A winery tour by horseback is a good reintroduction to horse-riding, finds Claire McCall.
Like most horse lovers, Dzidra McHenry knows her equine charges like good friends. She understands their temperaments, their dietary quirks and their foibles. And when we first meet, she is happy to expound on their vices and virtues.
I've come to Clive, 10km south of Napier, with my partner, Owen, for a weekend of what I've romantically dubbed: "wine on the hoof". Having not ridden for decades, we're both a little rusty with a rising-trot but when I dig out my jodhpurs from 20 years ago - and they still fit - I start to believe this return to the saddle is meant to be.
Boutique Horsetreks, the business set up by McHenry, has had a busy first season. With only five horses, she guides small groups on a selection of three rides: Magical Beach Wildlife, Sparkling River or the Winery Ride, which is the one we have chosen.
The experience is about getting out into the Hawkes Bay countryside, being at one with both nature and the beast beneath - and using muscles that have long lain dormant.
Would-be equestrians can also be accommodated in a rustic board-and-batten cottage on McHenry's lifestyle property. Dzidra and her Dutch husband, Ronald, have just put the finishing touches to the cottage and we are the first guests.
When we are welcomed with a glass of Hopes Grove chardonnay and sit on the deck, late-afternoon sunlight filtering through an impressive stand of chestnut trees, we know we've come to a place after our own hearts.
The chardonnay is a pale straw colour with a biscuity bouquet - and the perfect antidote to a long drive.
Watching the horses graze on chestnuts in the nearby field is a bucolic introduction.
"It was always my dream to run a little horse-trekking outfit," explains McHenry.
The next morning, we tack up (see, the lingo is flooding back) at the respectable hour of 10am.
Boots and hats are provided and I'm allocated Juice. McHenry says, "she has a canter like a rocking chair". My inner thighs will be the judge of that, thank you.
Owen is put on jet-black Onyx, a fine and cheeky specimen of a horse. We amble along rural roads like the three musketeers, the clip clop of hooves melding with birdcall and the barking of dogs.
Here's our chance to talk nicely to our mounts, to settle into the sway. Soon we are walking alongside the TukiTuki River, riding through pastures where apple trees, bedecked in spring blossom, stretch out in neat lines.
We're heading for the Clearview Winery, for lunch and a fine glass of vino. The official brochure says it will take us four hours.
"But that's if we walk all the way," explains McHenry. We don't. When we trot and canter, my knees start to ache - I remember it well.
Apart from Owen and Onyx making the odd unplanned excursion off the trail and Onyx bunny-hopping over a small creek instead of wading through, the ride goes like clockwork. I settle into an easy canter with Juice, my confidence rising, and I even urge her to jump over a small log by the river bank.
Crossing the "Tukituk" is exciting. This time Onyx realises she's met her match and all three horses splash through the river surefooted, the water rising to their bellies. It's special to see this distinctive Hawkes Bay landscape up close and personal from horseback.
At the beginning of this ride, I was proud of my ability to mount my 16-hands high mare without the need of a stepladder. Such lithe limbs! But descending is a different story. It's a long way down, especially when your pins feel like they belong to someone else.
I manage to alight without collapsing in a heap and we stride like ravenous gunslingers into the outdoor restaurant. My gluteus maximus seems to have maxed out, but the glass of chardonnay that arrives in front of me dulls the pain.
Fellow diners gaze admiringly at our group, impressed by our mode of transport - the horses are tethered to the hitching post in sight of everyone.
I'm happy to report that after a couple of very welcome glasses, there was no question of "riding under the influence" arising. Boutique Horsetreks kindly floated the horses back to base.
* The Clearview Winery Ride costs $215 per person and includes a scrumptious lunch and a complimentary glass of wine. Riders can choose to ride one way or two; intermediate level.
* An accommodation option on site is available. See here or ph (06) 870 1202 for details of this and other riding options.
* Claire McCall was hosted by Boutique Horsetreks.By Claire McCall