Horsey Hollywood: Meet the Equine Stars of "True Grit"

On Dec. 22 Paramount Pictures released the remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic, "True Grit." Among the film's cast are Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and a slew of equine actors that bring the Western movie to life.

The "director" of the equine stars for "True Grit" was Rusty Hendrickson, who has worked with horses on movie sets for more than three decades and has been the head horse wrangler for numerous blockbusters including "Seabiscuit," "Dreamer," "Flicka," and this autumn's release, "Secretariat."

True Grit

Cimarron, Cowboy, and Apollo are the lead equine actors in Paramount Pictures' True Grit.

Casting the right horse for a part is just as vital as casting the right leading man (or lady, as the case may be). Like their human co-stars, equines must train and practice to stay at the top of their game. As movie viewers know, the right chemistry between man and beast can make or break a movie.

"Patience is the greatest virtue of a movie horse," Henrickson's learned. "If they don't have some 'stand still' in them, it just won't work."

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen worked closely with Hendrickson to select the horses to best fit the script and showcase the actors. Jeff Bridges, who plays Rooster Cogburn, needed a substantial mount to complement his size. Hendrickson narrowed the choices down to two horses, and a 5-year-old named Apollo walked away with the job.

"He's a big, solid horse," said Hendrickson. "He stands about 15.2 (hands) and weighs maybe 1,350 pounds. He just fit Jeff."

Hendrickson's son started training the horse as a 3-year-old. Apollo's quiet mind and good disposition allowed him to carry a lead role at a young age, Hendrickson said.

The directors wanted an unusual horse for Matt Damon's character, LaBoeuf. In the 1968 novel by Charles Portis, on which both film versions are based, LaBoeuf, rides a "shaggy horse." A gypsy horse and a Paint were considered before a loud-colored Appaloosa named Cowboy auditioned. But before final selection, Cowboy had to prove gunfire would not bother him, and he had virtually no reaction to the guns, recalled Hendrickson.

Hailee Steinfeld, a new actress to the big screen, plays 14-year-old Mattie Ross, and she needed a horse to portray the book's "Little Blackie." Hendrickson admitted to having an affinity for black horses, which he had indulged three years earlier with the purchase of a 3-year-old Quarter Horse. That now 6-year-old horse, Cimarron, proved to be the perfect Little Blackie.

While filming Seabiscuit, Hendrickson developed a fondness for the horse that played Seabiscuit in most close-up scenes. After the movie had wrapped, Hendrickson kept the horse, called Biscuit, for himself. Biscuit returns to the screen in "True Grit," where he carries one of the "bad guys" and also pulls a buggy in a scene in town.

For Hendrickson, two scenes from "True Grit" stood out as examples of great equine movie work: Little Blackie swimming across a river flawlessly, and the classic two-gun, horseback shooting scene.

"That was Jeff, really riding with the reins in his teeth, shooting two guns," he recalled.

Paramount Pictures' "True Grit" is now in theatres nationwide.


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About the Author

Marsha Hayes

Marsha Hayes has been covering endurance, trail, and other equine topics since 2005. She believes every horse has a story.

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