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Training Horses for the Silver Screen

How do they get the horses to do those tricks in the movies and on TV?

By Allison Griest | June 4, 2014

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Clydesdales and Puppy
Photo courtesy Budweiser

 

Every time I turn on the TV and see a horse, I’m immediately interested. Sometimes my friends even send me a text: "Allie – horses on ABC.”

As a lifelong horse-crazy person, I feel qualified to be a critic of riders in TV shows, movies and advertisements, and I always wonder about the training that happens behind the scenes. I know how to teach a horse to ground tie, but how do you teach a horse to jump a fence and run after a puppy?

Yes, I’m referencing the adorable "Puppy Love” Budweiser Superbowl commercial from this year. (Watch it here!)

Clydesdale Jump
On the set of a Budweiser Clydesdales commercial. Photo: Tony Audinino

 

The answer, according to Kate Wiltshire, wife of Budweiser Clydesdales’ trainer Robin Wiltshire, is to think outside the box.

Robin and Kate run Turtle Ranch in Dubois, Wyom. Budweiser brings the Clydesdales to Robin for specialized training. (Click here for behind-the-scenes footage from Turtle Ranch.)

"Horses have to learn [tricks] from every angle,” explains Kate. You have to be able to direct the animal without ruining the shot.

My friends and I have spent plenty of hours at the barn teaching horses tricks. My college roommate and I loved reinforcing her horse Aspen’s "Give me kisses” trick. However, if there’s a loud noise or we ask her to give kisses from a different position, that trick isn’t happening.

Aspen
The author with Aspen, demonstrating the "give me kisses" trick.

 

In the entertainment world, a horse has to be able to perform no matter what. When the Wiltshires work with the Clydesdales, the more confident the horses become, the more external stimulation the Wiltshires add. For example, they might use tarps to simulate green screens, and they might even invite friends out to imitate the different energy on a production set.

"You have to make the horse confident and happy and feel safe,” she adds.

Clydesdales
On the set of a Budweiser Clydesdales commercial. Photo: Pat Garrison

 

My horse-crazy self was star struck as I spoke to Kate, and that star struck feeling didn’t go away as I called Bobby Lovgren, trainer of the horses in movies including Seabiscuit, Zorro, Lone Ranger and War Horse. He's originally from South Africa and is now based in Los Angeles.

As an equestrian, I truly believe that the best way to work with horses is to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard. Bobby’s training philosophy seems to be along the same lines.

"I actually teach them as little as possible, but the few things they do they need to do very well,” Bobby explains. "The movie business is very pressure related on what they need to do.

"It’s not the discipline horses need to do [for film] that’s difficult,” he says. "It’s the amount of times you need them to do it.”

It totally makes sense. After I ask my horse to bend to the left 15 times, he doesn’t want to bend anymore. If you’re asking a horse to pick up a bucket and throw it across a room, he’s only going to be willing to do it so many times.

Bobby owns some of the horses he works with, but in order to make sure the horses work well, he trains several horses to do the same tricks. I loved hearing that Bobby owns one of the main horses he works with. Finder, an off the track Thoroughbred, can be seen in movies including War Horse and Seabiscuit.

Finder and Bobby
Bobby Lovgren with equine actor Finder. Finder is an OTTB who appeared in Seabiscuit and War Horse. Photo: Marcie Heathcox

 

While Finder had a starring role in War Horse, Bobby had 11 other horses that played the main horse. Since the movie shows the progression of the horse’s life, Bobby worked with foals and yearlings for a few weeks, but those horses didn’t remain on set for the entire production time.

I’ve already rewatched the Budweiser "Puppy Love” commercial several times, and I can’t wait to rewatch all of these movies now that I’ve spoken to the trainers behind these amazing animals.

My barn friends better clear their calendars – we’ve got movies to watch after our next lesson.

Follow Allison on Twitter at @allisongriest

Liked this article? Here are more on movie horses.
Rider Insider: The Best Horse Movies
Friesians in Film
Are You Ready for Some Clydesdales?

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Reader Comments

Rhonda    Lewiston, NC

6/10/2014 5:20:31 PM

Horses are smarter than what most people think, but they are like children in that their attetion span isn't very long. Most importantly, make training fun for your horse!

Galadriel    Lothlorien, ME

6/4/2014 11:54:12 PM

Great article. I love teaching my horse new tricks. And he comes up with a few of his own.

l    l, LA

6/4/2014 7:09:27 PM

cool

PKL    Somewhere, WI

6/4/2014 5:52:35 AM

Love those Clydesdales!!
My horses best trick is to eat more.... hee, hee. Lots of good ideas in this article.

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