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

Recent Posts

More Blogs