It’s hard to find someone who isn’t moved by the hypnotic beauty of a horse. The history of these majestic creatures in film dates to The Galloping Horse of 1878. These intuitive and willing animals have a way of being somewhat of a two-way mirror, easily able to evoke human emotion. May it be their large muscular bodies, primal nature, or their sensitivity; the ability to influence and tell a story has kept them a staple of the film industry.
From a Pegasus of the Gods to unicorns of fantasy, to chariots of Roman times, to cowboys of the west, horses have been tied to the early triumph of the cinema. From the Lone Ranger to Zorro, Black Beauty to Secretariat, and The Horse Whisperer to Yellowstone, horses have played big roles. Tales of battle charges, war cries, tribal roots, civil expansion, stories of luck, hope, despair, friendship, comeback, laughter, poverty, and prestige—whatever the plot, horses are continually found as the ever-faithful companion in the story.
Casting a Horse
How is it that a horse ends up on set? Does one simply load up the neighbor’s pony, take their favorite horse to a casting call, or make a call to the executive to bring a certain color to set? Let’s first look at the life cycle of a horse. Picture for a moment an animal that is born on average 100lbs and naturally predisposed for flight or fight. Domestically they typically start human interaction from the time they are born. Right from birth, their instincts take over and the newborn will try to get their long legs under them to stand should they need to employ their instinct of “flight”.
The primitive instincts of mother and baby to get the newborn dry, on its feet, and nursed are second nature. As the baby ages, the mother is responsible for teaching the baby how to be a part of the community or herd. Typically, owners are interacting with them from birth and the young horse will be taught to ride at age 2 where they average 550 lbs. It takes very skilled horsemen to know specifically what training will prepare a horse for a film. By the time they have the appropriate amount of training to be on set they average approx. 1100 lbs. of living breathings and intuitive “prop” especially suited for the roles they play.
Horses naturally have many different personalities; some are instinctual to the horse and some are picked up as they are trained. Horses are very specifically adapted for film and many of them don’t get cast for the role due to their personality, willingness to train, and ease to be around all that happens on set. Unlike us, some will be more naturally anxious, brave, calm, etc. Their unique and varied personalities combined with their beauty, size, and trainability make them unique companions. They will very quickly establish their character and reputation, which often has led to many actors bonding with them and having connections with certain movie horses for years; oftentimes hoping to buy their best friend and continue the relationship after filming has stopped!
Healed by a Horse
Speaking as both an equine competitor and trainer, there is no denying the essence of the horse is unique. The bond that we are able to create with the horse may be one of the most magical things captured on film and the opportunity to heal, and grow from having a relationship with them isn’t just an on-screen reality. For those not in an equine lifestyle, it can seem a bond too good to be true, but the connection and positive attributes of time spent with horses happen in real life every day!
Onscreen & Offscreen
James Stewart rode the same horse in 17 westerns, Roy Roger and Trigger took film by storm, Robert Redford had a love and appreciation of horses from the age of 15 and continued that into his successful film career, and recent hit series have everyone looking for a taste of life with horses on the ranch. There are 100s of films with horses cast and they may just be the perfect prop; they naturally command our attention, evoke many types of emotion, aim to please, and are non-judgmental. Leaving many options for storylines, historical films, and documentaries that capture our hearts and have us intrigued for more.
The love and fascination with these amazing animals don’t have a certain lifestyle group, age, or gender that isn’t interested in learning more about them; they span the social lines and have many people wanting to experience them in the day-to-day. With growing intrigue, there are so many resorts, ranches, and community barns that are offering unique and varied experiences with horses. You too can get a taste of the on-screen magic that is these intuitive and connective animals. So, next time you see a horse on the big screen theater or even your small screen phone, know that there is someone that helped put them there and you’re not limited to experiencing them only on film.