The mane man of the movies
Carol Ryan meets the Irish trainer who's coached horses to work with Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster
Published 13/09/2010 | 05:00
Would Zorro have looked quite as swashbuckling without his jet black stallion Tornado (who, by the way, was given hair extensions to make his mane look particularly opulent on camera)?
The Ringwraiths in The Lord of The Rings would never have been as frightening without their hellish, screeching steeds.
Or Mr Ed, the talking horse star of the 1960s hit TV series who delighted audiences with his witty one-liners. Ever wondered how they got him to "talk"? His trainer rubbed peanut butter on the horse's gums which Mr Ed would then work furiously to remove.
Horses are used a lot in films, especially in historical or period movies. There could be several hundred taking part in an epic battle scene, or a horse may be the central character as in Seabiscuit or Into The West.
But most moviegoers rarely get an insight into the time and training invested in equine actors.
Film horses have to be desensitised to go about their business in the midst of cameras, lighting equipment, clanking swords, boisterous crowds and the general mayhem of a film set, which would easily spook the average horse. Stunt horses are used for the most dramatic scenes and specialise in "tricks" like rearing, falling and cowboy work.
Supplying horses for work in films is big business and behind every great horse scene, there is a "Horse Master" persuading the animal to perform on camera.
Donal Fortune is one of Ireland's top horse masters and has worked on films including Into The West, Braveheart, King Arthur, Excalibur and Far and Away. He regularly teaches actors how to ride horses for their films. He also supplies horses for photography shoots and has worked with legendary photographer David Bailey.
Getting into this unusual career was a natural progression for Donal who loved horses from a young age.
"My family lived in Bray near Ardmore Studios and our neighbour ran a B&B where a lot of stunt people were staying. I was absolutely fascinated. I had a pony myself and had an ambition to work in the movies and that is what I ended up doing".
He initially worked as a stunt rider for Ardmore Studios, learning to perform tricks on horseback and trained under various international horse masters who came to Ireland to work on movies.
Part of his job involves figuring out how to pull off convincing scenes while ensuring the safety of the actors and crew.
"I discuss the script with the directors and producers. As soon as they get the cast together, I try to link them up with a suitable horse that they are comfortable with. If it is a big movie, we usually have about six or eight weeks prep to start training the horses and actors."
The film director and horse master then work closely to choreograph horse scenes. Take the sequence in Braveheart where Mel Gibson's character gallops into a castle on horseback, canters up the stairs, slays the enemy in his bedroom and jumps out the castle window into the moat below.
Complicated scenes like these are often broken down into sequences and then spliced together to look seamless.
"We built a replica of the castle interior in a studio. The horse is trained to run up stairs which are specially built for it.
"We filmed the close up of Mel killing the bad guy, then filmed the horse jumping out a window in the studio so he jumps out on to a soft, prepared bed and then we cut to an animatronic horse being dropped from the real castle into the moat with a stunt rider on it."
Usually a film horse will specialise in one particular skill like falling or rearing -- its "party piece" so to speak.
For certain roles, doubles are used and camouflaged to look like the same horse throughout. For Tir na N'Og, the beautiful grey star of Into The West, Donal actually used seven different horses -- three Connemara ponies, three French horses and a retired show jumper.
"You wouldn't get one horse to do all the things the horse had to do in that movie. We used the ex-international show jumper for the scene where the horse jumps over the police car. We set up a ramp off camera and ran the horse out of the apartments in Ballymun and it was no bother to him, he just sailed over it."
When a principal actor has scenes on horseback, they need to look good -- as though they have many years of experience in the saddle. Russell Crowe is known to be one of the best horsemen in the business, and Angelina Jolie performed all her own stunts while riding side saddle in Tomb Raider.
However, horse masters don't always get lucky with an actor who is a talented rider. They often have the mammoth task of making a complete novice look at ease in the short window before filming begins. When an actor is scared of horses, it can cause a real headache.
"One of the actors I worked with had it written in his contract that he wouldn't sit on a horse because he was absolutely terrified. So for some of the close-ups we put him on a ladder in a line-up with all the horses on either side. You couldn't see in the shot that he wasn't actually on a horse. We can cheat it in so many ways. We have put actors on barrels on springs as well to make it look like they were cantering on horseback."
Donal trained Jodie Foster and Anjelica Huston to ride side saddle for period roles.
"I've always had an interest in sidesaddle, it is a very elegant way of riding. Women rode side saddle until the 1930s, they weren't allowed ride astride because they thought it affected their virginity."
Certain breeds are popular for film work. Like their human counterparts, charisma and good looks go a long way. Friesian horses are favored for their flashy appearance -- long thick manes and tails, shiny black coats, elegant movements and great on-screen presence. Andalusian horses are also popular for their beauty and grace.
For battle scenes, Donal likes to use polo ponies because they can be neck reined, a riding method that frees up the actor's hand to carry a sword and shield. He also works with art departments to "dress" the horses with historical accuracy, sourcing old saddles and bridles.
"You want the horse to look as authentic as possible.The attention to detail from the art department can be absolutely stunning at times. You get to see how things might have been. It is like going time travelling."
The movie business has come a long way in terms of respecting animal rights and there is now a fairly strict code of animal care.
In the past, horses were not trained to fall over but were tripped up with wires, often leading to injury or death. One of the most infamous examples of cruelty to horses was in the movie Heaven's Gate where a horse was allegedly blown up with dynamite while shooting a battle sequence. These days, the number of hours a horse works and its rest time have to be considered but Donal still sees some tough training methods,
"I have worked with some pretty rough characters over the years, they literally batter the head off the horse. I am not a great fan of Spanish or Argentinian ways of training horses. You can't bully horses, it really doesn't get results".
He prefers to use gentler methods and keeps a close eye on the horse's body language to ensure it stays calm.
"These days if you have any kind of special connection with horses they call you a horse whisperer but it is all about being calm around animals and if you can be relaxed, the horse will relax and that is the real key to getting the shot."