Hollywood Horses

Horses have been an integral part of movies since The Great Train Robbery debuted in 1903 as a silent film. That pioneer production opened the floodgates for the western movie, and horses began galloping across the screen in waves until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when westerns went into decline.

Of course, other types of movies through the years have featured horses. There have been movies about racehorses, jumpers, eventers, pets, ranch horses, and companions. That doesn't include the ancillary roles they have played in chariot races, as backdrops, and even for comic relief (remember the horse that leaned against the wall in Blazing Saddles?).

During the heyday of films that featured horses, a sub-industry evolved to supply horses for movies. One of the major horse suppliers, along with providing stagecoaches, wagons, and other equipment, was Randall Ranch in Newhall, Calif. The owner of the ranch was Glenn Randall Sr., the man who trained Trigger for Roy Rogers' personal appearances.

Assisting him were sons Glenn Jr. (J.R.) and Buford (Corky) Randall. Today 75-year-old Corky Randall, trainer of The Black Stallion, is retired, but he has some vivid memories of those early days on the movie sets. More about that later.

A recent film featuring horses is Hidalgo, portraying a Paint horse that allegedly won the Ocean of Fire 3,000-mile race across the Arabian desert. Some historians are skeptical about some of the facts in Hidalgo, but at this stage, it doesn't matter much. It is a colorful and adventurous tale, filled with excitement, action, and great companionship between horse and rider.

Another recent, popular movie that featured horses in some horrific action sequences was The Last Samurai. And who could forget the blockbuster Seabiscuit? Or Dreamer?

Who Looks After The Animals?

On the set of almost every movie filmed in the United States, plus in some foreign lands, are representatives of the American Humane Association (AHA) to make certain that no animal is mistreated or deliberately injured. When the movie meets all AHA standards for animal safety, the production is permitted to carry the credit: "No animals were harmed."

It wasn't always so. During early filmmaking, animals--horses in particular--often were treated as disposable products. If a horse was injured or killed during a
particular sequence, another replaced it. If the script called for a horse to go crashing to the earth, trip wires sent it sprawling. Sometimes legs were broken in the process.

The trip wires involved cuffs around the horse's ankles, with a wire going from the cuff to the rider. When the script called for a fall, the rider literally yanked the horse's front legs from under it, and it crashed headfirst to the ground.

Trip wires were only part of the problem, says Marie Belew Wheatley, president/CEO of the AHA, which is headquartered in Denver, Colo. Shock collars, electric prods, and holes in the ground to create falls were also used to get horses to perform as desired.

"Horses are still the most at-risk animals in the movies," says Wheatley, "because of the dangerous stunts they are asked to perform."

However, there have been positive changes through the years. Now, she says, when the script calls for a horse to fall, trip wires and holes in the ground aren't used. Instead, the horse, ridden by a skilled stuntman, is taught to fall on cue in a specially prepared soft spot to avoid injury. When a script calls for action that is too dangerous for a live horse, an animatronic (artificial and computerized) horse is constructed and used.

It has taken time and effort to arrive at this level of safety for equine actors. The major turning point came in 1939 when Jesse James was filmed, says Wheatley. The movie starred Tyrone Power as Jesse James and Henry Fonda as Frank James. In one of the scenes, a posse is in hot pursuit of Frank James. To escape them, he and the horse plunge over a cliff and into the river. The next scene shows Fonda and the horse swimming to safety in the river.

Unfortunately, it wasn't that simple. The horse used in the scene lost its life. For the scene, says Wheatley, the horse was placed on a slippery platform called a tilt chute. At a key moment, the chute tilted and the horse went over the cliff into the water and was killed.

When word of this leaked out, public outrage forced the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to take action. As a first step, MPAA gave the AHA legal rights to set guidelines and oversee the treatment of animals on movie sets, and eventually television programs.

That worked until 1966, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a branch of MPAA charged with regulating movie content was practicing censorship and the regulatory power of MPAA was broken. With MPAA's regulatory power went the AHA's role as an overseer for movie animals.

There was something of a hiatus in the humane treatment of animals on production sets from 1966 until 1980. Often, AHA safety representatives weren't even allowed on sets. Animals were frequently overworked and kept in unsafe environments, and the trip wires were once again used.

"Those were the dark days for horses in movies," says Karen Rosa, director of the AHA Film and TV Unit in Los Angeles, Calif.

Then, says Rosa, the death of another horse during the filming of Heaven's Gate spurred reform. In the film, the script called for a saddle to be blown off a horse's back, says Rosa. Explosives apparently were used, she said, and when they went off, the horse was so severely injured that it had to be euthanatized.

"The problem is, we weren't there," Rosa says, "so we don't know for sure exactly what happened, but we do know that at least one horse lost its life." The movie also reportedly featured cockfights and other scenes that involved cruelty to animals.

This time it was the Screen Actors Guild whose members were distressed by what had occurred and who stepped up to the plate by insisting on restoring the AHA's power. In 1980, the MPAA granted the AHA sole authority to protect animals used in film and television through a contract with the Screen Actors Guild.

Animal Treatment Guidelines

Through the years, the AHA has prepared detailed guidelines for the treatment of each animal species. The guidelines are quite detailed, but there are four overriding principles for all species. They are:

  • No animal will be killed or injured for the sake of a film production.
  • If an animal must be treated inhumanely to perform, then that animal should not be used.
  • Animals are not props. If an animal is used off-camera as background or to attract the attention of an animal being filmed, the same humane guidelines must apply to that animal.
  • Animal means all sentient creatures, including birds, fish, reptiles, and insects.

The AHA has four ratings for movies involving animals (for more information, see www.americanhumane.org/site/PageServer?pagename=pa_film_ratings):

Monitored Acceptable--AHA's Film & Television Unit monitored this film and ensured that "No Animals Were Harmed."

Monitored Unacceptable--The production's disregard for animal safety, whether by filming an at-risk segment unauthorized by AHA or neglecting to adhere to guideline safety on or off camera, directly caused the injury or death of an animal.

Not Monitored: Met Production Expectations--AHA's Film & Television Unit was unable to directly supervise the animal action due to limited resources and/or scheduling conflicts; however, the production complied with all requirements established by AHA.

Not Monitored--AHA's Film & Television Unit was not contacted regarding animal action in this film and was unable to obtain documentation substantiating production claims regarding humane treatment of animal actors.

How Does It Work?

When a script is prepared that includes animals, the Screen Actors Guild contacts the AHA, Wheatley says. The association reviews the script well in advance of any filming and all actions involving animals are carefully analyzed--from stunts to lighting and camera angles--to ensure that the animals are not at risk. AHA safety representatives are then assigned to the movie set to supervise and monitor treatment of all animals involved.

The AHA office in Los Angeles has seven full-time, trained safety representatives, says Rosa, as well as another 20-plus part-timers elsewhere who can be called upon when a movie is being shot somewhere other than Hollywood. Sometimes one safety representative is on the set, but more than one might be involved.

Basic concerns of the AHA involve care of the animals on the set, including proper housing, appropriate food and water, and a safe environment in which to perform.

However, says Rosa, it goes deeper than that. "We require that the animals be in fit condition and that they have been trained to do what is required of them, such as a horse taking a fall."

When the script calls for a horse to fall, she says, it is not taken lightly. First, the ground is loosened to a depth of 18 inches, then the area is refilled with grass, sand, and soft earth to provide a falling cushion before being covered with material to simulate the set's ground. The scene is choreographed so the action takes place in the exact spot designed for it.

Special care is also taken when horses are to be filmed running over a particular area. Before filming begins, Rosa says, the designated area is cleared of rocks and other debris, holes in the ground are filled, and overhanging branches are cut. These steps enhance the safety of both horse and rider.

The Making Of...

The Last Samurai--This story, set in the late 1800s, chronicles the journey of Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), who is recruited by the Japanese emperor to repress a rebellion of a group of Samurai warriors.

The film dramatically presents battle scenes using horses. The AHA presented a movie review on its website (www.ahafilm.info/movies/moviereviews.phtml?fid=7545) that explained the action and how it was filmed without the horses being injured.

"We encourage people to go to the website and read the reviews," says Rosa, "and we also encourage the public to question what they see when animals are involved in the movies." (To read the reviews, see www.americanhumane.org/site/PageServer?pagename=pa_film_reviews.)

Here is an excerpt from the review of The Last Samurai.

"Creating the action sequences in which horses play an integral part required extensive preparation. The horses were trained and fortified like professional athletes. Months before filming began, trainers slowly and carefully taught the horses to do falls, rears, and jumps later woven into the action of the battle scenes. Starting out with a select group of 30 horses, trainers continually evaluated them for temperament and behavior and identified the natural talents of each animal before deciding on a team of 15 that felt comfortable performing falls. Only those horses that excelled at the various stunts such as falling, rearing, or jumping composed the elite final team. For the various battle scenes, the production used up to 63 horses, including the stunt horses.

"The horses also received extensive preparation to work around the special effects used in the film. Trainers worked with the special effects personnel and the armor crews to gradually condition the horses to a range of situations long before the cameras rolled. To reduce noise and reverberations around the animals during the gunfire scenes, quarter loads were used and many of the horses wore foam-padded ear plugs."

In addition to the live horses involved, the producers used two animatronic horses. These replicas of live horses are robots that were controlled by computers. In one dramatic scene, both real and animatronic horses were used in the sequence. "I challenge you to pick out which horses are real and which aren't in that scene," says Rosa.

During the filming, each trained falling horse was limited to three falls per day and rested in between takes and for at least one full day following the shoot.

Stuffed prosthetics portrayed dead horses scattered around the field of battle.

Hidalgo--Rarely is just one horse used as the feature equine actor in a particular movie. Hidalgo used five Paint horses to represent one star. Each was chosen for its particular expertise--such as running at speed, jumping, or doing tricks.

When the filming concluded, actor Viggo Mortensen and one of the key Paints, RH Tecontender, better known as TJ, had established such a bond that Mortensen purchased the horse and took him home.

This excerpt from the AHA review of Hidalgo provides an insight into the selection and care of the horses used in the film:

"Veterinarians examined each and every equine. All horses were kept in a 50-acre pasture with ample water and hay. Each day, some of them would move to the 'picture corral,' which served as a staging area for the scene. This corral covered approximately two acres of land and allowed ample room for all horses. Once inside the corral, the horses were checked for any lameness or injury that might have occurred during the night."

The Black Stallion--Having suitable doubles for the featured horse in a movie doesn't always happen, says Corky Randall. When The Black Stallion was filmed, there was no true double for the black Arabian named Cass Ole. "If something would have happened to him, we'd have been in a real fix," Randall says.

"We had a couple of doubles that were black," Randall recalls, "but they weren't trained to do all of the things at liberty that Cass Ole could do. They would travel from Point A to Point B, but that was about it." J.R. offered him the loan of two sorrel horses to fill in as additional doubles, Randall says, but they had to be dyed black.

With Cass Ole, Randall said, providing cues from his off-camera position was like directing traffic. He used whips and body language to cue the horse where he was to travel and at what speed. The training of Cass Ole took about three months, he says.

Ironically, one of the injuries sustained on the set of The Black Stallion occurred to Randall, not a horse. The Black Stallion was to be placed on a barge and taken a distance from shore for filming shipwreck scenes with the black stallion and Alec, played by Kelly Reno, swimming to shore. Randall was up to his waist in water as the horse was being taken aboard. A section of the barge tilted and the horse reared up and came down on top of Randall, striking his head with a hoof.

The filming occurred in Sardinia, he recalls, and there were no doctors on the set. "They finally found this old doctor at a mining camp, and he sewed up my head with nothing being used to deaden the pain," he recalls. "I can still feel that needle scraping against my skull. I have that horse's autograph on my scalp."

Randall's favorite job in the movies was as livestock coordinator. When a movie involving horses or other animals is to be filmed, he says, the producer hires a livestock coordinator, and it is up to that person to locate the animals and see that they are fed, cared for, and on the set when scheduled. One of the latest films in which Randall served in that capacity was Mask of Zorro, filmed in 1998.

Randall has long favored having AHA officials on the sets. "I always wanted them there," he says. He says their presence made sure the horses were properly cared for and safely handled.

How Many Horses Does it Take?

When his father's operation was at its peak, Randall says, it could supply up to 200 horses for a production. He says the last time that many were provided by the ranch was for Paint Your Wagon, filmed in 1969.

Reportedly, the most horses ever used in a movie was 2,500 in the 1969 John Wayne film Undefeated. The movie was filmed near Durango, Mexico, and the horses were rented from Mexican villages and branded on the hoof to identify ownership.

In the final scene in Hidalgo, some 570 Montana range horses were used. Rex Peterson, who trained the five Hidalgos and was in charge of all the horses, says the scene was filmed near Browning, Mont., and all of the horses, many from the Blackfeet nation, were trained for that run. "We started teaching them to cross that area 50 at a time," he says, "then we used a group of 100 and just kept adding more. There were a lot of gopher holes in that area, and it took a crew two weeks to get everything filled in so that it was safe for the horses." In the final scene, all 570 horses are streaming across the rugged terrain.

Peterson is adamant about having AHA officials on hand when he is involved with horses in a film. Sometimes this can pose a problem when filming outside the United States in countries that don't have rules about humane treatment of animals. However, when the filming for Hidalgo moved to Morocco, Peterson insisted that AHA officials be there as well, and Disney Studios agreed. "There's not a movie being made that is worth a horse being hurt," he says.

While every precaution is taken, accidents still happen. During the filming of Hidalgo, one of the horses running across a corral stepped into a hole that previously had been filled and broke a leg. Veterinarians on the set euthanatized the horse.

"When an accident happens," says AHA's Wheatley, "we try to learn from it and go on from there."

With all of this attention to horse and human safety in moviemaking, moviegoers can generally watch a movie and enjoy the story, rather than worrying about the safety of its equine actors.

The Stuntman's Side

In the 1950s, Martha Cantarini performed equine stunts and doubled for several notable actresses including Claudette Colbert, Shirley MacLaine, Eleanor Parker, and Jean Simmons. She is a member of the Stuntmen's Hall of Fame and a recipient of Motion Picture TV's Golden Boot Award, which recognizes those whose achievements had significant involvement in the Golden Era of Film and TV Westerns. Cantarini remembers her experiences with equine actors quite fondly.

"The heydays of the Hollywood Westerns, as they are called, were a marvelous testimony to what supervision will do," she recalls. "Everything was so well thought-out and actually choreographed by the stunt coordinators that injuries were almost unheard of."

The injuries that did occur, she says, were primarily foot problems. "In a scene where there was a stagecoach running across the desert, usually the horses were really running on a hard-packed dirt road over and over and over," she says. "If they really did use the desert, then there were rocks and other stuff that could hurt them.

"I only saw one horse get hurt on a set, by an actor," she adds. "In that scene, the actor was supposed to turn the horse around hard, but he was just overacting and really snatched the horse's head around, and broke the horse's jaw. He had on a curb with a nonflexible shank that added a lot of leverage. But you didn't see stuff like that often."

She says the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was very involved in animal safety in movies at the time. For example, she recalls that in Interrupted Melody in 1955, the assigned SPCA official would only let them rear the stunt horse eight times a day, and he wanted the horse's bit to come sterilized in a cellophane wrapper every day. "Every morning the wranglers couldn't bridle the horse until the SPCA official got there with the sterilized bit," she laughs. "We couldn't live without SPCA, but sometimes we ran into things like that."

Trick and Specialty Horses

Trick horses who would fall or rear on cue seemed to enjoy the work, she says. "Not all horses will accept this type of training; the horses are doing this willingly on a cue. If the action should cause pain or distress, the horse will not continue to do it.

"Interrupted Melody at MGM had the most pampered horse I ever saw or worked with," she reminisces. "The rearing horse, Ski, was as professional as a horse could get. He could be reared by the squeal of an air hose, on his back by touching him on the neck, or from a buggy by the driving lines."

The specialty horses were also highly trained and talented in specific areas. "If a wrangler had a call for one particular type of horse that they didn't have, then they would go to a private owner for that type of individual," she says. "Like my horse that jumped out of plate glass windows and over moving cars and wagons--he worked a great deal."

The Unsung Heroes

"The other (non-trick) horses were really the backbone of the business," Cantarini says. "They were so broke, so sensible, all older horses, all mixed breeds, nothing surprised them. You could teach them almost anything in five minutes, like a running stirrup mount or Pony Express mount."

A few actors, she recalls, wouldn't listen to directions and would sit down hard on the horses' kidneys, handle them roughly, etc. "These 'bombproof' horses learned to recognize those actors and would pin their ears and be ugly when they approached, so they had to get other horses to replace them," she says.

"But many of the horses were such pros that they, given the benefit of the doubt, would choose to do things right. They had a way of making those who worked with them look better than they were."--Christy West

For more information on Cantarini's stunt work and awards, see www.secondrunning.com/Speaker.htm.

With eyes to die for, pathetic limps, and stalwart stances of protective bravery, horses in film and TV often steal the scenes with dynamic energy or unflagging loyalty. It's no wonder that equine characters have appeared in thousands of films and TV shows dating back to 1917 when Tom Mix started making "horse hero" films and introduced the world to his dependable sidekick Tony "The Wonder Horse." Since then, many horses have followed in Tony's hoofprints. Here is information on several of the most memorable reel equines of all time.

Famous Reel Horses

Black Beauty--Anna Sewell's "autobiography" of a horse named Black Beauty was first adapted to film in 1933 and spawned several remakes, a miniseries, and TV show (1972-74). The 1946 version starred a horse named Highland Dale. A gutsy Quarter Horse named Docs Keepin Time starred in the 1994 version performing a fire stunt with its body covered in flame-retardant gel.

Mr. Ed--Probably the most familiar horse to children (it's now on Nickelodeon), Mr. Ed was a very successful TV show (1961-65) about a talking horse living with a bumbling architect. With his voice supplied by Allan "Rocky" Lane, Mr. Ed was played by Bamboo Harvester and a double named Pumpkin. Fed peanut butter to make his mouth move, Bamboo Harvester was a four-time winner of the Patsy Award (animal Oscar) and was euthanatized in 1979 at the age of 33.

Fury--The well-known TV series Fury (1955-61), then syndicated under the title Brave Stallion, starred a purebred American Saddlebred named Highland Dale (who also played Black Beauty), who was later named Fury. Set in the American West of the 1950s, Fury is about an unbreakable black stallion that befriends an orphaned boy. Fury, who suffered from heaves, was also a Patsy Award winner and died in 1972.

Silver--Based on a character written by the 19th Century author O'Henry, adapted from a 1933 local Detroit radio series, and derived from B-picture serials at Republic Studios, The Lone Ranger featured one of the most popular horses of all the western heroes--Silver. Played by a horse named Silver Chief in the Republic serials for The Lone Ranger TV series (1949-57), two horses played Silver--the Clayton Moore hand-picked Tennessee Walking Horse White Cloud and the half-Arabian/half-Saddlebred stallion Tarzen White Banner, renamed Hi-Yo Silver by the show's owner George Trendle. Silver's TV show stunt double Traveler eventually had a stint as the University of South Carolina Trojan horse.

Trigger--Cowboy star Roy Rogers' golden palomino Trigger was sired by a racehorse and born as Golden Cloud. He made his film debut as Olivia De Havilland's horse in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Purchased by Rogers in 1938, he was renamed Trigger by Rogers' movie sidekick Pat Buttram. Trigger first appeared with Rogers in Under the Western Skies and went on to star in 75 films. Billed as "The Smartest Horse in the Movies," Trigger is one of three horses that earned hoof prints on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. When he left film, he co-starred with Rogers on The Roy Rogers Show (1951-57). Trigger died at age 33 in 1965 and was mounted for exhibition at the Roy Rogers' Cowboy Museum.--Les Sellnow

TheHorse.com Poll

Who is your favorite TV/movie horse?

  • The Black Stallion: 22.34% (149)
  • Mr. Ed: 17.39% (116)
  • Seabiscuit: 15.89% (106)
  • Black Beauty: 13.04% (87)
  • Other: 12.29% (82)
  • Trigger: 10.04% (67)
  • The Pie: 4.05% (27)
  • Silver: 2.85% (19)
  • Cisco: 1.5% (10)
  • Sonador: 0.6% (4)

Total Votes: 667

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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