Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Equine Actors

So yesterday's post was supposed to talk about horses who work as models and actors before it devolved into a massive reminiscence of equine art. But what I really wanted to talk about was horses who work for a living. Now you could argue that most horses are somewhat like the homeless on the street corners with the signs saying "Will work for food." Most horses have a "job" be it jumping, barrel racing, pulling a carriage in Manhattan, or just trail riding in the woods. And they keep at this job until they are old or disabled and then they become "retired." Talking about retired horses who don't get social security benefits is a topic for another post however.

Right now I want to talk about horses of whom even non-equestrians are aware. There are the obvious ones, Trigger, Silver and Mr. Ed and his peanut butter smeared lips. (This is purportedly how they made it look like he was talking while they dubbed in the voice of Alan Lane.)

One of the great things about this blog is that I keep learning new things. I browsed the internet to verify the peanut butter myth, and from Wikipedia discovered that it was indeed a myth. Mr. Ed's real name was Bamboo Harvester, and it was not peanut butter, but a bit of nylon string under his gums that encouraged Ed to "talk". And apparently the string was only necessary for the first season or so of the show, as Ed learned to more or less follow a conversation and speak when Wilbur was done speaking to him. The full story can be seen here at Wikipedia.

Trigger, Roy Roger's famed Palomino co-star also took a "stage name." His original name was Golden Cloud, but was changed to Trigger by Roy when he purchased him after riding him in a movie. Like Mr. Ed, Trigger was a star in his own right and even had his own comic book. Trigger was known as a wonder horse, with 150 different trick cues. So many that his handlers (known as wranglers) had run out of spots and ways to add more cues.

Shockingly, while the Lone Ranger has his own Wikipedia page, his horse Silver does not. But I did find a fan site that provides quite a bit of info on the several horses that played Silver. Silver was portrayed primarily by 2 different horses that appear to be originally named "White Cloud" and "Tarzan's White Banner" but are referred to throughout the article as "Silver #1" and "Silver #2" Respectively. There was also another horse named Traveller who was a stunt double to both the Silvers, bringing up an interesting point. Trick Training a horse is time consuming. And some horses, like people have different skill sets. Some run fast, some jump high, some are good at rearing or bowing or appearing to talk. So it makes sense for tv and movie horse roles to often be portrayed by several different animals who look similar but excel at different things.

Now these horses were movie stars in their own right, but what about the horses that act as extras, or almost as scenery. Who would want to do without Gandalf's horse, Shadowfax, in the gorgeous Lord of the Rings Trilogy? Or the horses in Gunsmoke or any other western movie or show? What about Bunny, Laura Ingalls horse from Little House on the Prairie (and the reason I am a rider today.) What would Braveheart have been without the mounted armies for the battle scenes? Now I know many people at the time had never seen such graphic battle scenes involving horses in movies, and people and organizations became concerned about possible animal cruelty. But let me assure that those horses had the most expensive stunt doubles ever, in the form of lifelike mechanical horses costing $100,000 each. These mechanical animals were so detailed and life like that an investigation was launched against the film, and ultimately proven baseless.

Now learning how to do anything well takes time, talent, and skill. If you want to be the best hunter rider, you need to ride, and ride and ride, if you want to be the best at reining or roping, it takes practice and more practice. Well horses are the same way. In order for them to learn anything, from jumping to piaffing to talking like Mr. Ed or rearing like Trigger, they need to be taught. In February I attended Horse World Expo in Harrisburg, PA and viewed several seminars by Tommie Turvey, who is a renowned trick rider and trainer. (He goes by Equine Extremist.) I was amazed by the rapport he had with horses. I was impressed by their talents, and by the obvious care he took with them. His horses didn't work for food, or treats. (Though they did receive them.) They worked for the joy of doing what they had learned and the praise they received for it. Tommie and his horses both have been in movies together or separately (he does stunt work.) They also do amazing performances like the one I saw in the Theatre Equus in PA.

So as I was researching it came to my attention that horses are not getting the recognition they deserve from the industry for their contributions. No horse has ever won an Academy Award. Three dogs (Lassie, Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart) and a number of fictional/animated characters like Mickey Mouse and Godzilla have stars on the walk of fame, no horses do. (Trigger's hoof prints are included on Roy Rogers star.)

There has been one horse nominated finally for a star this year. His name is Lukas, and he is billed as the "World's Smartest Horse" and even has a certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records to prove it.
Now while I appreciate his abilities, I am a bit bemused by his nomination for this honor when all of the horses mentioned above were overlooked. All of Lukas' appearances appear to be autobiographical in nature. I do not find him credited on any movies or TV programs (other than news shows,) he does not have an imdb page. So while Lukas is very talented, I wouldn't call him an actor or a star. I guess it comes down to marketing. No one bothered to campaign for a star for Trigger or Ed or Silver, or Tornado, or scores of other horses without whom movies and TV would not be the same. I wonder if it is too late to start now?

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