There’s a huge, four-year-old Clydesdale named Ben who plies his trade on a ridiculously scenic horseback riding station outside Queenstown, New Zealand. Ben loves to eat…anything. Ben also enjoys stopping for drinks at stream crossings and is quite perturbed by flies buzzing around his head (but who isn’t?). His best friend—or mate, as they say in these parts—is a former racehorse named George. I know all of this because I spent two hours aboard Ben on the first horseback ride of my life. Can you even be “aboard” a horse? Doesn’t matter.
Anyway, prior to this occasion, the closest I’d come to horses was wagering on them at a handful of thoroughbred tracks in the U.S. and Australia. Well, that and the mechanical bull we rode the previous afternoon after two whiskeys on the rocks and two beers before 3 p.m. I’ve always found horses fascinating, though. Up close, they are enormously strong, beautiful animals. The fact that humans can train them to carry them around or run fast so people win money is astounding to me. If you tried that with, say, a tiger it would end differently.
Ever since watching Billy Crystal in City Slickers as a kid, I thought doing one of those regular-people-go-be-cowboys-for-a-week things would be cool. Without an entire week to spare and no midlife crisis upon me, the two-hour variety seemed like the sensible option. So with a handful of brochures staring back at us from the wall of our hotel lobby, my college buddy Andre and I decided to take a one-day break from jumping down river canyons or climbing large mountains and give cowboying a shot.
It wasn’t easy finding a partner like Ben. Due to my size (weight), I was shot down by several outfits in the Queenstown area. “Sorry, Tim, but we don’t have a horse for someone your size,” the emails said. Having been made to feel like a fatty, these responses only strengthened my resolve to find a match… of the equine variety, I mean. Finally, a very nice woman named Kelly Duncan, who operates Ben Lomond Horse Treks with her husband, replied with good news: “Yes we do have one horse who can happily take you,” Kelly wrote. “Ben, our big Clydesdale, is lovely. He’s very kind and gentle, but he is only a walking horse.”
Only a walking horse? What was she expecting I wanted to do? I had no visions of anyone yelling, “Annnnd DOWN the stretch they come in the Derby!” as Ben and I headed for home. I didn’t need Seabiscuit; I needed Mr. Ed. Plus, Ben was a Clydesdale. There was a 75 percent chance he would lead me to a stash of Budweiser in a cold mountain stream, right?
Ben Lomond Station sits in a beautiful valley beside Moke Lake, up a long dirt road about 15 km outside Queenstown. They could film a Western here. It is absolutely stunning, with green hillsides and mountains rising sharply above. If you were going to go for a horseback ride once, this would be the place to do it. Admittedly, it would be a long way to go if you were not already in New Zealand.
Upon arrival, we said hello to the all-female crew that handles the day-to-day operations of the place (and that part wasn’t even planned). Kelly introduced us to Anna, a lovely young woman from Germany who would be our guide, responsible for taking us on our 90-minute trek and preventing this from happening. She didn’t know it yet, but outside of Ben, Anna would be my best friend for the next 90 minutes. She spent a few minutes explaining the ins and outs of riding a horse—mounting them, turning them, how to sit up when they stopped to relieve themselves, and explaining quite clearly that they were not to eat anything out on the trail. (You’ll want to make note of that last item.)
Andre would be riding George, the 13-year-old former thoroughbred who looked like he’d been doing a bit more dining than dashing in his retirement years. Ben and George, Anna told us, were best friends. “They are inseparable, so they’ll enjoy being out there together and they are two of our best horses,” she said. “They’re very well behaved. It will be easy.” Famous Last Words alert there.
We departed the stable area and made our way along a dirt road at a slow comfy, amble. Ben and I followed closely behind Anna and her horse, with Andre and George bringing up the rear…for now. Three minutes in, for no reason that I could decipher, Ben decided to make a u-turn and head back in the opposite direct as George and Andre sauntered by laughing. Well, Andre was laughing for sure. George probably was, too. It seems Ben’s attention was grabbed by a few pieces of hay that had been inadvertently dropped along the trail. It was like someone leaving a slice of pizza on the table in a college dorm room at midnight. It won’t last long, and the Five Second Rule does not apply to hay or horses, it seems. Ever heard a very inexperienced rider try to reason with a 1,700-pound horse? It sounds like this:
“Where are you going, Ben?”
“What are you doing, Ben?”
“No. Wrong way, Ben.”
“You’re not supposed to eat that, Ben.”
(Notice there is not one reply there.)
With Anna shouting directions to “pull him up” and get him on his way, I did my best to use the reins to turn him around, giving him a slight pinch with my left leg to turn him right, as previously instructed. My verbal pleading would have made John Wayne and Sam Elliot proud: “Coooome onnn, Bennn! Puhleeease. Let’s not do this today, buddy.” Which sounds almost as cool as: “I have two guns. One for each of you,” and “I’m your Huckleberry.” Yeah, I could be in Tombstone II if they make one (which they absolutely should not do).
After the hay was digested we were off again, winding onto a beautiful trail through a working farm. Along the way we came across cattle, sheep and other animals sitting alongside the trail and looking curiously at us as we strolled by. We crossed several small streams, each of which Ben used for a drink break that put us farther behind Anna and Andre, who were now happily chatting away while I talked to Ben and patted his neck oblivious to the fact that I am allergic to horses. (Bloodshot, itchy eyes and 15 sneezes would soon follow, but it was nothing that couldn’t be dealt with.) Ben seemed to know he was losing ground because he took shortcuts across the grass whenever the path made a wide turn, clearly aware of the direction the party was headed. No use walking those extra 12 steps along the trail itself, Ben. By all means, whatever’s easiest.
Anna would later tell me that Ben is in his teenage years as horses go, meaning he loves to eat and can have a mind of his own at times. Hard to fault him for those traits. “I am still bemused by Ben!!” Kelly later told me by email. “Very out of character for him, but I guess that’s why they say kids and animals always turn you into a liar! So sorry that he was taking you on ‘his own’ tour.”
Not to worry at all, Kelly. Ben made a great day even more entertaining. And he would save his best performance for last. About 300 yards from home, George pulled up quickly to deposit a large pile of something you would not want to step in (because you’d never see your shoe again) on the ground. Ben and I nearly walked into him. Instead, after George went on his way, Ben took three more steps and abruptly made a u-turn to feast on George’s fresh pile. When they said Ben and George were close, they weren’t kidding. I managed to turn him fairly quickly this time and he seemed to be on his way. Then, seemingly sensing that I had settled, he made a second u-turn for another helping of his good mate’s manure. WHO IS THIS GUY? He’s like a damn bull shark. Everything is on the menu.
Overhearing more one-way dialogue between Ben and I, Anna called out from the far end of the paddock. “What’s he doing, Tim?” I searched for the words before succinctly shouting back, “He’s eating George’s sh!t!”
Cue the belly laugh from Andre, who by now was telling Anna all about his trip to Oktoberfest in Anna’s homeland and saying whatever else guys with limited “game” say to pretty young German girls. (Is that sonofabitch speaking German to her while my horse eats a steaming pile of shit?)
“Pull him up!” Anna yelled through her own laughter. “You can be firm with him.”
Oh, sure. The guy busy eating his best mate’s fresh dump cares what I have to say right now.
“He’s not supposed to be eating,” Anna repeated.
“Yes, I recall. I didn’t ask him to do it and, to be honest, I can’t imagine what he finds appealing about it.”
I took her advice and got firm with the big fella. Soon, we were back in gear and on our way again. Ben took me safely back to the hitching post, where we said our goodbyes…while he ate. Again.
And no, he never showed me the Budweiser stash. Next time, Ben. Next time.