Ever wonder what horse actors do behind the scenes? Let’s take a closer look at this glamorous equine profession!
Whether for a television series, a tourism or clothing commercial, an action movie or Western, horse actors are in demand. But despite what we see on our screens, a lot of work and planning goes into working on set with equines. Let’s take a behind-the-scenes look.
“We have a veterinary specialist and two wranglers on hand to make sure safety comes first,” says Patrick Ball, creator/director for Horse Camp TV. “On the set, horses are treated better than I am!”
“Muzzle flashes, smoke, and gunfire are added digitally these days,” says Alex Cox, director of Tombstone Rashomon. “The animal coordinator, camera crew, director, and actors all work together to create the most genuine scenes. For the film, I had the actor stagger and fall, and a trainer signal the horse to come. On the screen, you’ll see the horse in the middle of a gun battle and the man shot and killed.”
Makeup for horses can make wounds and scars look real, but no animal is hurt.
Working with human actors
Actor Eric Schumacher portrayed Doc Holliday in Tombstone Rashomon, and Wyatt Earp for Fox TV’s Legends and Lies, the Real West, both with his co-star, Elvis the Horse. “I didn’t have any riding experience and Elvis knew it,” Eric says. “He kept me safe. In one scene, Doc’s riding drunk, swaying in the saddle, singing at the top of his lungs. I know I gave Elvis confusing signals. He kept going, although he did give me a couple of ‘Seriously, dude? Pay attention!’ looks. Glad he tolerated me — he’s a pro and made me look good.”
“Working with well-trained horses is a privilege — and great fun,” adds Alex.
Keeping the horses happy
Jesse Thomson is the animal coordinator for Heartland. “Moving cameras, sound booms, weather conditions, or an actor’s costume of armor or fur, are things horses have to work around. They have their limits. We adapt. A happy horse will do anything for you.”
Believe it or not, horses have doubles too! Action horses are hired to run and act in conjunction with human stunt doubles, while the primary equine actors are used for the less physical scenes. Stunt horses are rotated so no horse is overworked.
Between scenes, horses go to their trailers for a drink and a snack.
To get a horse to run across a field, another horse he knows is encouraged to run alongside him off camera. When a rider is gazing over the land, a trainer is out of sight holding the horse. Riding slowly through town? A trainer is in the lead.
Rolling with the punches
“Horses haven’t read the script,” says Jesse. “When a loose herd is cued to go left, they might just go right. We never force a behavior. When natural habits come out, cool stuff happens.”