Hollywood Hoofbeats

Gene Autry and Champ
Gene Autry and Champ

In the days when westerns were big box office and TV attractions, cowboys and their horses often shared equal billing. Champion, wonder horse of the West, was Gene Autry’s mount. John Wayne rode Duke, his devil horse, and, of course, there was Roy Rogers and Trigger billed as the smartest horse in the movies.

— Fresh Air

When I picked up my daughter from school today, there was a wonderful story on Fresh Air — about the celebrity status of horses in the early westerns. Hollywood Hoofbeats: The Fascinating Story of Horses in Movies & Television was written by Peterine Day Mitchum (Robert Mitchum’s daughter). Fresh Air’s interview between Dave Davies and Mitchum is well worth a listen (and the book sounds great).

It will come as no surprise to equestrians that the horses were stars in their own rights, with personalities that shown through in the pleasure they took in their performances. Some horses even knew when the camera was rolling and put an extra sparkle in their act.

Jimmy Stewart and Pie
Although Jimmy Stewart rode Pie for 22 years, his owner would never sell him. After the horse died, Steward arranged a private burial.

Jimmy Stewart’s mount in 17-westerns, Pie, was one of those horses who Stewart said he just felt him come alive underneath him the minute the camera started rolling.

Among the most remarkable “tricks” recounted by Mitchell is one performed by Roy Rogers and Trigger. I am very impressed that a horse could do this flawlessly on the first take. I can only imagine what either of my horses would do in this circumstance.

Trigger rearing
Roy Rogers and Trigger performing their signature stunt.

. . . there was a film where Rogers and Trigger were jumping over a series of 50-gallon drums that were rolling off the back of a truck. And it was a completely unrehearsed scene, and Trigger just did it all perfectly in one take. He just was a great horse in terms of being confident. He and Roy had confidence in each other, which was so important, and just – and took this crazy stunt in stride. I mean, it’s really quite astonishing, I would imagine, for a horse to see a bunch of barrels running straight at him and then just to have the presence of mind to just jump them and not flinch and not try and shy away from them.

Sadly, Mitchum also recounts about how horses were injured or killed in early films by using trip wires or holes in the ground to make horses fall. What I didn’t know is that you can train your horse to fall, even at a flat out gallop, and make it both realistic and safe.

Listen to the entire interview by clicking on the link below.


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