Thoroughbreds in Tinsel Town

I decided to go in a bit of a different direction with this entry. I promise we will go back to more horse rescues and retraining stories soon enough—possibly even an update on Curlin’s old buddy, Pancho.

But for now, I wanted to talk about the very interesting subject of the use of horses in Hollywood—first in the recent blockbuster sensation “Avatar.”

My co-worker, Erin Ryder, news editor of The Horse magazine, brought to my attention a fascinating press release from the American Humane Association that talks about how real horses were used in the making of Avatar.

Anyone who has seen this movie knows how absolutely stunning and mesmerizing the visual effects are—to the point that some people have gone into a depression after viewing it! I was not depressed afterward, but rather, I wanted to go back to the planet Pandora as soon as possible.

In Avatar, the Na’vi dire horse creatures were depicted by capturing the actual movements, gestures, and expressions of real horses. Following is a link to a release explaining how it was done, and how none of the horses were hurt in the process.

"The 'No Animals Were Harmed' end-credit is awarded when films do the right thing by having us do our vital work in protecting the welfare of animals in film for the past 70 years," said Jone Bouman of the American Humane Film and TV Unit.   

After considering how the horses performed in “Avatar,” I started wondering specifically about what Thoroughbreds have been retrained to act in other films. I called Swanson Peterson Productions, a company owned by expert horse trainers Cari Swanson and Rex Peterson, who is best known for training the horses in such movies as “Black Beauty,” “The Horse Whisperer,” “Hidalgo,” “Flicka,” “Dreamer,” “The Patriot,” “Runaway Bride,” and “The Black Stallion.”

Swanson filled me in on a few of the biggest ex-racers she and Peterson have trained to grace the silver screen.

While Harbor Mist (nicknamed “Mr. T”), who played Sonador in "Dreamer" and will be one of eight horses portraying Secretariat in the yet-to-be-released Disney film, didn’t have much luck on the racetrack, but his intelligence and willingness to learn has landed him a number of movie roles over the years. The 12-year-old gelding by Meadowlake, who won just three times in 51 starts as a racehorse, most recently starred in a film called “Temple Grandin,” which aired on HBO Feb. 6.

“He just came in with a bunch of Thoroughbreds that were cast for Dreamer, and had exceptional ability,” said Swanson of how the gelding was first discovered. “He’s gone on to do a lot of other movies, and he’s one of the better trick horses around. If you watch Temple Grandin, his scenes are the ones where he’s fighting and rearing, and then he plays dead under a tarp. If you look at him, he actually looks dead…his eyes are glazed over. He’s not drugged or anything; that’s just him.”

The film, which highlights the life of an animal science professor with autism, contains several scenes that would most likely frighten the average horse.

“When Temple Grandin has fits, there’s a lot of energy, screaming, and body movement,” Swanson said. “But (Harbor Mist) was amazing and would just lay there. But it takes hours and hours of training and schooling for all of the horses. For every scene, every trick, you go back and rehearse it over and over again.”

Another great Thoroughbred retrained by Peterson and Swanson was Monkeysee Monkeydo, who doubled for Justin, the Quarter Horse who played Black Beauty in the 1994 production. Swanson said Monkeysee Monkeydo, who won the 1989 Texas Open Futurity at Los Alamitos during his racing career, was an exceptional learner even as a foal. The now 23-year-old black horse by Port Master got his name from promptly mimicking every action that was taught to him as a young horse.

“If you go on our Web site, you can see a video we did of him about a month ago,” said Swanson. “We were testing equipment for a new movie called 'Thor' (currently in production, starring Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Anthony Hopkins). We were using a futuristic saddle that goes way back on a horse’s back, almost over the croup. We brought out five rearing horses, and (Monkeysee Monkeydo) hadn’t really been worked in a year, but he was phenomenal. He was like, ‘I’m not ready to retire!’ ”

Swanson said she was also particularly impressed with two Thoroughbreds that will appear in Secretariat: Michael’s Revenge and Frosty Adams. While both were mediocre at best as racehorses (Michael failed to win in 22 starts; Frosty scored one victory in 32 starts), Swanson said they were some of the smartest animals she’s ever encountered.

“Nobody wanted (to work with them), because the grooms couldn’t get near them, and they were just very difficult,” she explained. While Michael’s Revenge played Secretariat’s rival Sham in the movie, Frosty depicted another anonymous horse in the Belmont Stakes field. “But they were just super smart, and when you’re shooting a film like that, they’re racing these short bursts every day, and the horses were sore after so many weeks of shooting and said they’d had enough.

“But we got them home, desensitized them, and put them through Rex’s basic training methods, (we discovered) they’re incredibly bright.

“Every horse is an individual,” Swanson continued. “We train everything from Thoroughbreds to Quarter Horses to Paints. I wouldn’t say any breed is easy or less easy. Thoroughbreds are actually very intelligent, and we find—if you get a good one—they’re amazingly easy to teach.”

To learn more about the Hollywood horses trained by Peterson and Swanson and to view training videos, visit


Leave a Comment:

Carolyn in ND

So interesting!!  Did you work with Cyclone Larry?  Got to meet & pet him ND last summer.   I'm excited about the Secretariat Movie!  Have you considered writing a book about all your experiences?  Would be a good read.

09 Feb 2010 3:39 PM


10 Feb 2010 1:04 AM

A really great story,I'm not

at all surprised to hear that Thoroughbreds are very intelligent. They have a great deal to learn even before they race.

I would be most pleased to

learn about Pancho. He was so attached to Curlin.

(great pics for the story too)

10 Feb 2010 4:33 AM

I'm so happy they were used until they were so sore they shut down and quit and then had to be desensitized. That info will be in my head if I actually go see the movie, now. Geesh.

10 Feb 2010 8:55 AM
10 Feb 2010 8:57 AM
needler in Virginia

Esther........lovely story, just lovely. Take a drive out to Old Friends Equine and you can meet Seabiscuit (or at least a pretty fair facsimile thereof!). Popcorn Deelites lives with Michael Blowen, et. al., in Georgetown and never gets tired of telling his stablemates about his life in the movies. He's a real favorite of mine, but the horse that rings MY bells is the Black Stallion; forget the dialogue and the actors...just play the music and let me watch the horse................

THANKS for a nice article and a great addition to the BH blog stable. Glad you are here!!!

Cheers and safe trips.

10 Feb 2010 8:24 PM

needler in Virgina, that's my claim to fame -- getting my picture taken handing a ribbon to The Black Stallion -- Cass Ole -- at a show in San Antonio. He was incredible in person, possibly the most beautiful horse I've ever seen, and I'm a fan of thoroughbreds, not Arabians.

11 Feb 2010 12:51 PM
Esther Marr

Hey, Rachel, I wanted to clarify something. I talked with a representative from American Humane about the situation on the Secretariat set and she assured me that those horses were absolutely not harmed in any way. They just needed a break, like any racehorse that races frequently and needs a freshening. Here is what she told me specifically: "There is no possible way (the horses were harmed). We have a rep on that film that is highly trained...these people are not just animal lovers; they are equine specialists. We are very preventative and precautionary. The rep on set probably saw when the horses were doing the short spurts, and said, 'that’s it, this horse is going to have a rest, no more shooting for today.' "

11 Feb 2010 4:55 PM
needler in Virginia

Tiznowbaby.........I HOPE you got a picture of meeting Cass. Now HE's a real star!!! Lucky you..........I'm so jealous!!

Cheers and safe trips to all.......and again, congratulations to Esther for her new blog.

11 Feb 2010 6:01 PM


Loved your article, the gorgeous pictures and the link to swansonpetersonproductions' website. I spend quite a bit of time watching their videos and admiring their gentle training methods and the very willing horses doing their "thing". But what I'm most grateful for is the heads up on a very good HBO movie. Temple Grandin made me laugh, made me cry, but mostly it left me in awe of this extraordinary human being who is accomplishing so much, not in spite of her autism, but because of it. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. You are a gift on this website. Can't wait for what you have in store for us.

12 Feb 2010 1:30 AM

Esther, I spent a very pleasant hour watching videos at the website.  Loved the RJ/Hidalgo's especially.  He is such a cool horse!  (Anyone who hasn't seen the movie Hidalgo, should. The horse steals the show, and that's saying something with Viggo as co-star!;-)

I'm really glad you're doing this blog. I like that it will be about horses, not just racing or breeding, and look forward to going "Beyond the Blinkers" with you.

12 Feb 2010 10:30 PM

Okay. Secretariat is out. How many horses were maimed or injured during the the filming?

18 Oct 2010 1:31 PM

And ex-movie horses can be great pets after their days on the set are done.  I knew a horse named Royal who had been an actor turned "the rest of us."  Great riding horse.  Just don't jerk that left rein too hard.  (Plop! on his side.)

13 Dec 2010 4:36 PM

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