Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Wild Heart for Horses

Most horse people have enough empathy to find a movie set intimidating.  As much as we love horses, we all pretty much agree with Jerry Seinfeld’s assessment of the equine as, “a jittery, glassy-eyed dinosaur.”  The predatory response in horses is strong and immediate, so imagine putting one in a completely foreign environment that consists of all kinds of potential monsters:  Huge, swiveling lights on leggy tripods.  Miles and miles of thick electrical cords.  Tarps.  Equipment that raises and lowers cameras, and people pushing more equipment around on wheeled dollies.  Oh yes, when it comes to equines, a movie set is not a place for the faint of heart. 

Here is where Hollywood’s wranglers come in, the unsung heroes of over a hundred years in motion pictures.  They are the stunt riders who risk their necks to make an actor look good, to make a scene come to life, to tell the story that began in the imagination of a writer and director who maybe have never even seen a real horse.  The wranglers are the nitty-gritty, get-your-hands-dirty, real life equestrians, the overworked and underpaid, often unnoticed and sometimes not even acknowledged in the glamorous collaboration that we see on the big screen.

Along with the wrangler comes a very special creature:  A trick-trained horse.  This miracle of nature, when asked, will overcome all his innate fears of horse-eating monsters and jump into icy the river, or look with ears up into the glaring lights and gaping lens, or run over miles of rugged terrain, toward a stack of metal scaffolding laden with panning cameras and moving seats and turning wheels, time and again, when he would rather be running away.

I was fortunate enough to talk to movie horse trainer Tonia Forsberg last night.  She was instrumental in providing the horses for the upcoming Hallmark Movie, Our Wild Hearts.  Premiering March 9, the film is about a wild mustang and stars Ricky Schroder of Lonesome Dove, Silver Spoons and NYPD Blue fame.  Ricky, who also wrote and directed Our Wild Hearts, created the film as a vehicle for his daughter Cambrie Schroder to try her hand at acting.

Cambrie and Ricky Schroder on the set of Our Wild Hearts

Tonia grew up with horses and began trick riding at age 12.  She hung out with such notables as Glenn Randall, trainer of Roy Rogers’ Trigger and the Ben Hur chariot Andalusians.  Training came second nature to Tonia.  “I grew up not knowing that I was learning something.” 

She was most influenced by trainer Bobby Lovegren, who has a long history in film, including the soon to be released The Lone Ranger. Tonia describes Bobby with great respect.  “Of all the trainers I have worked with, his methods are among the most humane.”

I warmed to Tonia immediately when it became obvious that humane training methods were a priority for her.  She said that in her experience, most horses really want to please.  It’s when they get confused, or don’t understand what is expected, that a rider or trainer meets with the most resistance.  Gentle repetition is the key to trust and cooperation.

She said that one of the most difficult things about training horses for film is when a director expects a new behavior within a week, or sometimes even on the spot during a shoot.  She has to explain to the director and crew then that a horse’s learning process takes time, and it is best if new behaviors are taught gradually and with patience.  A horse who has learned something at a slow pace will usually retain it better.  A behavior that is taught methodically will be performed more reliably.  “The longer it takes to make, the longer it takes to break,” she added.

Tonia and her husband Todd, who is also an accomplished trainer, have their own herd of equines that they use for film work.  For the Our Wild Hearts mustang, they used Tommy, their black gelding of unknown lineage.  Tommy is sixteen and Tonia has owned him for ten years.  “He’s very trustworthy.  He has good animation and is a good liberty horse.”

Tommy demonstrates what being a movie horse is all about!

As she spoke of Tommy, Tonia's affection for him was very obvious.  “He had a couple of doubles, but when it called for a scene where I rode bareback, he was the one for the job.  I rode with no bridle and Todd was calling him from a distance of about three football fields.  Every time we shot it, he always ran right to Todd.  We tried it again later with some of the doubles, but that didn’t work out so well,” she laughed.

And Ricky?  I knew that it was often the unlucky job of wranglers and trainers to teach actors how to look convincing on a horse.  I thought with Ricky this most likely wouldn’t be a problem.  He had surely spent many months in the saddle with the role of Newt in Lonesome Dove.  Even though the miniseries aired in 1989, he must have retained some horsemanship skills.

“Oh yes, Ricky was easy!  He was very natural.”  Tonia added, “It took me awhile to warm up to the fact that he is a real person.  They are a very nice family.  Good people. “

At the time of filming Our Wild Hearts, the Schroders didn’t own horses.  But as work on the film progressed, they started talking about buying some.  I think that when it comes to helping someone feel comfortable with a horse, and helping a horse feel comfortable on a movie set, that tells you all you need to know about Tonia Forsberg.

1 comment:

Christine said...

What a great read - thanks for this blog post! Very interesting and insightful.

I love the comment of 'I grew up not knowing that I was learning something.'

I think that can be true of many horse people who end up working with them. Thanks for an insight into another way of working with horses!