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Barn Stories Ep. 40: Freeze Frame

In split second, a Hollywood stunt goes horribly wrong, putting the life of a horse and his rider in jeopardy. This episode of Barn Stories is better than any action movie you’ll see in theaters this year.
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Christine: In a split second, a Hollywood stunt goes horribly wrong, putting the life of a horse and his rider in jeopardy. This episode of Barn Stories is better than any action movie you’ll see in theaters this year.

[light music fades in and out]

Laurie: Welcome to the Barn Stories podcast. I'm Laurie Prinz, editor of EQUUS magazine.

Christine: And I'm managing editor, Christine Barakat.

Laurie: This podcast features our favorite essays and articles published in EQUUS over the past 40 years. Although EQUUS is known for articles on horse care and veterinary research, our editorial mission has always been guided by the bond that exists between horses and people. And each issue has featured a real-life story that celebrates how horses enrich our lives and touch our hearts.

Christine: We've searched our archives, chosen the stories that resonated with our readers and given them new life in this audio format. Longtime subscribers may recognize some of their favorite pieces. And if you're new to the EQUUS community, these stories will confirm that no matter what sort of saddle you sit in, a deep emotional connection to horses is something we all share.

Laurie:  This is another story from one of my favorite True Tale contributors: retired Hollywood stunt woman Martha Crawford Cantarini. In the 1940s and 50s she worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, training, riding and caring for horses to help make some of the most iconic Western movies of the day. Martha is in her 90s now, but still entertaining us with fabulous stories of that era. We’ve featured other essays from her in episode 3 and episode 35 of Barn Stories.

Christine: I think this is the story of hers that I like the best, where she describes a stunt gone wrong. In a movie starring Gregory Peck, Martha and a horse named Jim were supposed to jump a buckboard wagon full of hay. While rehearsals for the stunt had gone well at home, conditions on set weren’t ideal, and Martha—going against a gut feeling—asked Jim to do it anyway. What happened next is a powerful example of how our horses will give us their all, and forgive our mistakes, when they trust us. That’s a theme any horse PERSON can relate to.

Laurie: I also love that we get lots of background about the horse in this story. I’m not really a fan of old Western movies, but I often find myself watching the ones I happen across on television, wanting to know more about the horses. By the end of this story, we know all about Jim. And he’s fantastic.

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Taylor Autumn, reader:

In my gut, I knew this wouldn’t go well. I sat on my stunt horse, Jim, as we waited for our cue. We were in full Western tack, and ahead of us was an open-topped buckboard wagon with four large, spoked wheels. A photographer was setting up nearby. The plan called for us to jump the wagon to get some publicity stills for the upcoming movie “The Big Country,” starring Gregory Peck.

I had known Peck for years, and when I’d heard about the film, I’d called him to inquire about work as a stunt double for the female leads—Jean Simmons and Carroll Baker. I also asked him if he could use Jim—he was a beautiful horse and he could jump just about anything. I was offered the job as a stunt rider, but the horse? Peck wasn’t sure. “Let’s get some pictures,” he said. 

 So here we were on the grounds at Fat Jones Stables in North Hollywood, California. Jones supplied horses for Hollywood movies and television shows for more than 50 years, and he had a yard full of wagons, stagecoaches and other horse-drawn vehicles that he rented to the studios.

It was a beautiful day for photographs, and this buckboard full of straw bales was chosen for the shoot. At first all seemed well. I had already schooled Jim to jump the wagon on a longe line, and he had cleared it easily and without hesitation.

But now, sitting there in a heavy saddle, I considered the deep, sandy footing and the relatively short distance we had to approach the wagon—we wouldn’t have the space to get up to a full gallop—and I grew apprehensive.

But I trusted Jim, and I knew he trusted me. In the movie business, Gregory Peck wasn’t someone you wanted to disappoint, so I decided to give it a try.

If there was any horse in the world who could do this, it was Jim…. 

Jim was a chestnut Thoroughbred, about 16 hands, with clean legs. I knew nothing of his earliest history. Don Burt, a well-known horse show judge and past president of the American Quarter Horse Association, had found him tied to a broken-down horse trailer in the stable area at Agua Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico. The stalls nearby were empty—the trainer had moved his stock to the next race meet but did not have room on his van for the gelding, so he was left behind. Don bought the horse for $25.

In turn, Don sold Jim to a hunter/jumper trainer in California. After they watched him clear a six-foot single-pole jump, they put him into training. But, I believe, they pushed him too hard, too fast. Soon Jim absolutely refused to jump anything inside of a show ring—but he would jump the moon anywhere else. So he was sold again, to stuntman Clint Sharp for work in the movies.

I first met Jim when I was hired to ride him as a stunt double for Dana Wynter in a movie called “The View From Pompey’s Head.” I soon discovered that Jim was a paradox. He was as gentle as a kitten, but riding him was like playing a violin. If you knew what you were doing, it could make beautiful music, but if you were a beginner, you might be able to manage only a few discordant notes.

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Taylor: Though we knew nothing of Jim’s career at the track, he showed signs of having been used in match races—he would launch into a full gallop at the drop of a pin. He had a mouth of pure velvet, but you had to be very careful to avoid setting him off into a sprint. I quickly learned how to ride Jim and I fell in love with him.

After that shoot, I talked Clint Sharp into selling the gelding to me. Our next job was doubling for Flicka in jumping scenes for the television series “My Friend Flicka.” We developed a routine: I would show him the proposed jump, lead him back a ways, pat him on the rump and off he would go toward the obstacle, leaping it without fail. He had found his calling as a movie stunt horse.

In one Western, Jim jumped a burning vegetable cart that was pushed in front of him as he was galloping down a cobblestone street. With Clint on board, he leapt through a plate glass (breakaway) saloon window in “The True Story of Jesse James.” Doubling for Debra Paget, I rode Jim in Elvis Presley’s first film, “Love Me Tender.” And in “The Mating Game,” he jumped a fence and the hood of a moving car with famed stunt rider Donna Hall on board.

All of this was possible, I knew, because Jim trusted me. It was a wonderful feeling. One of my favorite memories of Jim has nothing to do with the movies. One day, I took him on a long ride away from our home. Somewhere along the way I came off of him—I don’t remember how or why. We were deep in a grove of trees, and I couldn’t catch him. No matter what I tried he just wouldn’t let me get close. Finally, it was getting dark, so I started walking home. But before too long I realized that I was not alone: Jim was following me. Together we walked all the way home.

It is a beautiful thing for a rider to trust a horse, but it is an experience of a lifetime to have a horse trust you, too. That is why, all these years later, it still stings to remember that time I didn’t heed my gut instincts at Fat Jones Stables.

Once we got our cue, I urged Jim toward the wagon. The wagon and straw were only about four-and-a-half feet high, but the spoked wheels loomed in front of us. In the Western saddle, I wasn’t able to get myself forward over his center of gravity, and the moment we left the ground, I knew the jump was going wrong.

We hadn’t gotten enough traction in the sandy ground to come up to speed, and then Jim’s forelegs struck the straw bales, slowing us further. Suddenly it seemed like everything was happening in slow motion. I was terrified for Jim. I knew I had to keep him clear of the wheels.

Acting entirely on instinct, I pushed myself out of the saddle in midair and pulled sideways on the saddle horn. I fell on my rear, and Jim landed on his chest with his front legs bent underneath him. As I quickly got up Jim had scrambled to his feet. I immediately grabbed the reins and spoke softly to him, giving him a good going-over. I was relieved when I determined that, though he had some cuts on his shins and a gash on his chest, Jim was okay.

The photographer stepped forward to tell me that, believe it or not, he had gotten the shot. Scrutinizing the image later, you could see how Jim’s left hind leg had dropped behind the wagon wheel. If I hadn’t leapt to the side, pulling him with me, the bone might have snapped. It was a one-in-a-million chance that we were both relatively unscathed, and another one-in-a-million chance that the photographer snapped the shutter at exactly the right moment.

Martha Cantarini is mid-air having launched herself from her horse, shown twisted sideways jumping over a wagon.

One thing was certain though: I was not going to try that again.

I’ve never lost the guilt I felt over that mistake. Jim forgave me, though, and we worked together for many more years. Never again did I fail to ensure that the stunts I asked of him were as safe as we could make them. I learned to heed my instincts.

Several years later, I retired Jim and donated him to the Los Angeles Regional Community (LARC) Ranch, a Santa Clarita, California, facility that helps children and adults with disabilities. I visited him there when I could and enjoyed watching him with the residents. They would swarm around him, brushing and simply petting him. It was clear they loved him and that he loved them in return. I was told that children who had not spoken in years would talk to Jim. In fact, he worked out so well there that the ranch got him an old gray mare as a companion. I would often see them both as I drove past, knee-deep in a lush pasture, clearly enjoying life as every horse should. 

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Christine: Thanks for listening to Barn Stories. We hope you enjoyed this episode. If you have a favorite article or essay from the EQUUS archives that you'd like us to feature in a future podcast, let us know. You can reach us at EQUUSBarnStories@gmail.com.

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The Barn Stories podcast is a production of the Equine Podcast Network, an entity of The Equine Network, LLC.

Looking for more great horse-centric podcasts? Check out the other offerings from the Equine Podcast Network. 

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