I’ve always liked horses, but I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ridden them during my life. I rode once at a childhood birthday party where my horse was so wild it nearly bucked me off! I don’t remember any riding adventures that topped that one. In time, my spine became the issue because I have scoliosis and my orthopedic surgeon in San Diego, Calif., Dr. E. Paul Woodward, told me in 1969 after my spinal fusion operation that I should never horseback ride again. His strong words slowed me down a bit, but they didn’t stop me. I made certain to not only get back on a horse, but also to take a steep and challenging climb uphill when I was living in Glenwood Springs, Colo. I had no major challenges — just soreness — and took the success of that ride as a green light for any further horseback riding plans though they were, once again, delayed in coming.
I last rode a horse when my son and I did equine therapy near Carbondale, Colo. following my son’s father’s premature death. We rode the horses frontwards, sideways, backwards, and even bareback. That particular riding experience was a turning point in my battle to overcome the trauma of my soulmate’s passing, and I’ve never forgotten the positive outcome of that ride. I wanted to get back on a horse since, but 16 long years would pass before I found myself back in the saddle again.
An actor friend and myself enrolled in an Equestrian Skills for Actors class recently that was organized by Dr. Sheri Bias of Liquid Talent of Richmond, Va. She told us there were several films that would be shot in the state soon that would require horseback riding skills. We couldn’t wait to get to class to hone our skills, but we were nervous because both of us were novice horseback riders who’d not been around horses in years. I reminded my friend and myself that the horses would detect our nervousness and it would affect them adversely so it was imperative the we remain calm. We drove from Northern Virginia to Pocahontas State Park in Chesterfield, Va. to join the class led by Linda and Al Underwood of Thrive Equestrian. I told Linda about my spine and she was very concerned. In fact, I was initially worried that she might not even let me ride, but after I reassured her that I was in good health, she was fine.
For the next two hours, we listened and followed the direction Al gave. We learned about horse personality, and pre-ride safety checks before riding onto the set: bit, curb chain, and girth. I wanted to keep holding onto the saddle, but Al said I had to hold the rein in my left hand and my right hand could be used to hold the end of the rein.
I learned in this class that riding a horse for pleasure or therapy is one thing and riding a horse in a film scene is something else. Your horse is a prop, and you need to make certain that you know how to get the horse to move forward by digging your heels into his flank. You also need to know how to stop, turn left, and right. You have to learn how to say your lines and still maintain control of the horse. You also need to know what is going on with your horse physically. If he has a runny nose, you need to wipe it off before riding onto set. The objective is to sit up straight in the saddle and to look confident when mounting, riding, and dismounting.
My largest challenge this time around was mounting the horse because my upper body strength is not as strong as it once was. My goal between now and the next time I ride is to spend more time at the gym using the upper-cycle and lifting weights so that I can mount unassisted. I am so appreciative of Al and some of my classmates for boosting me up onto the horses. It took our combined muscle strength to get me up there! The other challenge I had was wearing snow boots as opposed to western boots. Next time I’ll not only be wearing the proper boots, I’ll also be wearing spurs if I can find a pair somewhere, and a cowboy hat.
I’m serious about being a horseback riding actor even if I never master horseback riding in real life. I learned years ago that horseback riding is emotionally and physically healing, but now I know it’s also empowering. So the benefits of riding a horse go far beyond just getting a role riding a horse in a production.