Wine-tasting on horse back

TREK TIME: A five-day horse trek ended with a magical experience for Heidi Davies.
TREK TIME: A five-day horse trek ended with a magical experience for Heidi Davies.

Years of work go into producing a well-trained horse and a fine wine.

Carol Armstrong's customers at the beautiful Rippon Vineyard probably don't realise how fortunate they are to be reaping the benefits of both in one sitting.

Armstrong, who operates trail rides at Rippon, gained her first instructor's qualification at the age of 16.

In the 40 years since then she has given hundreds of young riders the skills and knowledge to confidently set off on their own equine adventures.

At Rippon she guides riders in and around the property, where they inadvertently soak up some riding tips along with the sights and sounds of the vineyard.

The unique Rippon story unfolds, becoming more fully appreciated after a tasting of the exceptional produce.

The spectacular scenery at Rippon is fairly mesmerising, with Lake Wanaka stretching out lazily below - Ruby Island in its autumn glory guarding the shore - and all this cradled by a great sweep of snow-capped mountains.

It is a certified, both biodynamic and organic, vineyard, the land having been in the Mills family for three generations. Rolfe Mills planted the first experimental vines on the farm in 1975 amid much scoffing from the locals.

It is a marginal grape-growing location with early and late- season frosts providing quite a challenge. Mills persevered, however, teaming up with a handful of other Central Otago enthusiasts, and the first commercial blocks were planted in the early 1980s.

Today Rippon's pinot noir is renowned both here and overseas with most vintages being sold before they are even bottled. Much of that success is attributed to the way the soil, and the land itself, are nurtured.

The Rippon philosophy of working harmoniously with nature sits well with Armstrong, too. She also owns and operates the Timber Creek Equestrian Centre and is as closely in tune with her horses as the Mills family are with their land.

The vineyard certification enforces a strict regime that affects how Armstrong manages her animals. None has lived organically for long enough for their droppings to be reusable at Rippon so any deposits left on the trail have to be removed.

At drenching time the horses must be trucked back to the equestrian centre near the Cardrona Valley until any trace of chemicals has gone from their systems.

Armstrong is happy to oblige and likes to rotate horses between her operations anyway. She works hard to provide variation and interest to each of the 19 horses and ponies in her care to ensure they enjoy their work.

There are no nose-to-tail followers here, and every mount has its story, whether it is an active show jumper, a dressage horse, retired eventer or a western-trained pleasure horse.

Even the older learners' ponies are taken out by experienced riders for a bit of a blast with the faster horses every now and again.

Armstrong also works with Riding for the Disabled and says it is here where some horses really show their diverse personalities.

"Some horses don't like doing RDA but then there's the exceptional ones who walk slowly and carefully with a little kid or RDA rider.

"Our pony Punch is like that, but when my daughter (an experienced rider) gets on him she can hardly stop him."

Other ponies are so in tune to Armstrong's voice she has to use code words like "oranges" instead of "trot on" to instruct so she knows it's the rider doing the work.

The trail rides operate year round and cost about $89 for 1 1/2 hours, including tastings.

The Press