“I used to act. Acting gave me up a long time ago, but it taught me a few things; like a work ethic, how to take rejection, a few accents, how to do a passible waltz and somewhere along the way it got me onto a horse.
Riding was never something I was interested in doing, as a child I had trundled around on the back of some unfortunate nag at a children’s farm and that was my experience with horses. Which makes the fact that in a matter of days my wife and I are going on a riding safari in Zimbabwe with African Horse Safaris quite surprising. I’m still trying to work out what happened.
I can track it all back to two things, my afore mentioned wife Alex, a life-long rider and regular contributor here, and an audition.
It was for a show which was being shot in Wicklow at the time. It wasn’t a big part, but I hadn’t landed a job in a while, so I was pretty determined to nail the audition. I diligently learned my lines, worked on my accent and arrived 15 minutes early to the casting director’s offices so I could sit in the waiting room with all the other actors who fit the same description as me.
The screen-test was going fine, I had done my scene 3 times and rare, golden words like “not bad” were being used. Then came the question that led me to where I am today,
“So Sam, tell us, can you ride a horse?”
The worrying thing retrospectively was the haste with which I replied,
I think I also added an “of course” for a dash of conviction.
“Great, because we want you to enter your first scene on horseback. What sort of level are you?”
I had been with Alex for about two years at this stage, in that time I had become an expert groom and tack-cleaner, if they had wanted someone who knew his way around some saddle-soap and a sponge, they had their man. The thing is, as as well as the grooming I had picked-up a whole lot of nomenclature, which I decided to fashion into a metaphorical shovel to dig myself even deeper.
“Oh, I’m not too bad, walk, trot, sitting trot, canter sitting and forward seat, gallop, the usual,” I said airily.
They seemed delighted, shook my hand and I left, passing all the other dark-haired pale twenty-somethings, who didn’t have rider girlfriends to arm them for such an audition.
Half an hour later my agent called to tell me I had got the part and ask me why I hadn’t mentioned my horse-riding skills before. At this point you would think I was worried, but I had read enough acting autobiographies to know that this was standard procedure, everyone from Marlon Brando to Michael Caine had done the same thing and they were always fine.
What actually got me worried was a phone call the next day.
“Hello, is that Sam?”
“Yes. Who’s this?”
“The horse-wrangler. Can you ride Sam?”
I was about to take out my trusty nomenclature shovel to dig some more, when he cut me off.
“No you can’t, none of you actors can.”
“Well, actually my girlfriend is an eventer, so I know what I’m doing,”
“I don’t care if your girlfriend is Zara f**king Phillips, you can’t ride. We’ll see as much at your riding test in a month, your agent will email you the details!”
And he hung-up. I started worrying at this point.
So there I was, an acting job in hand that would keep me in rent for a few months and a riding test that would lose me the same job one month away. Help came in the form of a broken leg. The leg belonged to Alex’s sister, Anna, who was working with race-horses in the US. She decided to come home and recuperate, so she and Alex devised a plan which they said would get me riding in no-time.
That plan was to put me on Ben, Alex’s at the time 7 year-old thoroughbred who was eventing fit, and although a very nice horse, probably not the easiest to learn on.
It all started on the lunge, the idea of sitting on Ben while Anna had a hold of him with the lunge reign was comforting, but that comfort went out the window when she took away my reins and stirrups. To my inexperienced mind she had just removed the part I hold onto for dear life, and the bits I wedge my feet into so I don’t fall. That mentality was why I had to lose them.
My job was to develop an independent seat, this sounded like something from politics, or a child’s morality tale about a chair who wanted to live a life independent of all the other seats at the table. But I found out it was the key to everything. Twice a day, every single day of the week, Anna, Ben and I would go to the paddock and do endless circles of walk and trot on the lunge.
As I wobbled and bounced my way around, Anna would patiently ask me to sit-up, engage my core, repeat the word legs as if I’d left mine behind. You see, whatever Michael Caine might say in his book, riding a horse properly is bloody difficult and because I was in the company of experts I was learning to ride properly.
Pretty soon I could have my reins and my stirrups back, but not at the same time. This was about learning to keep my hands level and steady, I was constantly reminded that the reins were not for steering and that Ben wasn’t a motorbike. When I didn’t have the reins I had to get to grips with the truly unnatural concept of putting all my weight into my heels, creating the anchor that would keep me in the saddle. I was also introduced to do rising trot, remember the one I said I was an expert at? With my arms folded across my chest, I tried to rise and fall with Ben’s rhythm, but actually spent most of the time bouncing in the saddle a flat football.
Slowly but surely under Anna’s patient tutelage my ability started to grow. When I was let off the lunge, I realised how much work that lunge whip had been doing and learned the power of a good kick. This soon led to my first canter, something that had looked so slow and measured when Alex and Anna did it, felt fast and furious to me.
During my tentative steps into cantering I had a lesson in perception versus reality, I remember coming into the corner and asking Ben to canter and he just took off, I could feel my lack of control, instinctively my body started to curl up, my heels came up and I started to feel unbalanced, I could hear faint shouts of “Heels down! Sit back!” eventually Ben came to a stop and I looked up expecting faces as concerned as I felt for myself, instead I saw Alex and Anna in stitches laughing. Apparently the whole thing had been pretty genteel, I had just dealt with it like a supreme amateur.
I rode twice a day, every day for four weeks, rain or shine with Ben. Anna drilled me, patiently and clearly, Alex would come back from work and note the progress I was making. My riding test drew closer and at this stage I was starting to think I might be able to be true to my word. I was walking, trotting, cantering, Ben was on the bit and I even knew what that was and how it should feel. The most worrying thing was that I was starting to enjoy it.
The day of the test I got picked-up by a production company car along with two other actors and was brought to the wranglers yard.
When I arrived I was popped on a pony and the first thing I realised was how much closer to the ground I was then when I was on Ben.
We were put into a tiny arena and asked to walk, trot and canter.
When I got off, the wrangler came up to me, gave me a finger-shattering hand shake and apologised. He said it was obvious I’d been riding for years.
If you got this far you might be wondering how my riding scene went? Unfortunately the beach we were supposed to ride on was so turned up by a storm that it wasn’t safe. So the arrival of the characters on horseback was scrapped and we arrived on foot instead.
What I did get was a taste of a discipline and art that has been part of our society for centuries. With that taste came an enormous admiration and respect for those who have developed the skills and tools to build that relationship with their horse, whether it’s hacking or competing at the highest level.
When Alex mentioned a horse safari I immediately said yes. Who wouldn’t want to go on that kind of adventure? Images of Hemingway, Out of Africa and Beryl Markham floated through my head.
But since my crash course in riding I hadn’t done much more than a few ride-outs, the last of which was nearly two years ago. It was time to go back to school.
My teacher this time was Alex, my riding school horse still Ben. If you want to find out how good your relationship is, take riding lessons from your wife. In this case I was still the grouchy frustrated student, but Alex was the picture of patience.
What was surprising was just how rusty I had become. I was fitter and stronger, but my signals, the tools I had to tell Ben what to do needed sharpening.
So it was back to the lunge, no stirrups, no reins, legs, legs, legs and quickly it came back.
I had my first fall going over a very small jump, Ben decided he was tired of this amateur and gave a little buck on landing and I went over, inexplicably landing on my feet. Disappointingly no one filmed my acrobatics, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
The last thing I did before the trip was to go on a ride out. It was an exercise in putting my skills to the test on something a little easier than Ben. That was the moment when it finally felt like I was riding again.
So, how do I feel about going to ride for ten days in Zimbabwe? Excited, how could I not be? It has occurred to me that human on a bed of horse may be a delicacy to a Lion. But at least I’ll have been riding properly – horse on the bit, upright, heels down, everything in order.”