June 25, 2000
Animal Training for LOTR
Following allegations of mistreatment to the horses being
used in filming of The Lord of the Rings, Alan Samson visits the production's Te Horo
training stables where other animals are also schooled for stardom.
To listen to Lord of the Rings horse trainer Dan Reynolds,
you would think horse training was simple. It's just a case, he says, of walking them
around the ring, then encouraging them toward the trainer with a tap on the backside or a
crack of the whip.
At least to start with.
It has to be more complex, of course. But Reynolds can be
forgiven for not giving away too many secrets.
"Every horse is different," he says. "Some
need a gentler, some a firmer, hand. Stallions are the hardest because they have other
horses on their mind."
The precise tricks of the trade must remain secret, but after
a public smear campaign alleging mistreatment by trainers, it is good to see Reynolds and
the rest of the team at work.
Even assuming the worst, that a good front is being put on
for a reporter, the horses on show seem well cared for and clearly respond to good
An impressive team of experts is on hand. The owner of the
stables at Te Horo is race-horse owner and pre-trainer Chris Rutten; horse coordinator is
Stephen Old, who runs the annual 100-kilometre Extreme NZ Horse Ride, which raises money
for multiple sclerosis, and wrangler is Dave Johnson, known for his stagecoach carnivals
and his Clydesdales.
But the man at the helm of the tricks training is Reynolds, a
laconic, hard-bitten Texan who looks like he's been doing his work forever.
"Dad was an animal trainer . . . I started riding when I
was two," he drawls. "When I was older, I did rodeos from Texas to the
northwest, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, California . . . "
Reynolds wasn't a mainstream performer - he was the character
doing the trick roping, the trick riding, the horse tricks.
In the 1940s, he confesses, he did some child work in the
movies, alongside such luminaries as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Robert Mitchum, the first
two at least, noted cowboys.
The work that followed provided an impeccable background for
his present position. Reynolds recalls having trained, among other things, giraffes,
elands and elephants.
He's run Wild West shows in the manner of Wild Bill Hickok.
He's trained horses in numerous movies including Dances With Wolves, Out of Africa, Ghost
and the Darkness, and Tall Tale.
He's also practised his craft for seven years at Universal
Watching him at the Te Horo stables, it's apparent that the
key is persuasion: the horses are neither fed sugar not punished. They are, however,
clearly in good condition and have abundant pasture to play in.
The horses are certainly not ill-at-ease and Reynolds says
firmly that "tripping and hitting are a no-no".
It seems unlikely that mistreated horses have been hidden
There are only about 70 of them at Te Horo. At some big
battle scenes yet to be filmed, more than 200 horses - to be transformed by computer into
thousands - will be gathered together at a South Island site.
But the 200 will be found from hunt and riding clubs and the
like, and put through their paces relatively close to filming.
The ones going through the complex training now are the
comparatively few "name" horses that will be identifiable when Peter Jackson's
mammoth production hits the screen.
A splendid white animal is identified as Shadowfax, the grand
steed of wizard Gandalf. At a light crack of a Reynolds's whip, it rears majestically.
Next on view is warrior king Aragorn's horse, ridden on film
by Viggo Mortenson, who is filling the shoes of axed Iris actor Stuart Townsend.
Then there is quest leader Frodo's (Elijah Wood) pony, his
hobbit sidekick Merry's (Dominic Monaghan) pony, even elf princess Arwen's (Liv Tyler)
horse, not to mention the dark, dark horses that will be ridden by the evil ringwraiths .
According to Reynolds, most of the tricks he has to coax from
the horses are quite simple, such as when a horse has to make its own way to a cave and
run away again at the required moment.
The most difficult trick to date has been getting a horse to
rescue a wounded Aragorn, nuzzling the body, before helping him to safety.
The trick of keeping more than 200 horses in their Rohan
battle lines, to act on command, has yet to be tested.
Now, here are some secrets . . . having long suspected that
body doubles are in action for some of the actors and actresses, it is nice to have
confirmed that there are riding body doubles.
Local woman Jane Abbot, for instance, will be Liv Tyler - at
least in riding shots. Somewhere there's a character who fills in for Gandalf. A young
Wellington woman is known to have been acting as a double for Cate Blanchett, who arrived
in Wellington earlier this month.
At Te Horo, it turns out that there are also doubles for
horses. The filming plays all sorts of optical tricks, mixing and matching small or big
ponies and horses to dwarf or exaggerate characters such as hobbits and wizards.
Watch out for giant Clydesdales, as high as 17 hands (1.7
metres) that play a variety of roles from battle steeds to Gandalf's cart horse. The
latter also has a double, a Welsh pony that will pull an identical cart for scale shots.
Expect to see Frodo on a regular horse, not a pony, to
accentuate his small size.
But why stop with horses? The Te Horo team also has deer,
sheep, rabbits and ferrets. All have important parts ot play in The Lord of the Rings. As
do pigs and ducks and goats and cockroaches . . .
If the purists want to glimpse a breach of Tolkien
authenticity, they should look to the smallest characters. You can guarantee that nowhere
in the trilogy is there a mention of a weta. Peter Jackson's version will have the
peculiarly New Zealand insect emerging from the dark in places of great evil.
How do you train insects? Cockroaches can be chilled. Spiders
and wetas can be moved by blowing at them through a straw, and by shaking a false ground
The trick that has attracted the most attention, however, has
to do with horses, or, rather, avoiding them: the use of a barrel with springs to simulate
a galloping Tyler in close-up shots.
On screen it may be difficult to tell what is real.
Ultimately the magic of The Lord of the Rings may be the triumph of illusion.