exceptionally good hands.
As we approach the boundary into the Alpine National Park we make our crossing through a shallow creek, lined with smooth round rocks. The horses wade through, good-naturedly, one by one.
Soon we’re climbing a steep hill, venturing further into the national park, surrounded by peppermint gums, dogwood and acacias. The midsummer sun is out now but the air up here is fresh and cool; the scent of eucalyptus hangs in the air.
I’m getting anxious again. The other horses take the middle road but Midnight wants to walk along the outside edge of the track.
We’re quite elevated – about 600 metres – and the drop beside the track is steep. I try not to look down.
Lin reassures me, “He likes walking on the edge because the ground is softer on his hooves there.”
Lin reminds me that the horses have walked this track countless times. “Unlike us, they have four feet, so they’re pretty steady,” he says, by way of assurance.
It makes sense. I’m reminded of my wound-up urban adult-ness again.
A level of surrender is exchanged when I recognise that this big old creature knows far more about this place than I ever possibly could.
I take another deep breath and decide I’m finally ready to hand over my trust to Midnight. As we continue through the mountain trail, I turn my attention to the view instead – lush green valleys, mountains in all directions, shrouded in a dark blue haze with low hanging clouds.
Within moments I’m back there – as if by way of some kind of metaphysical reward – feeling that familiar childhood stirring all over again.
The details: Bogong Horseback Adventures
Getting there: Bogong Horseback Adventures is approximately four hours’ drive from Melbourne. Several airlines fly into Albury, which is a one-hour drive away. Transfers from Albury airport or Albury railway station are available on request.
Playing there: From three-hour trail rides to nine-day group packhorse treks through the High Country, Bogong Horseback Adventures offers a range of riding experiences for beginners and advanced riders.
A great time to visit is during the region’s High Country Harvest, when Bogong Horseback Adventures has a special package to celebrate the festival.
For $550 per person for weekends from 13–22 May, you can enjoy a special long-table lunch as part of your ‘stay and ride’ package that showcases the region’s best produce, wines and native foods.
Staying there: Located on the Baird family property and decorated with Steve Baird’s contemporary artwork, eco designed Spring Spur Stay offers the chance to immerse yourself in the full rustic country experience.
Expect fresh mountain air, modern accommodation and stunning views of the Kiewa Valley and surrounding mountains.
Excellent home-style gourmet meals are served in The Riders Lounge, along with boutique King Valley wines, craft beers and locally roasted espresso coffee.