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July 02, 2021

Horse Trekking Course – Trek 1, 2021 – Back in the saddle

ANZAC Day is a time of remembrance and camaraderie for many veterans; with emotions running high as they reflect on their service and the service of those who came before them. For Max, ANZAC Day 2021 had an added layer of tense anticipation – as he and the team at Spur Ranch prepared for the first trek of 2021.

Like many other programs and services across Australia, Spur’s equine courses, including horse handling and trekking, were put on hold throughout most of 2020. Now, with horse handling courses running smoothly again, it was time for Max and the team to tackle a new challenge – reintroducing the trek spanning two intense weeks; week 1: training at the ranch, week 2: trekking the Snowy Mountains.

 

Week 1 – Ranch training

The first step in ranch training was horse allocation – getting the veterans in the round yard and observing their reaction with the horses. “Some riders will naturally gravitate to a particular horse and vice versa,” says Max, “you want to observe their interactions with the horses, are they comfortable? Do they have a good connection?”

Among the five participants on the course was Pennie. Pennie had joined the course to help with her own mental wellbeing, but also had a number of physical injuries that limited her capabilities – or so she thought.

“Previously I had done a lot of equine therapy to help with my mental health and then I found the 2-day horse handling course” recalls Pennie. “I completed that and loved how much time I got to spend with the horses…so I could not wait to do the trek.”

Another participant, Nigel, grew up on a farm and rode horses before he had joined the army. “The trek meant I got to do something on my bucket list with like-minded people,” he recalls.

The first few days of training were spent developing the groups riding skills. From there, they were taken to a more challenging environment with thicker bushland, steep creek crossings and wildlife. This is done to properly assess participants’ preparedness for the trek.

“The students persevered when the horses were uncertain about difficult spaces,” recalls Max. “My two highlights of the ranch training were everyone’s positive attitude when they first arrived, and how well they all did on the intermediate test ride – their strength and resilience helped overcome difficult obstacles in a very short space of time.”

For Pennie, the highlight was learning so much about the horses and their care. “It wasn’t just get on and ride; having to be involved in every aspect of caring for the horses as well as all the riding training was really interesting. The riding training pushed me out of my comfort zone on many occasions and went a long way to challenging beliefs I have about my own abilities.”

Week 2 – The trek

After an intense week of training, and a rest over the weekend, the group were ready for the trek. When they arrived in the Snowy Mountains, the first priority was to set up base camp – including building portable horse yards, exercising the horses and feeding them. The horses needed to acclimate to the new environment and the initial set up was made more challenging by heavy rain fall.

“We were hit by quite serious weather throughout the trek” recalls Max, “this meant we had to reassess our itinerary”. Due to the weather, the team had to shuffle the different rides around, accommodating for the changing weather and how long they could be out riding before they needed to turn back due to worsening conditions. This meant day one’s trek, the challenge ride, was postponed and replaced with a shorter ride.

Due to the heavy rain and blustering wind, the group spent a lot of time under the marquee, hunkered down with the campfire and stove going. “This time all huddled together allowed us to do a few different team building exercises” says Max. “These little games kept our spirits up and helped distract from the cold.”

Breaks in the weather on day two meant the group could take a two-hour trek through the back trails. “It’s a beautiful park” says Nigel, while recounting his time in the Snowy Mountains, “seeing it on horseback is incredible, just an amazing experience”.

Day three saw some better weather and meant the postponed challenge ride was back on – a highlight for Pennie. “Spending six hours in the saddle was a lot to ask of my body, but the adrenaline and pure happiness of just being with the horse and doing something I never thought I would be able to do made it absolutely exhilarating. Even when I had doubts about my ability, the staff would encourage and talk me through what I needed to do, it helped get me out of my head and back in the moment to achieve everything.”

For Nigel, it almost felt like being back in the army. “We worked as a team, if we saw a job that needed doing, we got stuck in and did it.”

Resilience is key

Looking back at the whole experience, Max was very proud of both the Spur team who helped guide the group, and the participants who rose to the challenge. “Whether they realise it or not, they were able to build on their personal resilience and experience new learning opportunities vastly different to anything they had done before.”

When asked what she took away from the experience, Pennie said, “for me, being with the horses is my little dose of happiness. Spending so much time with them, learning so much about them and how to care for them was brilliant, but more than that I learnt a lot about myself and my ability. When my anxiety was high, it was reflected in how the horse responded to me, so to enable me to get through the tasks, I had to ground myself. I still hear the team in my head breathing out the word ‘relax’, and it may sound funny, but I use it in everyday life now.

For Nigel, conquering the challenge with fellow veterans was really special. “Getting to go away with a group of people like that and then remaining friends is very beneficial. You’re doing it with a group that understands veterans – Max and the team do a wonderful job making people feel welcome.”

The next trek for 2021 takes place in late October. If you or a veteran you know would like to take part, you need to register for one of our upcoming 2-day horse handling courses.

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