EXPERIENCED horseman Peter Gould helped Hollywood's Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman look like they had been born in the saddle for their blockbuster film, Australia.
But no doubt the CowboyUp Trail Rides instructor had to muster all his skills, patience and diplomacy recently to take on an even greater task: teaching me to ride.
I had been looking forward all week to the trail ride at Emu Creek (where On Our Selection author Steele Rudd grew up), an hour north of Toowoomba.
But 30 years have passed since my last close encounter with a horse, and the bravado of youth has given way to the cowardice of age.
My vertically challenged appearance produces my first embarrassment of the morning: we try three saddles on two horses before finding one where I can actually reach the stirrups comfortably.
By the time I have gone three times through the routine of "left foot in stirrup, hold on to the horse's mane and reins with your left hand, hold the saddle knob with the right hand and ease the leg over", the nerves have set in.
Finally, atop the soft "show" saddle of Peter's wife Gill on a very calm and good-natured quarter horse named Freckles, I gingerly make my way to the fenced arena to await further instructions from the pro.
But I am not horsing around when I announce to my trail buddies that I would "feel much better if Freckles had a seatbelt".
"I'm sorry, but I don't think I can do this," I inform Peter as we prepare to embark on the ride.
"Perhaps I should just stay here and wait for the rest of you."
But Peter specialises in teaching beginner riders, school and family groups, birthday party-goers and scaredy cats like me.
His big smile and gentle tone coaxes me into continuing ... attached to his large, capable hands by a 2m lead hooked up to my horse's bridle.
I feel like I am the horsewoman equivalent of a teenager with L plates, and Peter is the instructor with dual controls in case of disaster.
But I take comfort in the fact that I still need some "horse sense" to remember how to speak Freckles' language.
I get him started with a few light bumps of the stirrups on his sides and a slight loosening of the ropes - err, reins - and practise stopping him with a slight pull on the reins and a "whoa".
I need to remember how to use the reins to manoeuvre him left or right around trees and centre him through gates, lean back in the saddle with feet pointed forward for balance down the many slight inclines, and to lean forward to get up hills with ease (though the poor thing still seems to pant under the strain).
I have to let him know when he's going too fast, too slow or travelling too close to Peter's horse Gigi in front and risking a kick to the head.
So I soon realise our arrangement is a good compromise.
As I am the weakest link, our group has much more horse "walking" than cantering so we have plenty of time to breathe in the fresh country air, lap up the autumn sunshine, survey the majestic countryside with mountain backdrop and keep an eye out for the native birds, wallabies and occasional deer sheltering under shady trees.
And it allows me to carry on a pleasant conversation with Peter to keep my mind off my equine terror.
The Goulds have more than 30 years experience in the western horse industry, training and breeding quarter horses.
Their friendliness and country hospitality immediately put all visitors at ease.
The two met when Peter was a 19-year-old rodeo cowboy and Gill kept her horse at his father's property in the Gold Coast hinterland.
They have been on the 215ha working cattle property at Emu Creek eight years and now have between 120 and 150 Angus beef cattle at any given time.
The Goulds added the trail riding three years ago - a natural progression of their love of helping to build people's confidence in horse riding. A total of 10 horses are used on
the trails, although groups are usually kept to a manageable six.
Peter also now offers half-day horseback musters on the property (beginners and city slickers welcome) in which riders could be shifting paddocks and branding (and learning to shut gates) as part of their droving duties.
Sunset rides are popular for special occasions and come with champagne and a cheese platter for two. The Goulds will even throw in a bonfire if riders wish to linger a little longer on the hill after the sun goes down.
With the horse paddock in sight, Peter ever so sneakily takes me off the lead so I'm on my own in bringing Freckles back and gaining a real sense of accomplishment.
Our ride ends with our "jelly legs" seated around a table under a tree by the horse paddock, sampling Gill's homemade morning tea - a feast of mini sausage rolls, date loaf, brownies, and an array of cakes with water and coffee.
As dogs Huck and Quinn mosey down to the party, our media group is kept amused by each other's attempts at whip cracking and lassoing.
Next, Peter brings out a treasured photo album from the Australia film set and we are keen to hear the stories - straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak. After his brother-in-law won the horse contract for the film, Peter spent seven months in 2007 with Australia - seven weeks pre-filming and helping the stars gain confidence with their riding, then a couple of months with the camera action hotting up in Bowen in North Queensland before wrapping up in Kununurra in the Kimberleys.
The trip from Queensland to Western Australia took five days with 29 horses in tow.
And any notion of a glamorous lifestyle on-set soon fades when we spot a call sheet dated Monday, August 20, 2007, that shows filming all day for a total of 10 seconds of screen time.
Peter and his co-trainers were working 12 to14-hour days getting the livestock on and off-set as required, helping the stars and extras go through their paces on the animals, sitting through take after take, and feeding the horses long after many of the stars and crew had gone to dinner and retired for the night.
But as we flick through the photographs taken with Jackman, Kidman, and others in the Australia album, Peter's eyes still light up as he fondly remembers the details.
In the 2008 movie, set at the beginning of the Second World War, Kidman plays an English aristocrat who inherits a cattle station. But when English cattle barons plot to take her land, she reluctantly joins forces with "Drover" (Jackman) to drive 2000 head of cattle across the most unforgiving land, only to face the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese forces.
Both Jackman and Kidman had ridden horses before their roles but Peter said they generally had only accomplished short "film riding".
He said Jackman especially had taken to his riding tuition with gusto.
"He's so keen and so athletic - he was in The Boy From Oz and all that - and he just loved it (riding) and got into it," Peter said, adding that Gill had taken Jackman's horse from the movie, Malcolm, on our trail ride that morning.
We turn a page to see a particularly unflattering photo of Peter standing beside legendary Aussie actor Jack Thompson (Kipling Flynn in the movie).
Peter ended up as the riding stunt double for Thompson who had 20 years and quite a few kilos on him.
"It got up to 40 degrees heat and I had to have this big fat suit on," Peter recalls, recoiling at the thought.
His happy memories cover the day Gill sat front and centre in a director's chair on-set during a visit on their wedding anniversary; a young Connor Cruise - Kidman's son - trying to talk Peter into letting him ride independently; how hesitant big Aussie actor Eddie Baroo who played tough guy Bull, was in taking the reins; and the day Keith Urban - Kidman's husband and country music superstar - played to a hell of a party in a Bowen pub.
While Peter has also spent time training horses and teaching actors to ride in Thailand, his greatest and quirkiest challenge to date was for the war movie The Great Raid.
The film, mostly shot at Jacobs Well on the Gold Coast, included a scene with water buffalo, and Peter was required to spend six weeks in the Northern Territory learning how to keep them in check.
No one to his knowledge has ever tried to actually train water buffalo before and he quips that the beautiful creatures are fine "once you get the charge out of them".
By the end of two hours, I am full of admiration for Peter and Gill and their humble country life, and enthralled by the celebrity encounters they take in their stride.
Perhaps with a few more horse tales like these under my belt, I might be game enough to progress to my riding P plates.
Sorry, Freckles, but you may not have seen the last of me yet.
TRAIL RIDING FUN
CowboyUp Trail Rides is at 160 Rocky Gully Rd, Emu Creek - just off the New England Highway between Cooyar and Crows Nest, about an hour north of Toowoomba.
All rides by appointment.
One hour ride: $55 per person; two-hour ride (including coffee and cake) $85 per person; four-hour muster (including light lunch) $175 per person; romantic sunset getaway (including 45-minute ride, champagne and cheese platter for two) $140 per couple.
Riding helmets and tuition are provided.
Call 4698 4772 or visit cowboyup.com.au
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