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Working with the perfect horse

MIKE CREAN
Last updated 10:24 06/07/2014
lawrie o'carroll
MIKE CREAN / Fairfax NZ

HORSE COUNTRY: Lawrie O'Carroll surveys some of his thoroughbred-clydesdale stock at Waitohi Downs.

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When someone suggested Lawrie O'Carroll turn his high-country horse rides into a commercial guiding operation, the Hawarden farmer was aghast.

"I want nothing to do with bloody people," he responded.

As a high country musterer and lifelong horseman, O'Carroll saw himself as "not a people person". That was 1992 and even today his rugged and independent persona hints at the self-reliant loner who feels most at home among the tussocks with his horse and dogs.

Nevertheless, he took the bait. He and wife Jenny established Alpine Horse Safaris. And whatever he thought of people then, the business has boomed in its 22 years.

He concedes now that most people are fine - even enjoyable. Perhaps the odd snag who criticises and complains merely serves to highlight the good clients.

O'Carroll bought his father's Waitohi Downs run, on the south side of the Hurunui River, below its gorge, in 1981. He had a special affinity with this land. It had been in the family since before World War I. He was raised here. Most importantly, he lived among horses - he lived for horses - in his formative years on these rugged hills. He and his siblings had their own ponies almost from the time they could walk. They rode in pony club events and gymkhanas, graduating to bigger ponies as they outgrew the older ones.

After getting off the Hawarden school bus each day he would claim to have no homework, saddle up, untie his dog and head out onto the farm to help his father. The teachers' ranting next day had no effect other than to prompt him to leave school as soon as he could.

He worked on North Canterbury stations for several years, becoming stock manager at The Hossack, near Hanmer Springs. There he met Jenny, a Christchurch horse enthusiast keen to convert to country. They married in 1975.

His next step was to buy an Oxford property with his two brothers and launch into deer farming. There they built and operated the South Island's first deer sales arena. When his father retired, O'Carroll returned home. With him he brought deer and horses. His father had bred ponies. O'Carroll brought a thoroughbred stallion onto the place and started to breed horses fit for the mountain trails he loved to ride.

The perfect breed, he says, is the thoroughbred-clydesdale cross, a big, heavy-boned horse.

"The clydesdale has the brain and the bone. The thoroughbred has the spirit. The clydesdale has cold blood for work. The thoroughbred has hot blood for racing. The clydesdale will see a problem ahead and stop to think about it. The thoroughbred will just carry on until it dies. The mix of both is good."

Outside in drizzly rain German farmhand Corinna raises a shrill cooeee and 46 sturdy black horses come clomping towards her. They make an awesome sight. Corinna addresses them by their names, taken from native trees and shrubs, while I snap some photos. Soon she will lead them to the oats paddock for their reward.

In the stables and sheds, lines of riding saddles, pack saddles and helmets sit on racks along the walls. New horseshoes hang from walls behind the anvil where O'Carroll does his farrier work.

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Corinna knew nothing about horses before coming here a year ago. "This is what I call home now. The horses are my family," she says.

Matagouri is the oldest, at 26. He started on the first safari in 1992 and is still going, though O'Carroll says they give him lighter riders and easier climbs these days.

The horses love to trek, O'Carroll says. "They are herd animals. If you try to leave one at home, he goes crazy, bellowing, running up and down."

Their longest trip is the 12-day Lake Tekapo safari. The horses make the 800km return trip, nearly all of it through a chain of high country stations, with a day's rest at Tekapo. Clients ride one-way, swapping places with a return group that arrives by shuttle bus. Other rides, in the Lake Sumner- Lewis Pass-Hanmer area, vary from two hours to 10 days. The horses average 3000km a year, with a break in winter.

Most clients are North Islanders in their 60s, with a 50:50 gender split. O'Carroll says many once thought of coming south to work in the high country but never made it. After a horse safari, they kick themselves for not having come sooner. Other clients come from Europe, the UK, and just about every country you can name. They enjoy the gentle horses, the accommodation in musterers' huts and shearers' quarters and Jenny's real country cooking.

Corinna came as a greenhorn, and loved the safaris. The freedom to ride for nine hours and never see a town or meet other people is not possible in Germany, she says.

- The Press

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