Sunday, March 30, 2014

The A to Z Challenge

For the month of April, I've decided to join the A-Z blog challenge. This means I'll make a sterling effort to produce twenty-six blog posts during April, one for every letter of the alphabet, each having some connection with my books and their setting.

The entry for "A" will appear on the 1st of April. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Horse-riding in the Dart Valley

It's been quite a few years since I last went horse-riding. At one point I even took lessons for a year—mostly so that I'd be able to write with reasonable accuracy about people whose main mode of transport, other than walking, was via horse, but also because it was just plain fun. Then my riding teacher retired, I got busy with other things, and riding just stopped happening.

We were recently in lovely Glenorchy, at the head of Lake Wakatipu, and while there we took the opportunity to go exploring by horseback. I had a particular motivation, as some characters will come to this area in a future book (not the one I'm currently writing, but I like to plan ahead), and part of their journey will be on horseback.

The drive to Glenorchy is a stunning one:

At the head of the lake, the Dart River empties into it:

Our ride was to follow the river along the Dart Valley:

We're surrounded by mountains here. The range to the left is the Humboldts, which were among those used to portray the Misty Mountains in The Lord of the Rings movies. They were filmed at a snowier time of year!

We went with Dart Stables, and were very happy with our choice. The horses were well cared for and well schooled, the guides highly capable, good at inspiring confidence, and clearly very fond of the horses.

Dart is rather different from many such operations in that (despite the name) they don't actually stable their horses. Instead the horses live outdoors all year round, forming herds rather like wild horses do. And just as in such wild herds, there's quite a strong hierarchy among these horses. While there's some fluidity in this ranking, at any one time the top horse is most definitely on top, the lowest ranking one is at the bottom, and each horse is well aware of who is currently higher or lower than him/herself.

The guides need to take this hierarchy into account when assigning horse to rider, along with the rider's skill and size, while also allowing (human) couples to ride together. I think this must only be possible at all because they know their horses so well; as it was, they made a great job of it with our group. I got Baxter, a nice old thoroughbred with a mind of his own who rather gives the lie to a saying I used to hear as a child: "You can't fatten a thoroughbred". Roger got a sweet-natured fellow called Trevor who, it emerged, is a film star: he was in Prince Caspian. Trevor is most definitely well above Baxter in the hierarchy, so he set off ahead of Baxter and me.

We chatted along the route, sharing our different backgrounds and interests. Of course my most particular interest came up, and I mentioned that this area will appear in one of my books, with characters travelling on horseback. One of the guides was quite familiar with the history of the area, including the former practice of using horses on the early section of the Routeburn track, and we had an interesting discussion.

As the morning wore on, Baxter was becoming noticeably more lively. His ears were pricked, and there was an extra spring in his step. He was also beginning to push himself forward, doing his best to nudge in ahead of Trevor. At first I held him back, but eventually since it was obvious that Trevor was quite content to fall in behind, the guides suggested that I let Baxter take Trevor's place in the line.

They were both very surprised that Baxter had managed to get Trevor to allow this, remarking several times that they could not get over Baxter's confidence or Trevor's obligingness. We finally decided on what the answer must be: Baxter had obviously been paying close attention to the conversation, and had now decided that he was going to be


Baxter claiming his new place as we prepare for a river crossing:

and perhaps plotting his next move up the line—he did gain one more place when the horse in front of him held back at the crossing (Baxter loves water). If the ride had lasted much longer, I think he had ideas of being in the lead!

Baxter and Trevor, with riders: