Join The Club
The teenage stars at the centre of Saddle Club mania are taking it all in their stride, writes Christine Sams.
My first indication of the extraordinary popularity of The Saddle Club happened at Christmas. I went to an ABC shop in Sydney to check out some Saddle Club merchandise, because my two niecesaged nine and seventalked endlessly about the show.
Inside the store there was a large crowd of parents elbowing each other near The Saddle Club display: checking out products ranging from journals and clothing to colouring books.
After casually inspecting a plush toy horsebased on the real-life horses in the seriesI was distracted by a sweaty, nervous gentleman nearby.
I put the $40 toy back on the shelf momentarily, only to have it whisked from before me.
The man, now breathing heavily and almost shaking, clutched the horse to his side andpunched a number into his mobile. "I've found it, thank God," he whispered into the phone. "Yes, yes, it's the one she wants. It's the last one."
Welcome to Saddle Club mania. If you've never heard ofthe ABC series, or its accompanying album, ask any friends with children aged between four and 12 and they'll happily fill you in.
"There isn't a TV show like it in the whole world," said 14-year-old Sophie Bennett, who plays Stevie on the show.
"It's really one of a kind, because there's nothing else based on friendship and horse riding. There are so many young girls who love the idea of spending time with horses andponies."
The Saddle Club is primarily based on the horse riding adventures of three friends, Stevie, Carole and Lisa (played by Bennett, Keenan Macwilliam and Lara Marshall respectively), based on a book series by Bonnie Bryant. But the TV show also features a range of characters and their riding exploits, including spoilt rich girl Veronica (played by Heli Simpson) and her friend Kristi (played by Kia Luby).
More than 5000 children and their parents crammed into Warringah Mall to meet four stars from The Saddle Club last week, during their promotional tour in Sydney. The same numbers were repeated in Parramatta and Pagewood.
"It's such an enormous feeling to get up on stage and see all those little kids that love you," said 14-year-old Marshall, after a shopping centre appearance last week. "It's something I'm going to look back on one day, and say 'that was one of the best things that happened in my life'."
The Saddle Club features a mix of Canadian and Australian actors, because the show is a joint production between Crawfords Australia and Protocol Entertainment in Canada. In Australia, the second series was viewed by nearly 500,000 people, with the ABC winning a 74.4per cent share of the target market: viewers aged between five and 12.
To find the stars of the show, producers held auditions in Canada and Australia, with the key criteria that actors should not be allergic to horses. They ultimately chose two versions of The Saddle Club cast: an older set of teenage girls, and a younger group aged about 11.
In the end, a show based on theyounger girls was given the green light.
Two of the biggest stars from the show, Bennett and Macwilliam, are Canadians. Both 14-year-olds have impressive acting resumessuch was their start in lifeand they relocated to Victoria in Australia (at the age of 11) to film the show.
"I've been acting since I was six months old," said Bennett, with all the breezy confidence of a 30-year-old. "I've had an agent since I was very young, and I've ridden horses since I was five. We did have some family in Australia, so I thought it was a really cool idea to come out here."
"Probably the worst part for me is having friends in Australia, and friends in Canada, so I'm always missing someone," said Macwilliam. "But I get to travel, which is my favourite thing."
The girls on The Saddle Club are always decked out in very sensible riding clothes: buttoned-up shirts, jodhpurs, riding hats and sensible skivvies. But in real life, the four teenagers seem about 17, with their funky outfits and careful make-up.
"Sometimes the story-lines might seem a bit corny to us because we're a little older," Marshall said.
"But we're playing kids, and really we are kids, so it's a lot of fun," Bennett said.
During breakfast at Bills 2 cafe, in Surry Hills, the girls showed an obvious bond of friendship -giggling about working together on set, and telling amusing stories about seeing the cast members from Strip Search inside their hotel. (Now there's a TV combination, Saddle Club meets Strip Search!)
Apart from plans for a third series of the show, there are rumours of a possible Saddle Club movie. The horse riding gang might be the next children's stars to hit the big screen in Australia.
"We know they're thinking about a Saddle Club movie, which of course is very exciting," said Macwilliam. But even at 14, the girls seem wary of being stereotyped as The Saddle Clubforever.
"We're always looking at other projects, auditioning for other things," Bennett said. "We do hope to work as actors outside The Saddle Club as well."
But for the moment, all their energies are focused on a marketing extravaganza: singing, dancing and horse riding.
The Saddle Club's album, which was released through Shock Records, has produced another successful marketing avenue for the performers, asidefrom their strong TV viewing figures.
During their shopping centre appearances last week, the girls danced, sang and faithfully answered questions about their experiences at Willowbrook Stables.
"We do sometimes have a very busy schedule," Macwilliam said, "but we're happy that people are enjoying the show, and that parents like the message we're sending."
After three years of being in The Saddle Club, the actors are becoming increasingly confident as riders, and are willing to perform more stunts on the program. (They have an array of stunt doubles and stunt horses, for scenes that involve horses rearing up, or injuring their riders.) "But we never get hurt by horses, we only get hurt by trees," said Bennett, with a laugh.
And with thousands of Australian children eager to join the club, they will keep on riding.
By Christine Sams
Photo: Fiona-Lee Quimby
July 21, 2003