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From Stable to Stardom Inspiring Stories of Famous Horses in Movies and TV Shows

From Stable to Stardom Inspiring Stories of Famous Horses in Movies and TV Shows
From Stable to Stardom Inspiring Stories of Famous Horses in Movies and TV Shows
Image by By Coulter-Strauss Public Relations for D'Arcy Advertising Public Domain

Horses have been on film since 1883. Except for a few exceptions, the star of the show, either television or movie, is an uncredited horse. Horses are brilliant and trained for work in movies and TV, just like dogs. The most famous horse on film was Trigger. This magnificent stallion knew over 100 tricks on command.

Most of the time, the relationship between man and horse is an embedded narrative. It is a substantial element of the story. There have been many movies and TV programs where the protagonist whistles for his horse, and the horse magically appears (or not if that is the joke scripted.)

We remember the actor’s name, John Wayne, in “The Horse Soldiers,” but what was the horse’s name again? No one remembers his stage name, much less his real name. And yet, The studio could not have made the movie without “Dollar.” John Wayne’s attachment to his equine costar was that he put into his contract that only he would ride Dollar and that the studio wouldn’t sell the horse until after Wayne’s death.

The Earliest "Moving Pictures" of Horses
The Earliest "Moving Pictures" of Horses

Cabinet Cards were thin photographs mounted onto a 4.25-inch (108 mm) x 6.5-inch (165 mm) thicker card. Eadweard Muybridge assembled a progression of images of a horse in motion using cabinet cards. It has been called “the world’s first bit of cinema.”

Television historians consider television’s “golden age” to be between 1948 and 1959. The Lone Ranger television show ran on the ABC network from 1949 to 1957. The show featured The Lone Ranger, Tonto, his Indian sidekick, and Silver, the Lone Ranger’s horse. But wait, didn’t Tonto have a horse? What was his name? Fans know that he was “Scout.”

Animal rights activists in the twenty-first century would like more humane means of showcasing horses in film and TV. Even with advances in safety procedures, breakaway ropes that prevent trips and falls are one example. CGI is another.

Computer-generated imagery (CGI) is a visual technology that continues to improve rapidly. CGI can create images in 2-D and 3-D. As the technology advances, so does the realism of the pictures. “Filler” background horses are easily produced, eliminating potential injury to many animals.

Horse's Contribution to Film and Storytelling
Pleasure Island, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Horse’s Contribution to Film and Storytelling

There are several aspects of horses in narrative literature. Primarily is the symbolism and attached emotional responses receivers experience. The horse evokes feelings of desire, motion, travel, and freedom without restraint. Historical accuracy is another critical contribution.

Many scenes rely on authentic depictions to complete the stage “set.” It would be challenging to create a realistic view of the wild west in the 1800s without the viewer seeing an equine somewhere on the set or in the storyline.

In many films and movies with horses, the equine develops a relationship with a human, or another animal, as part of the story structure. This anthropomorphism of the horse’s emotional attachment to its human costar significantly contributes to the viewer’s cinematic experience. And then, scripted relationships between horses or other animal species often enhance the viewing experience.

Notable Horse Stars

Notable Horse Stars
By Coulter-Strauss Public Relations for D'Arcy Advertising. Public Domain

Bamboo Harvester

The roster of stellar horse movie stars is enormous. Some horses are bred and trained from birth to be actors. Some, just like humans, get a lucky break. Here are three early famous horse actors and their stories. The first is the most renowned television equine personality, Mr. Ed.

Mr. Ed was the television name for horse actor Bamboo Harvester. This American Saddleback and Arabian stallion was born in 1949 somewhere in California. Bamboo Harvester played Mr. Ed for the entire run of the popular eponymous tv show Mr. Ed, from 1961 until 1966.

After about two years following the show’s cancellation, Bamboo Harvester started developing age-related issues. Horses generally live 25 to 30 years, with some record-breakers living in their sixties. Bamboo Harvester died in 1970 at 21 years old. The studio used another horse named Pumpkin for publicity shots after Bamboo Harvester’s demise. Pumpkin also came to be known as Mr. Ed.

Following some of the greatest Hollywood urban legends, Bamboo Harvester’s death is shrouded in mystery. Marilyn Monroe’s death generated a lot of press. Bamboo Harvester’s, not so much. The official report is that the studio euthanized the television star due to his age-related infirmaries. However, Alan Young, the actor that played Wilbur Post, Mr. Ed’s “owner,” had a different theory. He reported remaining in contact with Bamboo Harvester after the studio discontinued the Mr. Ed show and contends that Bamboo Harvester died of an accidental overdose. He believes that a temporary caretaker was unfamiliar with Bamboo Harvesters’ habit of laying down and having some trouble re-standing due to his age and size. The temp vet read his behavior as distressed and administered an analgesic injection. Bamboo Harvester died just over an hour later.

As Mr. Ed, Bamboo Harvester voiced important social mores to the adolescent, teenage, and adult audience. Each episode had a moral, and Mr. Ed was the sage. And he was funny. The writers crafted wholesome humor around sober reflections on life and folly. The show and Mr. Ed were a voice of the changing times in America in the 1960s.

Golden Cloud
By Republic Pictures, Doctor Macro, Public Domain

Golden Cloud

Fouled in 1934, Golden Cloud was one of several horses auditioned by Roy Rogers for his steed in the movie “Under Western Stars.” Roy Rogers was so impressed with this product of a thoroughbred sire and an unregistered mare that he refused to try out any other horse. The movie star purchased Golden Cloud and renamed him Trigger because he moved so quickly.

Trigger and Roy Rogers appeared in 88 movies and 100 television episodes together. The pair were trademarked together, and the fans have associated them together ever since. Trigger lived to be 30 years old. After his death, the Roy Rogers Foundation preserved him at the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Apple Valley, California. A foam structure was created in Trigger’s signature pose, rearing with front legs up. Taxidermists treated his skin, which they used to cover the foam shape. Over 200,000 people came to see Trigger between 1967 and 2010.

Although Roy Rogers was Trigger’s owner and biggest fan, Glenn Randall was his trainer. Throughout Trigger’s movie career, he learned over 100 tricks. His signature move was called a “vertical rear.” This fantastic horse, considered the most intelligent horse on film, was taught to walk on its hind legs. Remarkably, He could walk over 50 feet on his rear legs.

Like many famous “entertainment show” horses, Trigger’s popularity continued after his death. After the original Trigger died, Roy Rogers had two palominos billed as “Trigger.” In Roy Rogers’s heart, however, there was only one Trigger.

Trigger and Roy Rogers were the first to display a horse’s intelligence and emotional capabilities to a greater audience. History will remember the duo for the impression the relationship conveyed. Their impact on the entertainment industry was indelible.

King Charles
By Time Inc, Public Domain

King Charles

National Velvet was a 1944 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor portraying Velvet Brown and King Charles as “The Pie.” This 1944 Acadamy Award-winning movie was one of the first cinematic presentations to show a close emotional bond between a lead actor and a horse. The bond between The Pie and Velvet Brown was the same as in real life between Elizabeth Taylor and King Charles.

King Charles was supposedly owned by a “society woman” before National Velvet. The movie studio apparently acquired the creature for $800 ($13,823 today). For many months before filming, Elizabeth Taylor spent excessive amounts of time with King Charles riding, grooming, and developing the genuine bond that the girl and horse so emotionally displayed on the screen. 

King Charles was seven years old at the time of filming National Velvet. Elizabeth Taylor, who was only 12 years old during filming, was given King Charles as a thirteenth birthday present by Louis B. Mayer of MGM Studios. She took care of the horse until his death at age 30. Needless to say, the stallion lived a comfortable life after retirement from acting.

How Did They Teach Them That?
Image by Younas Khan from Pixabay

How Did They Teach Them That?

Horses trained for TV and Movie fame are selected early for specific characteristics. There are two separate roles horses fill on set. One is an animal only required to behave on stage. For this more extensive group of equine actors, it begins with selecting a certain temperament in a horse. A “skittish” horse may not do well on a busy movie set filled with frantic people, loud sounds, and bright flashing lights.

Horse handlers select another set of horses for intelligence. These actors learn to repeat specialized tricks without hurting themselves or the rider. These horses fall, kneel, and rollover. They can even learn to move their lips on command so that it appears on film as if they are talking. These are the stars.

In the case of Mr. Ed, the talking horse, it started with nylon thread. Will Rogers trained professional horse trainer Les Hilton who trained Bamboo Harvester. Using behavioral modification techniques, Mr. Ed learned from the nylon thread to move his lips when Hilton touched his hoof off-screen. After some time, Bamboo Harvester was intelligent enough to move his lips whenever Alan Young’s line ended while filming.

 Earlier in film and TV history, studios paid less attention to the comfort and safety of the horses used in productions. Today, there are many safety measures mandated and official offices that supervise animal actors. One example of how horses are preemptively protected is the condition of the land the animal must traverse. At a minimum, groundskeepers break up the hard pack when possible. Not only does this protect the horse’s hooves and leg joints, but the broken ground also provides a softer landing if the horse is scripted to fall, or falls accidentally.

What Horse Movie Stars Mean to the World, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What Horse Movie Stars Mean to the World

The impact of horse actors on humanity over time is complex. For over 5,000 years, horses have been vital in covering distances quickly. Equines have been indispensable in hunting, agriculture, commerce, trade, and war. Despite the industrial revolution replacing many horse functions, the expansion of America westward produced an American cultural identification of the “cowboy.” Horses on film developed as many other social advances led to more urban growth. Over the course of fifty years, American people went from daily dependence on a horse to living in the city and never seeing one. Television and film, however, brought horses into the urban jungle. It is easy to see how the admiration and respect for horses translated from daily dependence to onscreen affection in the absence of the live animal. In the 1950s, some original black-and-white movies and television programs showed a black stallion as a major draw. “The Adventures of Black Beauty” and “The Black Stallion” are two worth mentioning. Every young boy (and many girls) owned a plastic statue of Black Beauty (or The Black Stallion). As the 1960s dawned, beautiful pinup actresses posed in swimsuits next to a horse in posters on bedroom walls across America. America’s interest and respect for the horse has never waned. In 2023 Indiana Jones is still riding away on horseback in the newest movie.

The Future of Horses in Film and TV

There is no foreseeable future without live-action horse performances. CGI can not yet reproduce the intelligence and unique personality each horse brings to the screen. While CGI advances may help replace a majority of equine TV and movie acting, it is an imperfect representation at this point in technology. When the time comes that artificial representation of horses on film and TV is routine, the technology will also have advanced enough to replace human actors and actresses as well. The entire format of visual entertainment may be totally different. Viewer interaction and participation may immerse audiences into a computer-generated reality. Holograms may replace prerecorded images that computers artificially generate. But something vital will be missing. No artificial means can provide the sentient presence of a living, breathing, intelligent horse.