Great Horses in History: Trianna

  • In 1983, top action stunt specialists Vic and Wendy Armstrong were on a buying trip in Spain, sourcing horses to play unicorns in Ridley Scott’s fantasy adventure Legend. They had already found five white stallions, but it was the final night and they were still searching for their female lead.

    Their last hope was an evening meeting in a Seville bar with a local horseman who didn’t turn up until 2.30am. An hour later, in a dimly lit arena, they were presented with Trianna.

    The 13-year-old 16hh Andalucian-Arab was already a champion Doma Vaquera (reining) horse in her native country. Her pure white coat, strong neck and tremendous presence caught the eye of the Armstrongs, but she did not audition well.

    “She behaved like a thing possessed,” recalls Wendy. “She was bucking and snorting her way round the school. If we hadn’t been desperate, we would never have bought her.”

    Fortunately, this display proved entirely out of character. The mare became trusted with Hollywood’s finest. Some were complete novices – Tim Roth turned up for his first lesson in biker boots and leather jacket – others came to brush up on their riding skills. Almost all fell in love with her.

    “An actor’s horse must be utterly reliable,” says Wendy. “You can’t delay shooting because the leading man’s had an accident.”

    Trianna never let her charges fall. “I’ve seen her literally rearrange herself under an insecure rider to keep them in the saddle,” says Jenni Thompson, Trianna’s groom for more than ten years. “I think it would have broken her heart if anyone had come off.”

    Trianna was unfazed by lights, cameras, cables, fire, explosions, smoke machines – all that goes with the modern film set. She accepted strange props and costumes without hesitation, whether sporting a foot-long horn for the part of a unicorn or the extravagant trappings of a mediaeval warhorse.

    She patiently endured endless takes, knew exactly when to stay on her mark and what the call of “action” meant. She could be controlled from the ground by voice alone or by the rider following an instructor’s commands. The perfect riding horse, she could canter at a person’s walking pace and needed neither saddle nor bridle. She was also taught to work at liberty.

    Filming did not always go smoothly. On location for Rob Roy, a mistimed cue resulted in Trianna and veteran actor Andrew Keir buried up to their necks in a bog. Trianna stood stock still until the actor was pulled to safety and she was rescued.

    She was washed off, reunited with her rider and the shot of the day completed.

    Her patience and sensitivity came to the fore behind the scenes as much as in front of the camera. For the 1994 film Black Beauty, a succession of children came to screen test for the part of a young rider who had to sit on a rearing pony before tumbling into the grass.

    It was essential that they showed themselves capable of sitting to rear, but some of them had barely ridden a seaside donkey before. There could only be one horse for the auditions.

    Trianna sensed exactly who were the experienced riders and who were the complete novices and adjusted her rear accordingly. With the greenest child, she would barely take her front legs off the floor.

    For the more confident, she provided the thrill of sitting on a proper rearing horse, but one that was always in perfect balance and ready to drop to the ground at the word of her trainer.

    Her poise, elegance and generosity earned her the pet name of “The Queen Mother”.

    “She was incredibly regal and always had time for everyone,” says Jenni Thompson.

    Trianna was retired in 1995 after being diagnosed with a week heart, and lived out a happy retirement, dying in her stable in 2002.

    • This article appeared in full in Horse & Hound (6 May)

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