Trotting out to West Auckland for a day of equestrian events, Elisabeth Easther discovered the charms of Woodhill Sands Equestrian Centre.
Woodhill Sands, just outside Kumeu, is a world-class equestrian facility. The three acres of all-weather sand and grass grand prix arenas are a nirvana for anyone with an equine bent. Eager to see for myself what makes Woodhill Sands so highly regarded, I trotted out west for the AON Insurance premier show jumping show.
The sprawling grounds were chocka with trailers, trucks and floats. Horses and humans of all sizes dotted the landscape, the former decked out in all their finery, grazing peacefully in their corrals. The humans were pretty well turned-out too, aside from a handful of young boys revelling in the muddier aspects of rural life.
From the moment we parked, we were engulfed in the aromas of the countryside, a blend of horse mingled with hay with an overtone of coffee and threatening rain - a pleasant combination.
With three rings to watch at any one time, we gravitated towards the grass of the main arena where the show jumping was in full swing.
Some of the biggest names in the sport were there including the Wilson sisters and Katie Laurie, New Zealand's current showing jumping champion. They really were impressive, flying effortlessly over jumps that were at least six feet tall and, in some cases, almost as wide.
Clusters of parents and children sat together, watching intently, clapping politely when appropriate or letting out gasps of compassion when horses knocked or tapped rails. And though I know it can't be easy, the riders made it all look so graceful and effortless - when horse and rider are in sync, it's as if they're flying.
Despite knowing so little about the sport, I quickly learnt to spot a good round and felt my heart clench every time a rail went down. Of the many things I discovered, the most curious lesson was in horse photography. They're not easy subjects and, to get a great shot, you need a few tricks up your sleeves. Frances Haydon, one of the event's official photographers, took some time to talk to me about her love of horses and show jumping. She started her career five years ago, taking pictures of cakes and things that stand still, but her passion for riding soon saw her creating portraits of people with their horses.
"I try to show the loving bond that exists between man and beast. And I love the fun of it, the atmosphere and meeting people."
Watching her photograph various winners, I noticed she used a few sneaky techniques to ensure the horses pricked up their ears otherwise, according to Frances, they look like donkeys. First of all she rustled dry leaves, making the horses think food was forthcoming. But they're not dumb and none of them fell for that trick for long. Next a cup of real feed was rattled and boy, did those ears shoot up. Another ploy is to play audio of horses neighing and whinnying; the real horses soon start preening as they think they've a new friend to impress.
And, voila, the winning snap is taken.
Talking of winners, many of the riders were sporting silver ferns on their riding jackets, indicating that they'd already represented New Zealand in various international events, this sport engenders intense dedication.
Chris Ross who with wife Shelley, owns Woodhill Sands, said: "Horses are a bit like boating, bloody expensive but when you've got the passion, you're in it for life. There's a strong community, it's good for families, for keeping kids and parents together and, it's a very social sport."
Visiting Woodhill Sands when there's an event on - whether you're a horse person or an utter newbie - makes for a great country day out and, what's more, it's free.
Extras for experts
If you fancy checking out some of the equine delights on offer this winter, saddle up for these upcoming events:
Equestrian at Woodhill Sands, Kumeu: Today, Showjumping and Dressage Day, tomorrow Mini One Day Event (ODE) with more on July 19.
Thoroughbred racing: Orora Kiwi Packaging-LRK Trays Kiwifruit Cup Day. Today, Tauranga Racecourse.
Winter Dressage: Tomorrow, Waikato Equestrian Centre, Hamilton.
Harness racing: Alexandra Park Mid-Winter Christmas, Friday June 26, plus more on Friday July 3, Friday July 10.
West Auckland District Winter Show Jumping Series: Saturday June 27, 154 Muriwai Valley Rd, Waimauku.