Training Horses for Hollywood

Lynne Roberts Roy Rogers TriggerDogs might be a man’s best friend, but horses are unsung heroes of cinema.

Obviously there are many movies in the history of Hollywood that star horses prominently, like Hidalgo or Seabiscuit, but there are so many more films where horses work in the background just like extras. While True Grit or the Lone Ranger might jump into your mind, there have also been scores of horses in movies you might not think of, like the Lindsay Lohan version of Parent trap, and Charlie’s Angels II.

So where do these horses come from, and how do you teach them to act? Jack Lilley is the owner of a company called Movin On Livestock, which is a barn that provides horses and mules as well as other animals for movie sets. He has talked about keeping the animals safe, happy, and ideally, better kept than the human stars of the films.

The first step is finding horses who are naturally gentle and even-tempered. Movies have so many people moving around at top speed, bright or flashing lights, and possibly even loud noises. You want to find the kinds of easy going horses that won’t be stressed out by all that activity, as a stressed horse isn’t good for anyone on set, especially not the horse itself. Lilley tends toward American Quarter Horses because they tend more often to have the calm disposition required over other breeds. “We don’t want any of them prancing or high-powered horses,” says Lilley. “We want that type that you could put [your kids] on, and say, ‘Ride him home.’”

Once Lilley takes in a new horse, usually around the age of five, they are slowly introduced on the ranch to situations that might occur on a movie set in small doses, to acclimate them. (I.E. riding them around where there are lights and production pieces set up as they would around a movie set.) They are ridden and handled by professionals, who will be calm with the horse and not spook, even if the horse does, to teach them by example that it’s just a part of day-to-day business. “I like to start them on a big street scene,” says Lilley. “Pretty soon they see that nothing’s going to bother them.”

After a while, they will acclimate horses to the sounds of blanks being fired, because more often than not a movie set with horses will also be a movie set with gunfire. Obviously you need to keep blanks fired in a direction away from the animals, and not near heads or ears, and not to the side of them where they might spook. The idea is just to get the acclimated to the loud noises until the mock gunfire on a set wouldn’t startle them.

There are general movie trained horses for riding and basic on camera use, but there are also specialties, like teams of horses pulling a wagon, carrying trick riders for stunts, and more. The most special horses will be picked to train in falling or jumping. These animals are not just calm and acclimated to all of the hustle and bustle we just mentioned, but will also be smart, careful animals that will pick up cues do do certain stunts without injury to themselves or the riders. Lilley’s ranch teaches horses to fall down by lifting their legs and laying them down and then walking them around, and then cuing them to lay down again. They’ll do this over and over until the horse learns the movements enough to do them with a signal from the trainer on their own, and won’t be used on set until they are sure of the safety of the fake fall for the animal and the rider.

On set, when the horses are all ready for their close-up, there is yet more preparations that must be taken before the cameras roll. You can often see an actor hopping onto a horse and riding off at a full gallop, but that practice is extremely hard on a horse if the ground is hard-packed. The ranch will make sure that the ground for any high-speed running is tilled so it is soft, or several inches of sand will be laid down to make sure the animal can run across it safely, with no hard packed earth or a divot that might trip or injure the animal. There is just as much preparation on set as there was in the time spent training the horses. There will also be rigorous training for the actors and stuntmen riding the horses, as an untrained rider can be just as dangerous. Lilley also monitors the set to make sure that the horses stay safe and aren’t overworked. Lilley has almost gotten into physical fights with a director to make sure that the horses aren’t driven too hard.

And then, after a solid body of work, when the horse is due for a restful retirement, Lilley seeks out placement for the horses in good homes, to families that will love having such an even-tempered horse, and to make sure they’ll be cushy in their post-stardom lives.

While it is obviously of the utmost importance that horses are only allowed on movie sets when they are treated humanely on set and well cared for, with plenty of training, it is also important to show animals in films and the bond that they have with people. There are some people that have never met a horse and can only know equine beauty and intelligence of horses from watching stories in which people rely on them, work with them, and care for them.