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The Inside Scoop on Trick Horses in the Movies

posted by Horse Owner Today    |   March 20, 2012 11:14


Trick Training Philosophy "Train with Trust and Communication"

Trick training is a great way to foster a fabulous relationship with your horse.  In order to have a great relationship, you have to have great trust, and great communication. 

In order to make trick  training enjoyable and achievable by all, I train with grace, rather than force.

Jackie Johnson

Although my specialty is the education of trick training to the average horse owner, I do have experience with training horses for movies and live performances and I can speak from experience that proper training of horses for entertainment can, and should be done.

Going back in time, when a movie required a horse to be shot, or 'fall' they were typically tripped up, at a full gallop, by an unseen and tightly strung wire.  Little regard was taken for these poor pioneers of the movie and stunt industry, and many were fatally injured with broken legs, separated shoulders, broken necks, fractured or broken ribs, and the likes.  The hard work of the regional humane societies, and animal welfare organizations, along with the dedication of the foundation professional movie horse trainers, such as the Randall family, Rex Peterson, and others like them, ensured that the use of horses in movies and entertainment changed for the better.  Now, the use of anything BUT a properly trained animal for stunt work in the film and entertainment industry is expressly forbidden, and the monitoring and care of the animals on set is often better than that given to the people!

Specific to the Warhorse movie, the main horse character of "Joey" would have received extensive training after careful selection to ensure suitability for working in the movie industry.  Furthermore, "Joey" also had a selection of highly trained, stunt doubles that worked in the movie as well.  In a 'horse heavy' production, the main character horses always have numerous stunt doubles to perform tasks that the lead horse is not proficient at, or to take over and share duties if the production day extends past a few takes.  Horses are carefully monitored on set, and when the welfare authority restricts the amount of attempts, or 'takes', a horse is allowed to have, they will then allow the stunt double to come in and resume filming while the primary horse is given rest.  This in itself would suggest that the primary horse was used to exhaustion however it is exactly the opposite! Where an average horse owner may work their horse in an arena practicing a reining stop, or lead changes, jumping or collection over and over for an hour or more, a movie horse will only be allowed a handful of 'takes' before being replaced with a stunt double, or given a rest - a clue to this is to look for obvious signs of work, such as many times do you see a horse sweat in a movie vs. how many times have you seen your own horse sweat after being worked in an arena? 

Another consideration with respect to horses in the movie and entertainment industry is the absolute value of a well-trained animal.  There are literally thousands of hours put into the training of primary stunt horses, and a horse that excels in the entertainment industry will work in that field for many, many years.  The investment of time, training, experience, and resources means that the horse owner/trainer/handler and the industry in general, will go above and beyond to protect the investment that they have in their equine star.  Although there are many horse movies, often times the same horse will be used over, and over in different movies because they have been so well trained, and enjoy doing the work.  Gerard Naprous of "The Devil's Horsemen' is a major equine stock trainer and supplier for the European movie industry.  For many years if you saw a white Andalusian type horse rearing, falling down, or 'dying', I believe it was their horse "Pepe".  If I'm not mistaken, Pepe worked in the industry for many years as a valued stunt horse before he was retired, and eventually passed on from old age.  Other horses with long and diverse careers in the movie industry include; the Budweiser Clydesdales - trained by Robin Wiltshire of Turtle Ranch , and Hightower - who was trained by Rex Peterson, with notable credits such as - "Runaway Bride", "Black Beauty" (where he played Ginger, the ill-fated mare), and Pilgrim in "The Horse Whisperer".  At 21 years of age, Hightower performed in "the Princess Diaries 2" after which he was retired along with his equally aged friend 'Justin' who played Black Beauty.  After a lifetime of work in the movie industry, and a few years of retirement, Hightower passed at 26 years of age.  After he was trained, Hightower worked in the industry for almost 20 years, and it was well known that he enjoyed every minute of it. 

All things said, and considered, a movie is not just about the actors and stunt workers.  Before even getting to the set, extensive amount of time is spent in makeup and costume where cuts and bruises are skillfully applied by markup artists.  In another location,  the prop crews create things like rubber 'barbed wire', and animation crews (like Industrial Light and Magic ) create animatronics and digitally enhanced visuals to depict extreme emaciation, or emotional scenes that are simply too dangerous, or violent for the real equine actors (such as explosions).   Once the equine actors have finished their live work, the production then moves to the editing room where the film is put together, and edited.  A well edited movie is one which invokes emotion from the audience.  If a movie, such as Warhorse, made you feel pity, sorrow, fear, anger and joy, for "Joey", then the editors did their job well!    For additional information on the equine crew of "Warhorse" check out    to learn more about the specifics of how to train horses tricks and stunts, visit

Training Tips written by Jackie Johnson, for