'The horses really do have to trust you . . .'
Kildare man Simon MacDermott is one of Ireland's top horse trainers for film work, having been horse master on the RTE series Rough Diamond, as well as big screen productions Lassie, The Secret Life of Words and Country.
After a traditional equestrian childhood of pony club and hunting, the trainer worked with racehorses and sport horses, including top event horse Golden Duke, before he got involved in film work.
"Generally the 'star' horses for a big film are bought in by the production company and sold after filming," he explains.
"The 'extra' horses are contracted in day-by-day."
MacDermott says trust is essential in convincing a flighty half-tonne horse to do what he wants.
"The horses really do have to trust you," he insists. He says the ideal horse for stunt work is a four or five- year-old gelding (castrated male).
"They are broken, used to wearing tack and being ridden," he says. "They have to be tame enough to handle a sound boom swinging overhead, on-set lighting and a camera pointing up their nostril."
His preference for geldings over mares or stallions is due to hormonal issues.
"Stallions can have a mind of their own if there is a mare on set," he laughs.
"Mares, too, are renowned for their unpredictable nature when 'in season' or sexually receptive.
"Also, geldings tend to have a softer temperament compared to mares, who can sometimes get upset," he adds.
Stunt work such as teaching a horse to lie down begins in an arena covered by a deep surface of sand and rubber crumbs.
"I start by holding up the front leg and bringing the horse's head round so that his body starts to drop away," explains MacDermott. "It's all very slow and steady and once the horse lies down successfully a few times, I stop and repeat again another day. It's all practice, practice, practice."
Teaching a horse to rear begins by applying intermittent pressure to the poll or top of the head using a rope. The horse responds to these soft jerks by first nodding his head, then by bouncing on his forelegs and finally by rearing.
"Funnily enough, I have found that I can teach a mare to rear much quicker than a gelding," he adds.
Teaching a horse to 'play dead' is a matter of training them to lie down and wait for a signal before getting up. Stunt horse training is far less food-oriented than the training of other animals such as dogs, says MacDermott.
"While we might use polo mints occasionally, horses are not traditionally trained with food rewards so often they are just happy to get a pat on the neck or scratch on their withers."
Many equestrian scenes are created by using the horse's natural reactions to provoke the desired effect. One famous example is the well-known Lloyds TSB Bank advert, in which a stunning black stallion galloped through the surf at the edge of a sandy beach. What the viewer didn't see was the band of in-season mares galloping in front of the stallion.
In Country, MacDermott needed the lead character's horse to gallop alongside a hedge whinnying as his master's funeral cortege passed by. To create the scene, the horse master placed a second horse at the opposite end of the field and enlisted hidden helpers in the hedge to call the horse as he passed. The result: a horse who appears to be calling out and frantically trying to reach his master in the coffin.
However, by far the most challenging scene for MacDermott to produce was an x-rated sequence, when the script of Rough Diamond called for a real-life mating between stallion and mare.
Undaunted, Simon McDermott duly sourced several in-season mares and a willing sire. "On the day, all you could see was the film crew's jaws dropping," he laughs.