A little shove here, a tiny tap there and hooves lazily lift for picking out, mouths open to accept clinking bits and big rumps shuffle over for brushing.
It’s a regular routine for the horses and for Carol Armstrong and her daughter, Hannah, as they prepare for a ride around Rippon Vineyard.
Dusty, leathery, horsey smells waft about as the rugged outline of Mt Roy looms large on one side and the as-yet hidden waters of Lake Wanaka beckon on the other.
Oh, that horsey smell... something riders know and love. For many, the sport was something done in youth before the responsibilities of adulthood took over. But a love of horses never really goes away and a visit to Rippon must be one of the best ways to get back in the saddle.
Rippon was a pioneering vineyard in Central Otago; the late Rolfe Mills planting his first commercial vines here more than 25 years ago. It’s marginal territory for grapes due to the challenging climate but, as the Mills family have shown, it can be done and done well.
The organic and biodynamic operation has an international reputation for the quality of its wines. This former sheep farm has a family tradition spanning four generations and today there are no less than five Mills family members hands-on involved in running the place.
Riders meander around the vines, taking time to absorb the atmosphere.
Carol has known the family for many years and is into her seventh summer guiding people around the property. She first gained her instructor’s certificate at the age of 16 and in the 40 years since has taught hundreds of riders.
At Rippon she gives everyone, from the advanced to the seriously equinely-challenged, her well-honed instructional run-down. It is simple but effective and somehow just riding alongside someone like her seems to be good for the posture.
In addition, the horses are well schooled, so respond easily to instructions. Carol owns a riding school near Wanaka and has between 15 to 20 horses and ponies in her care. She rotates them between the treks and the school to keep them interested; it’s often a surprise for visitors to learn that their kind trekking mount might be a competitive show jumper or eventer.
The two hour excursion sets out through willow-lined sheep paddocks then climbs a bridle path through a pretty larch forest. Shaggy Highland cows greet riders at the top as broad views over Lake Wanaka open out.
The story of Rippon is told giving visitors a real appreciation of what goes into producing a world-class vintage. At Rippon Hall, sparkling wine glasses receive a splash of the lovely liquid that results from all the hard work, with accompanying tasting notes helping people get the most from subtle flavours.
Winemaker, Nick Mills, says the 14ha of vines produce around 5000 cases of wine annually. Of this about 45% is exported, with the Pinot Noir enjoying the most acclaim.
Working in close harmony with the land and nurturing the schist under-laden soils is critical to the operation. Animal manure, prunings, pulp – all that is organic – is recycled. For Carol it means careful management. If antibiotics, drenches or anything chemical goes into a horse, it is returned to the riding school for a stand-down period. This ensures that what is being re-deposited does not fall upon Rippon soil.
Onwards from the great rammed-earth Hall, riders meander around the vines, taking time to absorb the atmosphere. It’s a labour-intensive business; there is a constant cycle of activity, be it pruning, weeding, tying up vines or picking.
Nick welcomes the sight of the horses passing by, saying it fits with the place and the family's attitude toward it.
"It's about sharing this piece of land," he says. "I like to see people enjoying it.”
Back at the yard saddles come off, coats are brushed then horses trot freely into the paddock, straight to their favourite spot for a roll. It’s almost as satisfying to watch as it is for the horse.
Reported by Jill Herron for our AA Directions Winter 2019 issue