Hollywood Horse Stories

Many actors have testy relationships with horses. One example was Michael Caine, whose first movie Zulu (1964) required him to ride a steed after a hunting expedition. After several embarrassing takes his career almost came to a premature end. “I thought you said you had riding lessons!” said the angry director. “I did!” said the beleaguered newcomer. “And the first thing I learned was I never wanted to ride one of these bloody things again!”

Other actors were more philosophical. Jack Nicholson took a hard fall off his horse in The Missouri Breaks (1976) which he shrugged off saying “It would have hurt if I was a real person instead of a movie star.”
Some performers get along famously with their horses for years. Gene Autry had his beloved Champion trained to jump through a ring of fire at rodeos, the stunt always worked perfectly until the horse aged and was put out to stud. A replacement was called in. On opening night Gene was advised by his wranglers that the rookie was not ready for prime time. “It’ll be all right boys!” reassured America’s favorite cowboy in between swigs of tequila. The arena patrons cheered excitedly as the new horse and familiar rider came out of the tunnel. Right before they reached the ring the animal came to a dead stop, sending the wide-eyed Autry flying to complete the stunt on his own. The crowd gasped but luckily Gene was more drunk than hurt, he simply got up and took a bow, like it was all part of the act.

One star came to regret her closeness to her horse. After twelve year old Elizabeth Taylor fell in love with the beautiful black creature she rode in National Velvet (1944), she begged producer Pan Berman to let her keep it. It was a valuable animal, and some of the MGM brass was unwilling to part with it. Sweet Elizabeth eventually won them over. Sixteen years later Pan met a much more cynical Taylor now working on her fourth marriage, on the set of another MGM movie Butterfield 8. “Say weren’t you the one who gave me that horse after National Velvet? I’m still feeding that son

Most actors try to minimize their risks before riding. David Niven bribed a trainer fifty dollars so he would get to ride a gentle nag while filming The Prisoner Of Zenda (1937). He brought his animal next to Raymond Massey’s stallion, and both reluctant riders prepared for the director to call action. Suddenly Niven noticed a shadow above him; Massey’s horse had risen on its hind legs. Niven realized his nag was in heat and dived out the way as Massey’s stallion came down on Niven’s mare. He watched stunned as the helpless Massey bounced on top of what now looked like a giant rocking horse!

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