We were on a hauntingly beautiful strip of seashore on the northern-most coast of New Zealand, each of us astride our own eager and spirited horse. There were six riders – my husband, my 21-year-old daughter, me and our two young guides – and as our horses walked briskly along the along the water’s edge, I could see there was absolutely no one but us on this endless coast. The desolate strand of beach was calling and I was itching to let my horse break into a run. But I had to be patient. I had to wait for the signal.
We were eight days into our trip to New Zealand, having already spent time in Queenstown, Fiordland, Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula. Pakiri Beach and the horseback riding stables was a substantial detour from Auckland on our way to the Bay of Islands, but we’d looked most forward to this day, knowing it would be the highlight of our travels.
My horse Pinky was a muscular white mare with a pink nose and she was prancing with excitement. We had walked and trotted the horses a mile or two down Pakiri beach, our guides hoping, I presumed, that this would settle them down. But it didn’t appear to be working. The horses were anxious to run, and the riders were equally ready.
Finally, our guide Rachel, pulled up her chestnut mare and turned her around to face us. Rachel was a young gal, probably in her twenties, and she handled her spirited mount expertly.
“Are you ready to go for a gallop?” she yelled to us over the sound of the ocean in her New Zealand accent.
I felt my heart flip. “Sure… yeah,” I nodded, though my words were certainly lost in the breeze.
“Okay. So, a few things,” she said. “Stay in the same order. If one horse tries to pass another, it could become a race and they’ll be hard to stop.”
I tried to pushed back the fear that suddenly welled up. These were huge animals with minds of their own and even the most reliable ones could do something crazy. I’d fallen off my own horse Honey on numerous occasions, and one time I was knocked unconscious when I was thrown riding an unfamiliar horse.
“Now if your horse does get going too fast, turn them toward the dunes. The sand’s much deeper there, and that’ll slow them down.”
It occurred to me this was how they stopped runaway trucks. Would it really work on a runaway horse?
Rachel turned her horse to face the wide open beach.
“Okay,” she called back. “All ready?”
We yelled out our okays, and I put a firm grip on my reins.
Rachel’s horse jumped and skittered to the side and then went into a lope. Rick’s horse and mine simultaneously leaped to life as well. The three of us cantered as a unit down the beach, at times splashing at the edge of the water. Bailey and the other gal guide were somewhere behind us but I dared not look back. Gradually, Rachel allowed her horse to stretch out and all the sudden we were in a full-on run. Pinky was a strong, eager animal, and I could tell she’d love to whiz past Rick’s horse if she could. But I held her in as best I could, and she stayed on the heels of Jupiter, who was right on butt of Rachel’s horse.
Pinky’s hooves pounded in the wet sand, while her long white mane mingled with the spray of the ocean and blew back in my face. I was scared and exhilarated at the same time; it was like being atop a powerful life force with a single-minded desire to run. This was an experience I knew would stay with me forever, one that I could perhaps recall – as a meditation – when I felt burdened with life and needed a reminder of its beauty, freedom and joy.
My sides were aching with the exertion of moving in motion with Pinky’s powerful strides for so long, that I was grateful when Rachel finally signaled us to slow down. I was panting, probably as much as Pinky, and as we reined in our horses to a walk, Rick looked over at me and laughed. I was elated, we had done it! I looked back at Bailey, and she had a huge smile on her face as well. Her beautiful brown and white gelding was dancing happily.
We continued a while down that lovely, desolate beach, sometimes talking, sometimes not, just enjoying the serenity and beauty of that ominous, never-ending sand and sea. After we were thoroughly relaxed, Rachel asked if we were ready to go for another gallop. We all agreed, so we went into the run again – and then again – with walks in between to rest and regroup.
Eventually, we had to turn around and head back down the beach the direction we’d come. Rachel turned her horse away from the ocean and we followed a path through some the sand dunes. We then climbed upward toward a lush, rolling carpet of green clovers, ferns and weeping trees. It reminded me of Bilbo Baggins and Hobbit Land.
I figured the running was over and we’d be taking it easy the rest of the way; the trail seemed too winding and hilly to do much more than walk. I was surprised when Rachel asked if we were comfortable doing another gallop.
“Here?” I asked skeptically, surveying the spindly little trail that wove down and through the woods.
“The horses know what they’re doing,” Rachel assured us. “They’ve done it many times, so just let them go.”
I’d barely said the word, and with that she turned her horse and they leaped forward. Suddenly we were all galloping again, but this time we were bounding down a steep, narrow trail. I’d never before run straight down a hill, so all I could do was hang on and trust. There was no controlling Pinky anyway – she was hot on Jupiter’s heels – so with one hand I held the reins forward letting her have her head, and with the other hung on for dear life to the front of my tiny English saddle. The horses sped down the incline, jumped across the dip at the bottom and then bounded back up through the woods and ferns, around the twisting, turning hills.
Rick’s horse was off-trail in the grass, throwing back rocks and twigs in his wake. Pinky followed exactly in his footsteps at top speed, racing up, down and around with a powerful confidence and grace. Finally, we came to the top of a hill and the horses jammed together to a stop, all of us panting. I was relieved to see that everyone was still on their horse, all with big smiles. It had been the most terrifying, exciting, thrilling ride of my life.
We did a couple of more short canters along several stretches around the hills and then we descended back through the sand dunes and again to the lonely beach, which was as quiet and pristine as we’d left it. The horses were happy and knew they were headed home, so they pranced and trotted as we headed in the direction of the barn.
But Rachel had one more run up her sleeve. We had gone quite a distance down the beach initially, and we still had quite a ways to get back. So one final time we broke into a brisk gallop, the horses once again eager in spirit. I don’t know how long we ran that last time on the beach – it could have two or three or four miles. It could have been ten minutes or an hour. All I know is it was the longest run of all, and it went on for what seemed like an eternity. At one point, I felt like I was on angel’s wings, flying above the sand.
At last, we slowed and turned inland to head back, passing through streams and shady woodlands. We came upon a quiet paved street and walked along it for a bit. Up ahead were the paddocks and the barn office, mostly hidden by a profusion of trees and foliage.
Inside the gate, I dismounted somewhat stiffly after two hours in the saddle. As I stroked Pinky’s neck, I thanked her for the great ride and for taking care of me. She she nudged me affectionately with her soft pink nose.