TRUE TALE

In the back­ground of many movies from Hol­ly­wood’s golden age are well-trained, but anony­mous, horses.

EQUUS - - Contents - By Martha Craw­ford Can­tarini

Best sup­port­ing ac­tors: In the back­ground of many movies from Hol­ly­wood’s golden age are well­trained, but anony­mous, horses.

Trig­ger. But­ter­milk. Sil­ver. Scout. Thun­der. Cham­pion…. If you grew up in a cer­tain era, you could eas­ily reel off the names of all the most fa­mous horses from the movies and tele­vi­sion: The steady mounts be­long­ing to the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were as fa­mous as their hu­man part­ners. Many of these equine stars were rec­og­nized with Patsy Awards---Pic­ture An­i­mal Top Star of the Year---at an an­nual awards cer­e­mony for Hol­ly­wood an­i­mals spon­sored by the Amer­i­can Hu­mane As­so­ci­a­tion.

Yet work­ing in the back­ground of so many great movies and tele­vi­sion shows were a host of un­sung he­roes---horses who hit their marks, per­formed stunts on cue and car­ried their rid­ers flaw­lessly, even when paired with ac­tors who barely knew how to sit in a sad­dle. Of­ten, these horses were seen “packing” ac­tors will­ingly, day in and day out, de­spite their rid­ers’ bad hands.

Most of the peo­ple who worked with these horses---ac­tors as well as stunt rid­ers like me---knew how much they con­trib­uted to our suc­cess by mak­ing us look bet­ter than we were. Of­ten, the only re­wards these horses re­ceived were their feed and a com­fort­able place to sleep at night.

Horses who per­formed ad­vanced ma­neu­vers like fall­ing were owned by the stunt­men and train­ers. Most of us, how­ever, just showed up for work not know­ing which horses we would be rid­ing that day, or whether we’d be charg­ing up the hill as cowboys or down the hill as In­di­ans. I worked in the movies for many years, rid­ing for sev­eral ma­jor ac­tresses. The mem­o­ries of those anony­mous horses stay with me to this day. I learned some­thing from ev­ery one of them.

A horse who stands out in my mind was a geld­ing named Ski, who learned to fol­low cues as well as any ac­tor.

I’d re­ceived a call to work on “In­ter­rupted Melody,” a 1955 MGM biopic about Aus­tralian opera singer Mar­jorie Lawrence. In one scene, while per­form­ing in “Got­ter­dammerung,” she rides a horse into a fire on the stage of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera. On Stage 15, Metro’s largest sound­stage, we re­hearsed for three weeks be­fore shoot­ing what was the most ex­pen­sive in­door scene in film his­tory to that date.

Ski was a spe­cial­ist: He was trained to be a rear­ing horse in films. The script called for the opera star to leap onto the horse’s back while singing Wag­ner. Ski would be asked to gal­lop across the stage, rear, then leap into the $50,000 fake fire. Nat­u­rally, the real star of the film, Eleanor Parker, wouldn’t do the ac­tual gal­lop­ing and jump­ing. That would be my job.

In Hol­ly­wood each per­son in a scene is told where to stand, where to look, where to walk, when to talk, what to say and what to do with their hands and feet. All of this cre­ates the “pic­ture” the di­rec­tor wants to see and is worked out in de­tail long be­fore the first call of “Ac­tion!”

My work in the scene in­cluded hand ges­tures and changes in body po­si­tion per­formed to ex­act notes from a heavy Wag­ne­r­ian score. At the right mo­ment, I would touch Ski on the neck to cue him to rear, then cue him to jump onto the open grate over top of the “fire.”

What I found, as the weeks passed, was that Ski, too, be­came deeply at­tuned to ev­ery slight ges­ture I made. He was like a coiled spring. I couldn’t move my head even a frac­tion of an inch with­out him mov­ing his ears. As we prac­ticed the scene, I felt him gather him­self for the rear as soon as I took

my right hand off the rein to raise it and place it on his neck.

Later, we re­hearsed the scene that calls for the hero­ine to leap onto the horse’s back. As the mu­sic played, I had to stand on the stage floor in front of Ski and make a high ges­ture with my right hand. After a few re­hearsals I re­al­ized that when a cer­tain note was played, Ski would step for­ward with his left front foot to brace him­self for my bare­back mount.

A sec­ond horse was be­ing used in the close-up shots with Parker, and to my amaze­ment, I no­ticed that he, too, was step­ping for­ward at the ex­act same mu­si­cal note. You can eas­ily see this in the film.

When fi­nally the time came to shoot the scenes, Ski, thor­oughly pro­fes­sional, was ev­ery bit as pre­pared as I was to lis­ten for the right notes and per­form to the cues as crisply as if he had been lis­ten­ing to the di­rec­tor. Work­ing with Ski---even with a life­time of horses be­hind me---re­newed my ap­pre­ci­a­tion of how closely our horses are at­tuned to their sur­round­ings and how read­ily they can learn to fol­low our cues, con­scious or not.

Once you were priv­i­leged to know any of these Hol­ly­wood horses, you could never for­get them. Most even­tu­ally slipped into obliv­ion, apart from the few big-name stars, or those who were res­cued and re­tired by the peo­ple who sought them out.

Each of these horses taught me a valu­able les­son that I re­mem­ber to this day: As we strive to learn the best ways to mo­ti­vate our horses, in re­al­ity, they mo­ti­vate us to be the best that we can be. The glory days of these un­re­warded horses are long gone now, but of­ten I find my­self watch­ing the tele­vi­sion screen, hop­ing for one more glimpse of a horse I once knew.

OPERA PRIMA: Martha Craw­ford Can­tarini and Ski per­form their big scene in the film “In­ter­rupted Melody.”

SEE­ING DOU­BLE: Martha Craw­ford Can­tarini poses with star Eleanor Parker (left) on the set of “In­ter­rupted Melody.”

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