Doing research is one of the most exciting parts of writing a novel, though this week some people– including me — might say my research went too far.
I needed to give my protagonist a scar. What better way than have her ride a horse that spooks and sends her flying onto a sharp rock? Two horse-owning friends reviewed my first and second drafts and made suggestions. After reading my scene, my writing coach suggested I go a step further and take a ride myself.
I started by touring one friend’s stable and meeting its denizens. I had such a good time that she invited me to take a ride on one of her ponies. After we set the date for my ride, she asked for my goal. I wrote: My goal is to learn to steer and walk and go a little faster than a walk and not end up on my butt in the mud.
“We’ll start out in the arena,” she said. “I’ll hold the reins and walk you around in a circle. If you’re comfortable, after that we’ll take a ride on the trails.”
Up to this point, I’d researched situations I was never going to experience personally via interviews. How thrilling to move beyond collecting secondhand information and explore the sounds of the saddle creaking, the horse whinnying, my body rocking from side to side, the texture of the horse’s mane and dozens of other sensory details. I anticipated a great scene developing out of this adventure, and came ready with my iPhone for photos, a pen and notebook to record everything.
The first lesson was to sit up straight and look over the horse’s ears. I passed that test easily. From there we moved to pulling on the reins to stop, loosening them to move forward, and using legs and reins to change direction. Large block letters were nailed to the fenced enclosure and my task was to move the pony from B to E, D to A and so on. So far so good.
As we headed toward B something unexpected happened. My horse jumped. I screamed. I hung on by one stirrup, then flew off. My lower back whumped onto the gravel and dirt surface below me and I said, “I really, really hurt” several times. Forty-five minutes later, I was wheeled into an examining room, x-rayed, given pain killers and sent home.
The good news is that I suffered no broken bones, just bruises to my lower back. The happy pills the doctor gave me were enough to make me forget the pain and laugh when my friend returned my horseback riding goals to me with the message: “Well, mission accomplished– no mud!”