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Hollywood Hoofbeats: The Fascinating Story of Horses in Movies and Television


Review by Nancy Brannon

Written by Petrine Mitchum, daughter of actor Robert Mitchum, with Audrey Pavia, former editor of Horse Illustrated magazine, this second, updated edition pays tribute to the thousands of horses who have “acted” in film and television since the advent of silent movies. They profile the many top “stars” of the screen as well as their lesser known “doubles” and the talented trainers who taught them to work at liberty and perform numerous tricks that their roles required. Many of the horses herein described actually knew when the cameras were rolling and added something extra not always called for in the script. Many of the film star horses were stallions, ridden by well-known actors and well trained by not so well known horsemen.

Readers will likely recognize the masked man on the cover as Zorro, but do you know the horse’s name and who trained the horse? Trained by Corky Randall, he is the Quarter Horse, Diamond, who portrayed Tornado in the TV series, starring Guy Williams as Zorro.

The book begins with the first time a horse was recorded in a “moving picture.” In 1878 a horse named Abe Edgington, pulling a sulky, was captured in photographs by Eadweard Muybridge. This moment in history became known as the “Twelve Frames that Changed the World.”

The hay-day (pun intended) of horse actors was the era of the cowboy Westerns, beginning with silent movies. The singing cowboys, Gene Autry and Champion; Roy Rogers and Trigger, as well as Dale Evans and Buttermilk; Rex Allen and Koko were some of the more well known heroes of film and, later, television.

The authors describe the major stables that provided horses to the movie industry and the trainers and stunt riders that made their living with these movie star horses.  Stunt horses were taught to fall for a living, and famous falling horses such as Cocaine, Coco, Hot Rod, Gypsy, Tadpole, and the famous Jerry Brown Falling Horse commanded top salaries befitting star athletes.

War Horse, starring Joey as the main character, depicts the horrors that horses suffered during World War I. Bobby Luvgren, chosen as horse master and head trainer for the film, had a daunting task with the film’s short production schedule of three months. He oversaw a crew of fifteen and the multiple horses it took to portray the lead equine character Joey. Director Stephen Spielberg worked closely with American Humane Association (AHA) representative Barbara Carr to make sure no horses were harmed during the making of War Horse. Carr had the authority to yell “cut!” if she ever saw a horse under duress.

 The key actor portraying Joey, Lovgren’s horse Finder’s Key, won a special Pawscar Award for Best Perception vs. Reality. The honor was granted for Finder’s excellent work in the harrowing “No Man’s Land” scene where the horse struggles in barbed wire (not real wire, but plastic). Spielberg’s admiration for horses deepened during the production. “There were times in the movie where I wouldn’t even tell the horses what to do and they’d be reacting in the scene in ways I couldn’t imagine a horse would be able to react,” he marveled.

This special talent that many horses brought to the screen is described time after time, horse after horse.  In Chapter Five, many children’s dream horses are biographed, from National Velvet to Black Beauty, Fury, Flicka, Misty of Chicoteague, and , of course, The Black Stallion.

In documentaries, Disney’s The Horse With The Flying Tail won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film; it tells the true story of Nautical, a horse trained by the U.S. Equestrian Team’s Bertalan de Nemethy and ridden by Hugh Wiley. The pair won England’s coveted King George V Gold Cup in 1959, receiving honors from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. The other documentaries of note are the series about Cloud, a wild mustang born in the Rocky Mountains, filmed by Ginger Kathrens and shown on PBS. Her series show structure of mustang families and the importance of the stallion to the group’s survival.

Throughout the eras of filmmaking with horses, the American Humane Association pushed their concerns for protecting the safety of horses, including training methods, hours worked, and health care, as well as reducing risks to the equine actors by specific actions required by the plot.

The book includes significant details about filmmaking and their starring or co-starring horses, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Electric Horseman, Dances With Wolves, various Clint Eastwood movies, and The Horse Whisperer  (1998). This film featured seventeen Quarter Horses provided by trainers Rex Peterson and Buck Brannaman. In The Man From Snowy River, it was the horse work that captivated the movie’s many fans. The more difficult riding scenes came toward the end of filming and young actor Tom Burlison (as Jim Craig) honed his riding skills during production. “I actually did do the ‘terrible descent’ after much convincing of the producers,” he said. “I found great joy working with the horses and I developed a great bond with the buckskin. I loved him.”

The latest film version of The Lone Ranger (2013) showcases Johnny Depp’s flair for eccentric characters, and his character Tonto brings a quirky comedic element to the film, in which Silver, a Sprit Horse, is part of the fun. Again, all the animal action in this film was monitored by the American Humane Association, which gave the film an outstanding rating.

Read about making the famous chariot scene in Ben Hur; the horses who portrayed The Great Dan Patch, Standardbred harness racer; Phar Lap, with Towering Inferno portraying Phar Lap; the story of Seabiscuit; and about Thoroughbred Longshot Max and a Quarter Horse named Copper, two of the horses who portrayed Secretariat. Five main horses were required to portray Secretariat, including a Thoroughbred named Sky, a descendant of the famous Triple Crown winner. The film about the incredible horse Secretariat is as much the story of the indomitable Penny Chenery.

Of course, the horses (and a mule) have the last word. Find out how Francis the Talking Mule and Mr. Ed “talked.” In the movie Hot to Trot (1988), Corky Randall trained a talking horse without using the methods used with Francis and Mr. Ed. Randall taught the star horse, Don, to open his mouth and curl his lips to “speak.” 

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