“Hey, lady, you get around!” exclaimed the man next to her at passport control. Darley Newman looked down at her passport, filled to the brim with stamps, and laughed. That is kind of funny, she thought to herself, appreciating the man’s humor and taking a moment to acknowledge the fact herself. She has been around—all around the world. And if the man had asked whether the nature of her travels was business or pleasure, she would have had a hard time giving him an answer. “It’s a mix,” she would reply. “It doesn’t feel like a vacation, really. But it’s such rewarding work that I wouldn’t really call it work either.”
Darley is the creator, writer, producer, and host of the Emmy Award-winning international travel show Equitrekking. In the show, Darley experiences premier equestrian vacations all over the world and shares the cultural experiences unique to each location with viewers in more than 65 countries worldwide—all from the back of a horse. Some job! Does she know how lucky she is? She certainly does. “It’s definitely work, but just being with these different people and riding these different horses is a blessing. It’s so unique.”
Growing up in the hills of North Carolina, Darley discovered a passion that, at the tender age of seven, she could have never suspected would change the course of her life. It was at summer camp that she had her first experience riding horses, and she was hooked. “Once horseback riding gets into your system, it’s hard to get away from it. I guess I’ve kind of sought it throughout my life and made a career out of it.” Later, Darley studied abroad in both Spain and Italy, where she discovered a passion for travel and an enthusiasm for new places and faces.
After graduating from college and working in broadcasting for several years, Darley came up with the idea for Equitrekking and created a website for it: www.equitrekking.com. Three years later in 2007, Darley aired her first episode of Equitrekking—a trip to Vermont exploring Green Mountain trails, driving Clydesdales, riding Icelandic horses, and visiting the University of Vermont’s Morgan Horse Farm. Since then, Equitrekking has aired more than 30 episodes, with several others in the works.
The locations for Equitrekking episodes have become increasingly exotic since the first filming in Vermont. Among them are places throughout the United States as well as many overseas, including Ireland, Iceland, Costa Rica, Jordan, Turkey, and Botswana. Darley chooses all the locations herself.
With locations scattered around the globe, how does she find all these sites to ride horses? Turns out that, just like any other profession, it’s all about the people you know. “I’ve met a lot of people who travel and ride just because they love it. So I get a lot of information from them,” she says. Darley also continues to expand her network with help from her viewers. “I talk to people on the phone, sometimes people I do not even know, just because they’ve written us about a location and I want to hear that firsthand information.”
Firsthand information is key for Darley when it comes to exotic horseback riding vacations. “If you are going to travel and ride somewhere, you want to make sure you’re going to a good place, so we try to share that information with other people.” If viewers find a great place to ride that Darley has not yet had a chance to visit, she often asks them to write about their experiences for publication on the Equitrekking website so other viewers and vacation-seekers can benefit from their advice.
Finding locations for great horseback riding vacations is only the first mountain to tackle for Darley’s small Equitrekking film crew, which usually consists of about four people. Next, they have to get themselves to the place—with all of their luggage and filming equipment. “The show looks great, and we want it to be the best quality possible,” explains Darley, “so we definitely have to bring some equipment, but we have to pare it down.” The more exotic the location is, the more creative the crew has to be in their packing.
For the episode in Botswana, the crew had to take several small charter flights to get to the destination. As a result, they were each limited to 44 pounds of baggage, all of which had to be packed in a soft duffle bag—not exactly ideal for film equipment. But necessity is the mother of invention, and this staff is nothing if not creative. “We did a pack trip in Banff National Park, and we zeroed it down to the least amount of stuff we needed for X amount of days. So we figured out the electricity and how long we could go without power and brought backup batteries and chargers.” With lots of planning and ingenuity, they have been able to get high-definition footage of some of the world’s most exotic locations, many of which are accessible only by horseback.
Once Darley and her staff have finally gotten themselves and their equipment to a new filming location, they don’t waste any time getting started. “Sometimes we are scouting stuff when we get off the plane,” says Darley. When the crew arrived in Turkey after two long flights, they immediately set off scouting the routes they would be filming the following day.
Those who have traveled overseas know how difficult it can be to adjust to a new time zone after spending the night or even longer on a plane. As a woman who travels between 13 to 15 weeks a year and has to hit the ground running, does Darley have any great tips for beating jet lag? “Um, you know . . . not really!” she laughs. “I try to sleep on the plane for one, which can be difficult.” And thankfully, the body’s natural response to excitement and stress makes up for the rest. “When you go somewhere new, it’s always exciting, so I find that the adrenaline gets you through the first day or two at least, and by that time, you’ve caught up with the time difference.”
By now, Darley has become very good at adapting to new situations—an asset that is essential to the avid traveler. Each episode brings new places, new people, and most importantly, new horses. According to www.equitrekking.com, Darley has ridden more than 120 different horses since the first show in 2007. But if you asked Darley yourself, she would tell you she’s ridden far more than that. “I’ve gotten so much better about reading horses,” she admits.
Anyone with an understanding of horses will tell you that each one is very different and comes with its own set of quirks, which can make it particularly challenging to just hop on and make the riding look perfect for the camera. Before hitting the trails to film, Darley makes a point to ask the horse’s owners if there is anything special about the animal that she should know. Still, that doesn’t always guarantee a surprise-free ride. “In Quebec,” she explains, “I had a horse that laid down on the beach when I was riding. Luckily I was able to just step off, but the lady who was with me said, ‘Oh man, I thought he had stopped that!’”
In addition to riding scores of individual horses, Darley has also learned about many different breeds of horses and types of riding styles. Horseback riding around the world gives the traveler a truly inside look at different cultures, peoples, and customs. “The horses really do show you a lot about the environment and the culture and the history,” claims Darley. Each area she visits has a breed and a riding style that is unique to the local culture.
In Andalucia, Spain, Darley got a lesson in classical dressage on the impressive Andalusian horse. In Iceland, Darley discovered a love for the sturdiness of Icelandic horses. In the Wadi Rum of Jordan, she was fittingly paired with an Arabian horse and even wrapped her head like her Bedouin guides. “A lot of times, people assume that I am an expert rider. But when you’re riding in different styles, you can’t be an expert in all of them!” she explains.
Darley always tries her best to fit in and enjoy the ride, and sometimes that requires a new outfit. For her trip to Botswana, she knew that she would be riding through water in the delta and encountering lots of wildlife, so she bought some all-terrain boots and a new pair of neutral-colored all-terrain half chaps. To break in her new half chaps, Darley enlisted the help of her husband, who was kind enough to wear them around his slightly larger calves in order to stretch and soften them.
While Darley has her own collection of riding equipment, she sometimes borrows from the locals to save money and luggage space. “A lot of times I’ll ask someone where I’m going in advance, ‘Do you have any chaps I can borrow?’” she explains. But that cowboy hat you see her wear in several episodes is Darley’s very own. “I bought it in Arizona. It’s been an episode favorite.”
Horseback riding is not the only adventure Darley undertakes in the filming process. In an attempt to fully experience the native culture, she is also busy hiking, whitewater rafting, climbing trees, and floating in the Dead Sea. And Darley is not the only one up for an adventure. The entire Equitrekking film crew is right alongside her, sharing in her adventures. “We’re an active bunch,” Darley explains. “We all climb trees and whitewater raft and hike in the canyon. With all our gear and equipment, it’s a real adventure show the way we film it.”
New food is also part of the adventure of Equitrekking, and Darley is up for trying anything. But that doesn’t mean she has liked everything she’s tried. “In Turkey, I wasn’t a big fan of aaran, which is their national drink.” Turns out that aaran is a mixture of milk, salt, and in Darley’s case, the local water, which she had been cautioned not to drink. “We had it homemade at this house we visited when we were riding,” she explains. “They invited us in and actually milked a cow and made it fresh!” After forcing down a few small sips, she generously offered her leftovers to one of the locals. New, exotic food tasting is also where her crew draws a line to how far they will follow her. “Our director of photography is sort of a picky eater,” Darley laughs, but she insists that he is slowly coming around.
For Darley, each day is a new adventure, which is why she absolutely loves her job. She falls in love with each place she visits. “I never want to leave the different places that we go. Seriously,” Darley insists. “You get engrained in the destination when you’re there. It’s such an adventure that a lot of times I don’t want to come home.”
Even when she is not traveling, Darley’s work still surprises her on a routine basis. When asked if there is anything about her job that she didn’t expect when she first came up with the Equitrekking idea, she replies, “Probably everything!” Though she makes it look easy on camera, she is constantly learning—which is what she loves most. “I’m always learning something new, and that’s what makes it so exciting,” she says. Without a love of learning and lots of perseverance, Equitrekking would not have been possible. “We didn’t have a huge production company or awesome connections, just an unusual idea and a passion for it. Honestly, if I had not been a persistent person, it never would have been possible.”
At the end of the day, when Darley can see the finished product of what she and her team have created, all of the airplanes, bags packed, quirky horses, salty milk drinks, and hours spent stretching out new half chaps are completely worth the satisfaction of living her dream and making the most out of the adventure called life.
“Life is short, and you are going to live only once,” Darley says, “so if there’s something that you want to do in your life, try to make it happen.” And that’s exactly what she is doing.
—By Lindsay Brown
Photography by Chip Ward