(I’ll explain this, I promise)
I got to Valinor Farm about half an hour early on the Saturday we filmed the second and third episodes of ‘Stuff Riders Say.’
Sara was finishing up a ride in one of the outside rings, so I parked and headed over. I watched closely and learned about the difference between a “general trotting around speed” and a canter. I learned what a good transition from one speed to another looks like, and that the rider can feel when it doesn’t quite happen.
That’s the thing that struck me — it’s mostly about feel, a connection between the horse and rider. I couldn’t understand how the horse knew what to do. I had to be told what the cues were before I could see them. In the movies, the movements are bold and exaggerated with the rider’s legs coming straight out to hip height and heels flying back into the horse to get it moving. I wondered when she was going to yell “Giddy up! Yah, yah!” and start jumping up and down in the saddle. But I learned that in real life, the difference between a little pressure and a little more pressure, a shifting of weight or maybe some clucking could be the key.
I began to understand why everyone at work makes a trip to the barn whenever they possibly can. Perfecting that connection between horse and rider takes hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours in the saddle. So when Sara told me all I had to do was sign a waiver if I wanted to ride, I was very excited — and secretly very nervous.
To justify how nervous I was, here’s a little background: When I was 11, I rode a horse in a friend’s back yard, with no instruction at all. That horse is high on the list of least comfortable places I’ve ever had to sit. After being boosted up into the saddle, I gritted my teeth and held on tight. My main concern was being torn totally in half, which surprisingly didn’t happen, but I did end up walking awkwardly for a day or two after. I’m not sure what muscle groups are needed to keep from being thrashed around in the saddle like that, but I know I had never exercised them before.
Luckily for me and my lower body, riding Diem was unforgettable in a totally different way. After grabbing me a loaner helmet typically used for summer campers, Sara demonstrated measuring and adjusting the stirrup leathers, walking Diem over to the mounting step, and getting into the saddle comfortably. Once Diem started moving, I quickly tried to remember all the thing’s I’ve heard about proper riding. “Heels down” was the first (and only) thing that popped into my head, so I did that.
When I was standing in the middle of the indoor on the ground, it felt like a massive space. The second I was on Diem, it seemed wildly too small. Once we got to the first corner, I steered him hard. Remember that horse/rider connection I mentioned? If I was at all capable of putting it into words, I imagine the horse was yelling to me, “Come on, you think I’m going to run into the wall? I’m not the dummy here.” So the next corner I just shifted a little bit, and everything went smoothly.
Reading this back, it sounds like I was galloping around the arena, bareback, hair flowing in the wind. In reality, we were moving at little-kid-pony-party speed with Sara holding the reins, and I’m bald. So, let’s recap: I was overreacting on a huge horse, wearing a bright white helmet that didn’t fit quite right, green pants and a red sweatshirt. What’s the one thing that could make me less comfortable? A cell phone camera!
After taking the awkward photo that will haunt me forever, I actually rode without Sara holding the reins. It was still a slow walk, but learning how to stop, start, and turn was an amazing feeling. At the end of the ride, I was eager to shoot the video, but I’m already planning my next trip back for some outdoor riding.
P.S. I walked totally normal the next day.