While most actors who play major on-screen roles in Hollywood blockbusters like Gladiator, The Mummy, and Sleepy Hollow are probably divas who live in 10-bedroom mansions, the horses in movies are much more down to earth.
Of the 87 horses owned by Steve Dent Stunts, which supplies horses and stunt riders to a lot of major movies, all except five stallions live out all year and even those five are turned out every day.
“They all have a happy life, none of them ever gets worked too much,” says Samantha Dent, horsemaster at Steve Dent Stunts and daughter of the founder.
Life is manic though for Sam and her family, who make up the small core team at Steve Dent Stunts along with the grooms. 2018 has proved one of their busiest yet with involvement in four big feature films (including Maleficent 2 and The King, which comes out next year and stars the likes of Lily-Rose Depp and Robert Pattinson) as well as lots of smaller jobs such as adverts. “If we can get three feature films in a year, we know we’re having a good year.”
There are four types of jobs typically requested of Steve Dent Stunts. Horses that mill around in the background of scenes, carriage driving, horses that are required to do stunts such as rearing and battle scenes, and ‘actors’ horses’ — the horses in movies that the stars can ride.
Sam enlists friends she knows can ride to do the simple background scenes, while they find stunt riders through the British Stunt Register for the stunts. Actors obviously have variable riding ability — Sam is insistent that all actors come to their yard for an assessment and gives further lessons if necessary — but the movie horses ridden by actors are always chosen based on the actor’s ability and the demands of the scene.
“I’ve never put an actor on a horse that I wasn’t 100% confident wasn’t going to do the job on set.” (For those who are interested – actors who are good riders include Chris Hemsworth and Benedict Cumberbatch.)
The demands of the job means a lot of foreign travel for the rest of Sam’s family, such as Rome for Ben Hur, while Sam tends to stay on UK shores (she’s currently working on season two of Britannia).
“I get to see a lot of old English castles and manor houses; that’s the good thing about our job, we get to see so many beautiful places that we never really knew about until we turned up on location.”
The horses themselves often come from abroad.
“The majority of carriage horses are from Hungary, where they primarily work on logging sites, and we buy them in pairs most of the time,” says Sam. “Most of the actors’ horses or background stunt horses come either from Madrid or Seville, or from Ireland, as they are clever, easy to train and they look good.”
Sam tries to avoid coloured horses in movies as they are a nightmare for hair and make-up to successfully double (often a double is needed for an actor’s horse if that horse’s character needs to perform a stunt it can’t do). She also avoids using mares where possible — “a lot of our really good actors’ horses are actually stallions”.
Most of the horses that are bought are kept, even if they were bought specifically for a movie or their colouring “because there’s always a job for them”, although one or two that proved a little too sharp for life on set have since gone to homes with friends of Sam. (One of the doubles for the main horse in the live action Beauty and the Beast is now successfully doing dressage.) And in the spirit of the mentality that ‘age is but a number’, a lot of the older horses still occasionally do some film work “because we believe it keeps them young” says Sam. No doubt Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep would say amen to that.
Horses in movies: some stable stars
Sample film credits: Snow White and the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth’s horse), The Huntsman: Winter’s War (Chris Hemsworth’s horse), Cinderella (Lily James’s horse), Maleficent, Outlander
“Pinocchio was brought over for Snow White and The Huntsman for Chris to ride. He didn’t belong to us then and at the end of the job he went back to Spain. I loved him from the start and was gutted when he went home. Dad brought him for me as a surprise when we were shooting the first Maleficent. He’s Andalusian x Friesian so he has the temperament of a Friesian and the look and movement of a Spanish horse. He really is so beautiful but super cheeky though. When my dad Steve walks through the barn he leans out and takes his cap off of his head. He is my absolute, ultimate horse.”
Sample film credits: Robin Hood (Russell Crowe’s horse), Snow White and the Huntsman (Kristen Stewert’s horse), Beauty and the Beast (Emma Watson’s horse)
“Rusty is probably our main man. He’s been in the most awkward places where you think no horse would ever go, but you know for a fact that Rusty will do it. He came over from Spain where we bought him for Gladiator and he soon progressed into what we soon knew was going to be one of the best film horses we’ve ever had. He lives out in the field as he hates being in. He also hates being around other horses unless he’s at work. He does love a back massage though, he gets one done every other month.”
Sample film credits: Van Helsing, War Horse, The Hollow Crown, Les Miserables (Russell Crowe’s horse)
“Geyment is amazing, he’s Hungarian and was bought for Van Helsing as part of a six-horse team. You can put an actor on him, ride, drive – he’s amazing. Him and Rusty live together because they’re both as equally miserable as each other. He was particularly fantastic in The Hollow Crown, where Benedict Cumberbatch rode him. Benedict had to do this long scene where he delivered a monologue on horseback to hundreds of extras and despite being surrounded by six cameras Geyment stood like a rock all day, thankfully, as there were lots of high profile celebrities there and I was just stood there thinking ‘if he moves, my career is over’.”
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My mum Maria bred him as a show pony. His mum is actually my HOYS winner, who I won on in 2002. After I brought a mare on set for one of the dwarves in The Huntsman that we established we couldn’t use that much as Chris Hemsworth’s horse was a stallion, I thought maybe Robin would do the job. I was nervous at first because all of my old show ponies were nuts so I didn’t know if he would be the same. But he took to it like a duck on water. Cullen who’s a dwarf learnt to ride on him and Robin really looked after him. He did all of the galloping scenes himself. He comes filming any time we have ponies called on a job because he’s such a pro now.
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