Come meet the amazing horse guiding duo known as Jess Mullins and Bijmin Swart! You may have bumped into them or had the pleasure of riding with them on board the Glenorchy Back Country Ride or the Howqua River Ride. This awesome pair has a love for horses and is taking on the trek of a lifetime, through New Zealand’s wild heart. Read on to learn more about their story and their passion for our humble steeds.
Tell me a bit about yourself and Jess (how you became involved in horses, what’s your experience etc.)
Jess and I first met in Australia where we both accidentally stumbled onto guiding, taking clients from all over the world on 5 day “Man from Snowy River” rides in the Victorian High Country. Since then we’ve had the privilege of guiding horseback trips in some of the most remote and spectacular scenery in the world, from 6-day pack trips through Yellowstone National Park, to 5-day backcountry rides in New Zealand on Globetrotting’s Glenorchy Back Country Ride.
We both come from very different backgrounds, however, Jess in forensic anthropology and myself in digital media & marketing, but horses have always been a passion for both of us long before we met. As a kid, Jess was never in the position to own her own horse so she would muck out stables in exchange for lessons, devoting any free time to equestrian pursuits and later earning herself a position at renowned performance horse barn Windchase, working under Olympic rider Phyllis Dawson.
For myself, growing up in Africa and constantly moving, meant I could not own my own horses but always searched them out when arriving at a new place. Despite the many houses that I lived in, being on horseback was where I always felt most at home. One of my first inspirations to work with horses in a fear-free way was from my mum’s best friend; Carlene Bronner. Carl owns and runs an equine facilitated leadership business in South Africa called Horseplay.co.za, giving corporate teams the opportunity to work with her incredible herd of Friesians to learn valuable lessons in communication and leadership from the best teachers in the field: the horses. With many holidays spent at Carl’s farm, her approach to horses was what instilled the love of building a relationship first and foremost with your horse, a value that has remained with me since.
What inspired you to do this trip and train Kaimanawas from the wild?
Ever since I arrived in New Zealand I’ve had a dream to traverse the length of the country on horseback. It’s one of the most beautiful countries in the world, a land full of stark contrasts: wild forests, barren deserts, active volcanoes and glacial-fed rivers all coming together to create this unique landscape and people. It’s the kind of adventure you dream about as a kid and as an equestrian; it’s impossible to drive through all of the rolling green hills without envisioning yourself galloping along one of the ridgelines. I can think of no better equine companion than the wild horses of New Zealand that know this land better than we do. In a way, they are our guides through this re-wilding process as we step out of the monotonous 9-5, leaving behind all the societal pressures and expectations that dull our every-day and try and get in touch with a more authentic and simple way of life. These Kaimanawa’s are some of the hardiest horses in the world. Growing up in the wild, only the smartest, most resilient horses survive so in a way natural selection has bred a horse perfectly suited for long distance travel that is highly versatile and can take just about anything in their stride.
Is there a specific route that you and Jess are going to be riding on with your Kaimanawas? Can you tell me a little bit about the route?
There isn’t any specifically marked trail we’ll be taking. The idea is to take the road less travelled and in a country that is essentially a patchwork of giant stations (farms), the options are endless. Along the way, we’ll be riding with a number of horse trekking outfits to better soak up the local flavour and to showcase all the incredible rides New Zealand has to offer. The one thing anyone who has been to New Zealand can attest to is the hospitality of Kiwis so as we make our way up the country we’ll be relying on local knowledge for hidden shepherds trails, recommended routes and of course local history and lore.
Have you had a person to look up to on your Journey?
There is no one single person that we aspire to when it comes to this journey however, many people have inspired us to keep ahold of the dream, run with it, nurture it, and watch it grow and for that, we are endlessly grateful.
What is your philosophy and training method with these horses?
Working with these Kaimanawas has completely changed my approach to horses. We’ve taken a step back from all of the methods we’ve studied in the past and everything we thought we knew about training horses. I guess if I was to sum up what we’re trying to achieve in our training is that we aim to work with the horse, listening to them before expecting them to listen to us and never working against them. Building that relationship first and foremost as a foundation and then building upon that. Our approach has been grounded in passive leadership – a training pedagogy not grounded in fear or force. Most of what we see about wild stallions in the media is focussed around how aggressive and dangerous they can be but once you understand what motivates that behaviour and imagine yourself in the horse’s position it suddenly just makes sense as to how you’d work with them. In our last three weeks of working with completely wild mature stallions we have not once been kicked, bitten, trodden on or charged and already have three horses that are respectful, follow the lightest feel and most importantly… enjoy our company. The perfect foundation for our next phase of training.
What do you think is going to be the most challenging part of your journey with these horses?
I think the most daunting part of planning a journey like this is simply the logistics. Jess and I plan on doing the ride unsupported which means we’ll have to pre-plan supply drops at various stations and have contingencies in place should we have a horse that comes up lame or gets hurt. It makes my head hurt just thinking about it.
When do you plan to leave for your ride?
At this stage, the plan is to embark on our ride in November 2019. Until then, our Kais will be joining us down in the South Island of New Zealand as Jess and I guide the 5-day Glenorchy Back Country rides next spring. If you’re planning on joining us in Glenorchy you might just meet the horses and who knows… maybe even have a chance to ride one of our (hopefully not so) wild Kaimanawas.
What words of wisdom would you give to an aspiring globetrotter about training his or her own horses?
Listen to your horse. I mean really listen. They’ll teach you everything you need to know if you only give them the chance.
Inspiring words aren’t they globetrotters? We can’t wait to follow Jess and Bijmin’s story as they travel from the base to tip of New Zealand! You too can follow their journey on Facebook via Human & Horse!