Secretariat, the new Disney film about the 1973 Triple Crown winner, debuts in theaters this weekend. What makes a horse a good actor?
Intelligence. Whereas racing scouts look for the fastest horses, movie trainers look for the smartest ones. Trainers gauge intelligence by how attentive a horse is, and how quickly it learns commands. Movie horses also need to be calm around human beings and machinery. As for physical qualities: Trainers tend to prefer well-proportioned horses with shiny coats, straight legs (so they can walk properly), and a short back (so they can rear easily). Youth is a plus, since young horses are better-suited for the rigors of moviemaking, but a good movie horse can work in Hollywood its entire life. Hightower, star of The Horse Whisperer, stayed in the business more than 20 years. Movie trainers never use mares, which come into heat for a week every month during mating season, because it could disrupt shooting schedules.
On set, the trainer is like the horse's personal acting coach, standing just off-screen and cueing each movement in the scene. Good trick horses know 20 or 30 basic cues, such as bucking or standing on a mark. But the trainer can also teach them additional ones based on the director's needs. For example, a scene might call for a horse to nod or fall or look back at its rider. For one Procol Harum music video, a trainer taught a horse to let itself be buried alive, then burst out of the ground. A well-taught horse can follow a cue without turning its head toward the trainer, following him with its eyes instead. (Watch the horse's eyes next time you see one in a movie.) Trainers have several different ways of signaling to the horse: with a whip, with their hands, or verbally.
Studios always hire more horses than appear on-screen. Ten different horses, for example, played Secretariat. That way, when one horse gets tired of running, the trainer can swap in another. The director might also use different horses for different shots. A faster horse might appear in a racing scene, while a bigger horse might appear in a close-up shot. (Secretariat was huge.) If any of the horses are the wrong color pattern, wranglers will often paint them to look the same using washable dyes.
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