I've been putting off this particular chronicle for weeks, I think partially due to the fact that I have no idea how to capture in any amount of words just how unforgettable it was.
I suppose I should start from the beginning. Not the New Zealand beginning--the real beginning. The real beginning means going all the way back to the early 2000's, when I first watched The Lord of the Rings and all six discs of behind the scenes with my brothers (I don't think Mom and Dad made it all the way through the special features). The real beginning was watching Arwen's epic ride to save Frodo from the Ringwraiths, to then find out in the BTS that the actual legend was Jane Abbott, Arwen's stunt rider.
I reveled in the adventure of finding out about all the different horses, riders, and wranglers involved in the movies. It made it somehow more real and more magical at the same time. But of all the beautiful horses used on set, my favorite was always Florian, the Andalusian who played Asfaloth (Arwen's steed). Asfaloth was so important to me that I valued his card in Lord of the Rings Monopoly above the Middle Earth equivalents of Boardwalk and Park Place. He was somehow even more majestic than Shadowfax, the "lord of all horses," though only just so.
I was moved almost to tears during the segment which told the story of how Jane, having fallen in love with Florian throughout the course of filming, wanted to buy him but could not afford to because there were others who wanted him as well. So Viggo Mortensen left her a voicemail saying that she could go pick up Florian. He had bought the horse for her.
Fast forward to about a month ago. I had only been in Levin for a few days when Carolyn, while telling me local LotR stories, mentioned that her vet, Ray (who she'd already spoken of several times and who lives only fifteen minutes away) owned the Andalusian stallion that was in the movie.
"Florian?!" I was in wonderful disbelief, but then the doubts began. Who's this "Ray" fellow, anyway, and how does a small-town vet end up with the stallion that Viggo bought for Jane? I was skeptical, but couldn't help being curious in spite of myself. I hadn't even dreamed of meeting Florian while in NZ because I didn't think he was even still alive after all these years. The possibilities flooded my mind, and I asked Carolyn if she could ask Ray if I could meet him. After all, there was a chance it was really him.
Fast forward another couple weeks. Nothing had happened, but I was still hopeful. I was investigating online one evening when one discovery led to another until I eventually found Jane's website and all the pieces fell together: the stunt rider and the vet got married! Ray and Jane actually met on the set. I sent Jane an email after freaking out drastically and gushing to Carolyn for about a half hour, trying and failing to rein in my enthusiasm in order to ask Jane if I could meet Florian and pay for a riding lesson from her. Then I waited for what seemed like ages but was really only a day or two, and she sent back a very sweet and modest email saying that of course I could meet Florian and have a lesson, and she would even show me "a few pics of life on set". I was beyond thrilled, and quickly sorted out my budget and set to work planning a day for the adventure.
The day we settled on was Friday, the 15th of May, at 1PM. I got more and more excited as the day drew near, but then the storm hit. It poured for three days almost nonstop, so badly that there was flooding in many areas. We decided to go ahead and plan for it, though, and see how it was the day of.
I woke up Friday morning, threw open the curtains, and was in awe. After days of heavy, gray skies, I could see blue again and the sun was coming up over the mountains! There was a light fog on the grass, but no rain. I was beside myself with gratitude and pent-up excitement. Then as the afternoon came around, the skies turned gray again. I couldn't decide whether to allow myself to stay excited, but we called Jane from the end of the road and she said we were good to go if we still wanted to try it.
So off we went. I was praying the entire drive over that God would hold off the rain, just until we finished--I actually asked for it to start pouring as we got in the car, so that we would know it was Him, and I swore that I would testify that it was. The skies grew darker, but I just kept praying.
It was an absolute pleasure to meet Jane. She is soft-spoken, unassuming, and her smiles start from her eyes. She was wrapping up another ride and told me that Florian was behind the barn and I could go ahead and see him.
And so I met the king himself. He's twenty-nine years old and had a halter and cover on, but even with all of that, you can still see how majestic he is.
He's a great deal whiter now than he was fifteen years ago, so I probably wouldn't have recognized him if I hadn't been told who he was. But his eyes are the same, and the fine shape of his head and arch of his neck haven't changed.
I loved on him, planting more than one kiss on his face, and then Jane came around and offered to take his cover off for better pictures. If I thought he was stunning before...wow. Even from the way he stands, you can see that he might as well be royalty.
Jane kept bribing him with treats until we'd gotten plenty of pictures.
Then we moved on to the horse that I'd be riding. Jane said, "I thought you'd like to ride him, since he's Florian's progeny." His name was Rico, and he was black and embodied the term "gentle giant". I didn't fully appreciate his height until he raised his head all the way up and I suddenly realized how tiny I was in comparison to him. I became very grateful that his temperament was nothing like Logan's.
Once Jane and I got our horses groomed and saddled, we led them out to the riding ring for a bit of a warm-up. I mentioned as I mounted that it had been a while, and Jane asked when was the last time I had ridden. I told her it had been a couple years since I'd ridden consistently, and that I'd never had the chance to really learn. She said we'd stick with beginner stuff then, and kept hold of the lead rope. She said it was just a precaution since Rico was still quite young, and that I was in complete control. It was up to me to tell him where to go and when. Since I had only really had two short lessons in my life, we started from the basics. That was so wonderful for me, because I've ridden a decent amount but I'm always a little insecure on a horse due to never being sure if I'm doing things right, and of course confidence is of utmost importance when riding.
So we went around the ring, re-learning everything from turning to stopping. I had no idea how little you actually need to do to communicate to a horse--especially an attentive and well-trained one--what you want it to do. You can tell it to halt by simply dropping your heels and relaxing in your seat. No hauling at the reins necessary. And I had to do little more than to look in the direction I wanted to go for him to respond. It was a bit of an adjustment to ride English when I've almost always ridden Western, but Jane said that I had adapted exceedingly well, and that I had wonderful form and was very well aligned. She did let me have the stirrups a bit longer than they would be for English, because she said that unless you're competing, it makes no difference what form you use or how expensive your tack is or anything at all. Just ride in the way that is most comfortable for both you and the horse.
Jane and I both noticed a significant improvement almost immediately, and soon after, she decided that I was ready to leave the ring after trotting a bit. She mounted her horse and we set out side by side among the trees. There was some water to wade through in several places because of the flooding, but the horses were champs. Jane's two dogs followed us pretty much the whole way, and she said I should be honored that the little one came, too.
The trail was grassy, and wide enough that we only had to go in single file a couple times and I only had to duck under tree branches once. We walked out of the trees to a wide river, which was higher than normal from the storm, and then turned back.
We enjoyed a nice little chat on the way back, and as we passed one of the fields, she pointed out a dark brown horse and said, "That's Uraeus, Viggo's horse." Viggo being Viggo Mortensen, of course, AKA Aragorn. Uraeus played Brego in The Two Towers. Jane told me that Kenny, the other horse Viggo rode (Hasufel) was in one of the other fields, although he had a rough accident a while back and is now incontinent as a result. That was sad to hear, but it was so cool to know that they were both really there, as my friend Molly had found out online (and we had subsequently freaked out together, but weren't sure if they were still there). Jane also pointed out Clydie, the pony that drew Gandalf's firework cart through Hobbiton. I asked how Uraeus and Kenny ended up with her and Ray, wondering if it was just because Viggo travels a lot.
She told me the story as we drew closer to home: Viggo fell in love with them, Uraeus especially, but didn't want to put them through the journey from NZ back to the US after buying them, especially since they weren't very young anymore. He had made friends with Ray and Jane on set, and Jane had actually known Uraeus for most of his life, so he asked if he could keep them on the farm there. I remarked that it was nice that he had somewhere to leave them where he knew they'd be well taken care of, and she said, "It is, and he visits whenever he's over here, so that's nice, too."
I didn't have very long to contemplate how epic it would be to have Viggo just dropping in to see his horses every now and then before we were back. The ride had been all too short, but lovely all the same. We arrived at the barn and she taught me how to dismount in true English fashion, then was surprised by how well I did it. We got the tack off and groomed the horses, and as we were doing so, someone said, "Here it comes!"
And, sure enough, the clouds had finally let loose, as if by the approval of the Almighty Himself. I couldn't bite back my smile, and thanked Him immediately before saying, "I prayed for that--for the rain to come after we were done." Hours later, it still hadn't stopped.
Once we'd finished, Jane gave the horses a feed and then went to the house to look for her Lord of the Rings set photo album. We chilled with the horses until she returned, saying that she forgot her mum had borrowed it. She showed me a mini album in the tack room, though, which was filled with gorgeous pictures of her and Florian from shows and competitions. They were stunning.
Then she took me to the back of the barn, where there were boxes of souvenirs like shirts, hats, and special prints of photos. The photos were 10NZD each, and since I had enough cash, I chose one of Jane on Florian on location with mountains in the background, surrounded by the Black Riders' horses with their riders/wranglers. Jane said that she even rode as a Ringwraith in different shots of the same scene in which she's riding Florian ("chasing myself") and some of the other Black Riders were women, as well. Then she said I could have two photos since we didn't quite ride for the full hour, so I gleefully picked out a second. By the time we were done talking, she had thrown in a third one. So I walked away with 30NZD-worth of epic, rare photos for a third of that price.
Then, all too soon, it was time to go. I thanked Jane for everything, and she ducked under Rico to give me a hug. I said, "My friend Olivia said to give you a hug for her," and that made her laugh. I told her I wouldn't be able to afford to come back this time around (we had discussed the possibility on the ride) but that I would almost definitely be back, even if it was years from now.
Then we went home and Jane went to pick up her kids from school, and it's been a couple weeks and I'm still all like: