Horses Get Star Treatment on War Horse Set

When you're making horses into movie stars like Steven Spielberg and his crew did with War Horse, it's important to make peace and fun--not war--with the horse, according to the film's equine professionals and an international horse behavior expert.

"Steven (Spielberg) told us from the beginning that the horse always has to be happy," said War Horse's U.K. horse master Dan Naprous. "Even when (the horse is) playing the miserable scenes, he still has to interact with somebody. The horse always had to be intrigued, had to enjoy going to work, to try to give you something fresh every day."

The equine actors--like their human counterparts--would have "good days and bad days," according to equine makeup artistic director Ali Bannister. "It was our job to make sure that we allowed enough time for fidgeting," she said.

Sometimes that meant skipping filming horse scenes that day and moving on to something else, Naprous added: "Steven would say, 'That's not a problem. We'll do something else instead.'"

The production team also had to allow enough time for the horses to enjoy their work a little too much--especially when Bannister's team rubbed the mud all over the clean horses' coats to give them a grimy war horse look.

"In some ways it was like a gentle massage, and one of the horses would just lie down and go to sleep while we were working on him," she recalled. "So we would have to sort of get him back up to his legs again."

War Horse, a film based on the 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo, follows the story of an English farm horse, Joey, who is sold to the British Army at the start of World War I. Joey and his equine friend Topthorn, as well as other horses in the film, must open barn doors, charge through battlefields, struggle to pull heavy guns, fall over from injuries, limp, flee explosions, and make impressive jumps, among other challenging training tasks.

"Sometimes the most difficult thing is having the horse standing on his own in a field," Naprous said, adding that training was always positive and fun.

"We made sure everything stayed fresh and amusing for them," he explained. "Still, nothing was ever a surprise for the horse. What it came down to was a matter of a buildup in confidence. Because he accepted that and accepted us, his trainers, (the training) really came quite easily."

"Horses are capable of learning very complex exercises if they are trained correctly," Carol Sankey, PhD, MSc, scientific advisor for the World Society for the Protection of Animals in London, U.K., and horse behavior researcher with the ethology department at the University of Rennes in Rennes, France, told The Horse. "Learning and working are not necessary unpleasant moments for horses; it's up to us, the humans, to make sure they perceive work as something positive and pleasant. Under these conditions, risks related to the work are reduced because the horses are motivated and therefore less tempted to defend themselves. Our research has also shown that their memory capacity is better when they're learning in a positive environment."

War Horse opens in U.S. theaters today (Dec. 25).

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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