After watching The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies and reading the books, being able to ride a horse through the scenery used to bring Middle Earth to life was a romantic experience. At the end of the ride, however, the beauty of New Zealand surpassed the expected beauty of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy world.
Horseback Riding through Middle Earth
Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Freedom becomes more than a concept and feels like something alive coursing through your veins to create an intoxicating present in the very moment a horse stretches into a canter. Your body then is no longer a single component but connected to an energy source pulsing with a wild power.
The romantic expectation of cantering on horseback through New Zealand was met with the years I had gone out of the saddle. Heart beating in panic at the concern of falling off, I struggled to engage muscles that have been out of practice for too long. Eyes tearing, the force of cutting through the breeze became unexpectedly blinding. My body slammed into my saddle as we followed snaking trails through fields and trees. I confess it was a relief to stop.
My horse, Ricky, was the last in a line of five horses. The sounds of creaking leather mixing with the squishing of mud and occasional nicker seemed like a trespass into a world seemingly brought to life from the pages of J.R.R. Tolkien's books.
Tails swished. Riders chatted. The wind carried peace like the sun delivered sunshine through the clouds, as traces of humans fell away to nature’s might of an age long gone. Mountains towered around us as the horses crossed the Dart braided river system.
The air was devoid of rumbling motors or beeping phones. For three hours, the trek offered an escape from people, technology and even time. All that seemed to exist was the movement of the horses and the stunning surroundings that made us seem insignificant.
The horses cantered five different times and it was not until the third time that my romantic expectations were met. Ricky took me flying around a river, under the shadow of a mountain and across a gravel bed. Looking around as the horses ran through the fields, warmth filled me as I experienced the land in a way my own two feet could never have done.
We raced through a countryside that made me giddy to experience. While there were no orcs prepping for battle, Rohan riders charging down the hills or hobbits outrunning evil, there was a different kind of fellowship riding in the shadows of the Misty Mountains and the Wizard's Vale.
Dart Stables in Glenorchy, New Zealand offers different horse rides through a landscape made famous by The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. Whether someone has never touched a horse or owns five, the stable caters different rides to enable people to experience Middle Earth by horseback.
"It's a chance to have an amazing experience on horseback and connect with the land and really letting go to be one with the land and horse," Tom Baker, business manager for Dart Stables, said.
While Baker prefers bicycles to horses, he said he enjoys seeing the massive smiles people leave with. Different people come for different reasons as they have the full spectrum: from Lord of the Rings fans to experienced riders on holiday to people who want to try holding reins for the first time.
"I think meeting people's expectations and exceeding them is great," he said. "I always enjoy seeing customers having a fantastic experience."
About 13,000 people a year mount one of Dart Stables' 60 male horses. For Christine Shan, a 24-year-old American traveling for a month through New Zealand before starting medical school, this was her chance to live out a fantasy.
"I'm a total Lord of the Rings dork," Shan said. "When I found this, it was a chance to combine my interests."
Shan had done equestrian at her university and fell in love with the idea of experiencing Middle Earth on horseback. Her smile widened and her excitement seemed to shine through her eyes as she talked about the two-hour ride ahead of her.
She had signed up for Dart Stables' River Wild Ride, which takes riders through the Dart braided river system and around the mountains used for filming some scenes of her favorite movies. The ride is advertised for intermediate riders, offering trotting opportunities.
"Riding through where Lord of the Rings was shot is so cool," she said. "I think it gives a more visceral experience of Middle Earth than just driving through."
While Shan joined her group, three women with matching blonde hair gathered for the advanced, three-hour ride.
The Trilogy Loop covers similar ground as the River Wild, but is designed for people who have ridden for 100 hours or more and often own horses. Unlike the two-hour ride, the Trilogy Loop offers chances to canter through the terrain.
Charlotte Schwaer stood with her sister, Katarina, and her cousin, Zena Beuchlyn, waiting for the Trilogy Loop. The three were traveling together across New Zealand on vacation from Germany. Charlotte had completed the ride three years ago and said it was worth coming back. They grew up riding and each ride a horse owned by Beuchlyn.
"I think it's really great that you can have an experience where you're enjoying the scenery, riding and learning so much," Charlotte Schwaer said.
Each of them seemed to canter with a grace that made me glad I followed behind. Along the trek, the friends chatted in German occasionally and answered questions the guide, Ziggy Kelly asked about their lives.
Kelly grew up in Glenorchy and shared stories of growing up while The Lord of the Rings movie was made—including an encounter with actors Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom when she was seven years old. Sixteen years later, Kelly wishes she could have been old enough to be a rider in the movies.
Four of Dart Stables' horses, some now used for the hour-long walking ride, the Hobbit's Hack, were used in the movies. Kelly's mother was a rider of Rohan and was dressed up as a man with a beard.
"I told her, 'You're a good looking man, mum,'" laughed Kelly. "I didn't expect to ever say that."
The ride took us around the mountain where Boromir, one of the riders accompanying Frodo, drew his last breath at the end of the Fellowship of the Rings. We were in view of the peaks used to bring the Misty Mountains to life, an important geographic feature to Tolkien’s Middle Earth referenced in both The Hobbit and the trilogy. Then we saw the valley where Isengard, the fortress for wizard Saruman, was created with a 2-meter (6 feet) tower.
"Lord of the Rings put New Zealand on the tourism map," she said. "For us it's a bit amazing because we've always loved our country and now people want to come to see it because of some movies."
Kelly grew up running around the mountains and said the locals have always loved the area before any movies brought attention to its beauty. While she has lived here her whole life, she said she still feels awe when she gets to ride her horse freely through the terrain.
"We got to know this landscape as our garden," she said. "When [people] come here to see Lord of the Rings and they discover a whole other side they weren't expecting, it's cool."
Dart Stables opened in 1992 and was originally privately owned by a couple who had ridden for the movies. In December 2016, they sold it to Ngai Tahu tourism, a tourism company owned by the South Island Maori iwi, Ngai Tahu. Baker said having this tie to the indigenous people of New Zealand creates a more meaningful experience.
"It's quite culturally important because of the iwi's roots to the area," Baker said. "They're all about giving people an authentic experience and showing the beauty of New Zealand."
As we returned to the stables after our three hour ride, I felt a deeper appreciation for the area. The secluded beauty of the countryside and the freedom I felt on the horse made me appreciate the small details such as the rosehip flowers dotting the ground, the mosaic of gray pebbles along the river and the graceful dance of pampas grass. While my knees were wobbly as I walked away from the horses, my soul was full. Taking the time to interact with the environment created memories unlike anything I had expected.
The 45-minute car ride back to Queenstown seemed to drag on as the scenery whirred by. My eyes darted to capture details: a fern, a tree, a lake, a mountain. The car twisted and turned as sensitive stomachs churned. The grandeur of the mountains was visible in glimpses as the 10-passenger-seat van lurched over bumps and trees passed by like dancing shadows.
Already life was speeding by and I missed the feeling of the grasses brushing my legs as I heard the gurgling of a stream nearby or ducked under a loose branch above me. Leaving Glenorchy, I envied Ricky as he stood in a pasture with the mountains hugging the sky around him, ready to trek back through Middle Earth the following day.