Trigger. Buttermilk. Silver. Scout. Thunder. Champion….
If you grew up in a certain era, you could easily reel off the names of all the most famous horses from the movies and television: The steady mounts belonging to the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were as famous as their human partners. Many of these equine stars were recognized with Patsy Awards—Picture Animal Top Star of the Year—at an annual awards ceremony for Hollywood animals sponsored by the American Humane Association.
Yet working in the background of so many great movies and television shows were a host of unsung heroes—horses who hit their marks, performed stunts on cue and carried their riders flawlessly, even when paired with actors who barely knew how to sit in a saddle. Often, these horses were seen “packing” actors willingly, day in and day out, despite their riders’ bad hands.
Most of the people who worked with these horses—actors as well as stunt riders like me—knew how much they contributed to our success by making us look better than we were. Often, the only rewards these horses received were their feed and a comfortable place to sleep at night.
Horses who performed advanced maneuvers like falling were owned by the stuntmen and trainers. Most of us, however, just showed up for work not knowing which horses we would be riding that day, or whether we’d be charging up the hill as cowboys or down the hill as Indians. I worked in the movies for many years, riding for several major actresses. The memories of those anonymous horses stay with me to this day. I learned something from every one of them.
A horse who stands out in my mind was a gelding named Ski, who learned to follow cues as well as any actor.
I’d received a call to work on “Interrupted Melody,” a 1955 MGM biopic about Australian opera singer Marjorie Lawrence. In one scene, while performing in “Gotterdammerung,” she rides a horse into a fire on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. On Stage 15, Metro’s largest soundstage, we rehearsed for three weeks before shooting what was the most expensive indoor scene in film history to that date.
Ski was a specialist: He was trained to be a rearing horse in films. The script called for the opera star to leap onto the horse’s back while singing Wagner. Ski would be asked to gallop across the stage, rear, then leap into the $50,000 fake fire. Naturally, the real star of the film, Eleanor Parker, wouldn’t do the actual galloping and jumping. That would be my job.
In Hollywood each person in a scene is told where to stand, where to look, where to walk, when to talk, what to say and what to do with their hands and feet. All of this creates the “picture” the director wants to see and is worked out in detail long before the first call of “Action!”
My work in the scene included hand gestures and changes in body position performed to exact notes from a heavy Wagnerian score. At the right moment, I would touch Ski on the neck to cue him to rear, then cue him to jump onto the open grate over top of the “fire.”
What I found, as the weeks passed, was that Ski, too, became deeply attuned to every slight gesture I made. He was like a coiled spring. I couldn’t move my head even a fraction of an inch without him moving his ears. As we practiced the scene, I felt him gather himself for the rear as soon as I took my right hand off the rein to raise it and place it on his neck.
Later, we rehearsed the scene that calls for the heroine to leap onto the horse’s back. As the music played, I had to stand on the stage floor in front of Ski and make a high gesture with my right hand. After a few re-hearsals I realized that when a certain note was played, Ski would step for-ward with his left front foot to brace himself for my bareback mount.
A second horse was being used in the close-up shots with Parker, and to my amazement, I noticed that he, too, was stepping forward at the exact same musical note. You can easily see this in the film.
When finally the time came to shoot the scenes, Ski, thoroughly professional, was every bit as prepared as I was to listen for the right notes and perform to the cues as crisply as if he had been listening to the director. Working with Ski—even with a lifetime of horses behind me—renewed my appreciation of how closely our horses are attuned to their surroundings and how readily they can learn to follow our cues, conscious or not.
Once you were privileged to know any of these Hollywood horses, you could never forget them. Most eventually slipped into oblivion, apart from the few big-name stars, or those who were rescued and retired by the people who sought them out.
Each of these horses taught me a valuable lesson that I remember to this day: As we strive to learn the best ways to motivate our horses, in reality, they motivate us to be the best that we can be. The glory days of these unrewarded horses are long gone now, but often I find myself watching the television screen, hoping for one more glimpse of a horse I once knew.
This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #483)