The whole experience was absolutely exhilarating; I was bitten by the riding bug. I realized I had been in over my head in Hungary, so when I came home I decided to take up the sport properly. I began to train at a small barn in Bedford, New York (where we have our home today), and to build up time in the saddle with good friends in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where I often appeared at the theater festival. In the fall we would usually go up to Woodstock, Vermont, for three days of trail riding in the Green Mountains. I learned a lot from riding many different horses, especially from Hope, a mare I rode briefly who was one of the meanest and most unpredictable four-legged creatures I've ever come across.
Whenever I came into her stall to feed her or put on the saddle, she would turn around, stick her rear end in my face, and pin her ears back-a sure sign that she was about to kick me in the teeth. Once in Vermont I sat quietly on a hilltop waiting for the others to catch up. As I loosened my legs and dropped my feet out of the stirrups, Hope spun around for no good reason and dumped me off her side. I began to think her name was particularly apt, because you could only hope to catch her in a good mood and have a decent ride.
By 1989 I had progressed to the point where I could consider competing in combined training events. This aspect of the sport appealed to me because it has three phases: dressage, stadium jumping, and cross-country jumping. The challenge is to develop such a strong bond between horse and rider that you can succeed in the precise maneuvers and tight control of the dressage ring, then take sizable jumps at a gallop out in the woods a few hours later, which requires speed, accuracy, and confidence. I had various horses over the years, and whenever I went on a film location I found the best trainer in the area and surreptitiously took lessons, hoping that the producers or their insurance company wouldn't catch me at it. In this way I had the benefit of working with some of the best riders and teachers in the country-Mark Weissbecker, Brian Sabo, Mike Huber, Stephen Bradley, and Yves Sauvignon, to name a few.
Each trainer had a slightly different approach. Mark Weissbecker emphasized the quality of the canter in approaching every jump: the hindquarters, the "engine" of the horse, must be fully engaged in order to jump successfully. Brian Sabo gave me a mental image that helped build my confidence when approaching challenging fences at speed. He asked his students to imagine that there was a steel spear strapped to the breastplate of the horse, and that the rider's intention was to go at the jump and make splinters out of it with that weapon. In other words, you think of going through the jump rather than over it. This usually results in finding the perfect distance for takeoff; the horse, naturally preferring to go over the fence instead of through it, will jump nicely.
My allergies disappeared. I was smitten with riding and wanted to do it as often and as well as I could. But as I learned I always kept in mind the advice of my first flying instructor, Robert Hall, just after I received my license: "The successful outcome of any maneuver must never be seriously in doubt." As an avid sports enthusiast, particularly attracted to activities that some would consider risky or even dangerous, I took this almost as a mantra.
In the fall of 1994 I was filming Village of the Damned in Northern California, but I was desperate to compete in one more combined training event before the season was over. So I caught a plane back east and went up to Mark Weissbecker's barn in the Berkshires, where he had been training my Irish Thoroughbred, Denver, while I was away. On Saturday I took Denver to the meet at Stonleigh-Burnham. This was a competition in which all three phases are done on the same day: dressage and stadium jumping in the morning, cross-country in the afternoon. I hadn't been on Denver for more than three months, but Mark had kept him going well, and we were high in the standings before the afternoon. As we started the cross-country phase, however, I realized that Denver was reverting to one of his old bad habits: he was running with his head down as we approached the jumps instead of with his head up, which is the safe and proper way to approach an obstacle.
Use of this excerpt from Still Me by Christopher Reeve may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright© 1998 by Christopher Reeve. All rights reserved
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