Monday, May 30, 2016

THE UNFORGETTABLE, TRUSTY STEEDS OF WESTERN HEROES

By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky

Anyone who knows me, knows that I LOVE horses. Growing up near Saratoga Race Track in Upstate New York, it would be impossible for me not to love horses. So, not surprisingly, I have also always loved reading about them in books, and watching them on film.

Without question, there have been some very memorable horses over the years.

Where would The Lone Ranger be without Silver? Who can think of Roy Rogers without Trigger? Or, Buttercup when Dale Evans rode into view?

These beautiful, smart, trusty steeds of our favorite heroes (and heroines) were just as famous and beloved as the actor who portrayed their owner(s). In fact, many of them received their own fan mail. Not to mention the parade of toys and other merchandise made in their image.

Very often when watching old westerns, I find myself studying the horses used for each character. I notice the relationship between the actor and the horse. In particular, when a television series has a lengthy run, you cannot help but witness the friendship and trust that develops over time.

As a writer, I also think it is important to focus on the relationship between the horse and rider, and to establish a close, trusting bond that will resonate with the reader.

My post last month about actor Dan Blocker and Bonanza, caused me to think about the beautiful horses on that series, and other shows as well. Did the actor have any say about what horse they wanted to use? Did the studios have their own stables? If the actor was a proficient rider, did they own the horse they used? If not, what happened to the horse after filming ended?

So, today I want to share with you some of the information I have learned.

First of all, the horses used on Bonanza, as well as most western movies and television shows were rentals.

Beginning in 1912 with Pathe Films westerns, Fat Jones Stables was the ‘go to’ source for horses, cattle, western gear, and most of the wagons and carriages a production needed.

Located in North Hollywood, the thriving business was owned and operated by Clarence Young ‘Fat’ Jones [pictured left].

It is important to note that Jones believed it key to partner the right horse with the right actor, especially if that actor was a novice rider. Actors had to feel comfortable with the animal, and vice versa.

LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT

In 1959, actor Lorne Greene accompanied the producer of Bonanza to Fat Jones Stables to select the horse Ben Cartwright would ride. One horse caught his eye, understandably so. Standing 15.1 hands high, weighing 1,100 pounds, Dunny Waggoner was cast as Buck. Not only was the shortened name easier to say and remember on camera, but it paid homage to his color. A true buckskin horse, his body was tan but his legs, mane and tail were black.

Hard-boned, hard-footed, Buck possessed great stamina and could run fast over short distances. Greene was not an experienced rider when Bonanza began, and liked the fact Buck had such a calm disposition. Since the Ponderosa was a sprawling, working ranch owned by the Cartwright family, Buck was also very agile and trained to perform the necessary tasks that were required of a ranch horse, even on a television show.

At the time Greene first met and secured Buck to be Ben Cartwright’s horse, the animal was 12 years old. By the time the series ended in 1972, Fat Jones Stables had closed and sold off their stock. Greene had come to love the horse so much he worried what would happen to his then 25-year old friend. Much like what one would expect of Ben Cartwright, Greene purchased Buck and then donated him to the Fran Joswick Therapeutic Riding Center for physically and/or mentally challenged children. Needless to say, the children loved their gentle, therapeutic riding horse. As for Buck, he died in 1992 at the age of 45.

A BIG MAN NEEDS A BIG HORSE

When Texas born and bred Dan Blocker went to the Fat Jones Stables, he knew exactly what he needed—a big, strong horse. How fitting that just like his character’s name, Hoss, the horse Blocker chose had a hefty name. Chub stood 15.3 hands high and weighed 1,250 pounds.

Half-quarter-horse, half thoroughbred, Chub was a handsome dark brown, almost black horse with three white socks and a memorable white streak on his sweet face. Dan Blocker reportedly loved the steady, gentle Chub. Indeed, the horse was so reliable and of such good temperament, that although Blocker died before the series ended, Chub remained with Bonanza for the remainder of the series.

BEST FRIENDS

Perhaps the most memorable horse on the Ponderosa for many fans of Bonanza is the Paint horse of Little Joe. Named Cochise, he weighed 1,150 pounds and stood 15.3 hands high. Michael Landon personally selected Cochise as his mount. Landon rode him for the first six (6) years of the Bonanza series.

Tragically, in 1964, Cochise was attacked when an monstrous intruder “broke into the Fat Jones Stables” one night and ruthlessly stabbed Cochise, as well as several other horses. Although some of the horses were saved, Cochise had to be euthanized.

Understandably, Landon was angry and distraught. He offered a reward to find the killer of Cochise, but the villain was never found.

A stunt double was provided by the stables for Landon to use as a replacement. In total, after the original Cochise died, Landon would ride a total of 12 Paint stunt horses until the series ended. As Little Joe Cartwright, he also rode horses on the series that were different from the Paint horse.

I am reminded of one episode in particular where Ben Cartwright surprises Joe with a beautiful black stallion on his birthday. The episode titled ‘Stallion’ is so touching in its portrayal of Joe’s love for this beautiful animal, and how devastated he is when the stallion dies. I could not help but wonder (as I watched in tears) if... in that scene...Michael Landon was remembering the death of his original Cochise.

In every episode I saw with Little Joe and the original Cochise, they were buddies and clearly had such a close relationship that it was written into the script. More than any other character on Bonanza, Joe had conversations (albeit one-sided) with Cochise, who always seemed to be listening attentively. That horse loved him, and clearly he loved Cochise. There is a sweet tribute video to their relationship on YouTube that captures some special moments between them. Here is the link if you are interested: https://youtu.be/-Rzi2xrksZ8

NOT THE RIGHT STUFF

I don’t know many fans of Bonanza who particularly liked Adam Cartwright (portrayed by Pernell Roberts). He just had this ‘attitude’. As such, I found it quite interesting that Roberts had problems finding a horse that wanted to work with him.

At the Fat Jones Stables, Roberts chose a horse named Candy. However, during filming of the show’s pilot, the horse misbehaved so badly it had to be replaced immediately. The next horse, Beauty, proved uncooperative as well.

Considering Fat Jones Stables had been in business since 1912 providing just the right horse with the right rider, it seems odd to me that both horses did not work out with Roberts. Horses are intuitive and intelligent, and as rental riding horses used in the film industry they should not have been difficult on set. Mind you, producers were still trying to film the pilot for the series and needed a horse for Adam.

A third lookalike horse named Sport was brought to the set. Fortunately, third time was a charm, or so it seemed.

In 1962, while filming an episode titled ‘The Dowry’, Blocker was riding behind Roberts on a descending path when Sport stumbled in some mud and fell. Following closely, Blocker’s horse, Chub, started to fall as well. Both actors rightly jumped off the horses. The horses were fine, but both actors were taken to the hospital. Roberts fell onto his back, but was not seriously injured. Unfortunately, Blocker broke his collarbone. The remaining episodes of Season 3 show Hoss in a sling.

A month later, however, Sport started misbehaving and tossing his head so badly he was also replaced. A lookalike horse was then cast for the duration of Pernell’s tenure with Bonanza.

Unlike Pernell Roberts’ difficult experience with horses on Bonanza, many actors developed great, long-lasting friendships with the horses they used on film.

It is interesting to note how often you will see an actor using what looks like the same horse he used in another film. One of my favorite examples is Pie, the sorrel horse actor James Stewart rode in 22 films. [Pictured: James Stewart with Pie]

“The horse was amazing,” Stewart said of Pie. “I got to know him like a friend. I never was able to buy him because he was owned by a little girl by the name of Stevie Myers, who is the daughter of an old wrangler who used to wrangle horses for Tom Mix and W. S. Hart. He retired and he gave this horse to her.”

Thank you for stopping by today. I hope you enjoyed this post, and are having a wonderful weekend.

The next time you read or watch your favorite western (or any film where horses are used), pay attention to the trusty steeds. Never underestimate their importance to the story, their rider, or their influence on the audience. They are very important supporting characters, often integral to the plot, and a much loved friend. ~ AKB

For more information about Ashley Kath-Bilsky and her writing, please visit her website at: www.ashleykathbilsky.com .

14 comments:

  1. What an interesting post, Ashley. Once again you provided information I didn't know. I'm happy to learn about one of my favorite actors, Jimmy Stewart, and Pie. I had no idea where the horses for actors came from--although I knew there had to be one main source. I had wondered if each studio had its own stables. Thanks for the info.

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    1. Thank you, Carolline. Glad you found this post interesting. By the way, I added that photo of Roy and Trigger for you. :)

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  2. And then there was Hidalgo, a true story about a Mustang who won a world famous race across the Saudi dessert who, upon arriving back to America, was given his freedom by his owner. Viggo Mortensen, a good horseman, loved that horse so much, he bought it after the movie was completed. I remember my niece being upset that Hidalgo was set free, but I was happy to know his descendants still roam the west in freedom today. Now that's a great story with an iconic horse.
    I remember how wonderful and different it felt to read Black Beauty, a book written from the POV of a horse.

    Your blog brought up great memories of famous horses. I loved Roy and Dale Rogers and their horses. I didn't get to see much of their TV series or the Bonanza series since that was back when we didn't have a TV, but what I do remember how much I liked them. I had no idea all those horses on TV and in the movies came from one source.
    Enjoyed your blog, Ashley.

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    1. Hi Sarah J. Thank you for your comments. Yes, Viggo Mortensen loves horses, and is very intuitive about them. He also purchased Brego (Aragorn's horse) and Hasufel (the horse loaned to Aragorn by Eomer that he rode to Helm's Deep) in LOTR. In addition, he purchased Arwen's horse, Asfoloth and gave the beautiful Andalusian stallion to stuntwoman Jane Abbott who doubled for Arwen and rode the horse in the LOTR films. He noticed the close bond between her and the horse, and gifted her with the stallion when filming ended. Nice guy.

      As for Hidalgo, I had not heard he released the horse he bought into the wild. I hope that wherever Mortensen set him free, the horse is safe. Unfortunately, the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) is chasing down the wild mustang herds on land that is supposed to be a sanctuary for them, and culling the herds to dangerous levels. Those that are not killed during the capture are penned unless and until they can be adopted. If not, they are sold to slaughterhouses unless horse rescue societies can get to them first. I wrote a blog about it here a while ago. If the practice continues, we may find our wild horses extinct.

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    2. Viggo didn't release the horse that played Hidalgo--the actual owner and rider of the desert race released Hidalgo when they returned way back when.
      I know about the BLM slaughtering mustangs and corralling them and have signed many petitions to make them stop. I'm glad to hear you wrote a blog about it and are an activist. Go get 'em, Ashley!

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  3. I wanted to add that you will find many actors purchased the horse they rode for a film or series. James Arness also purchased the horse he rode that was also named Buck for Gunsmoke. He kept the horse on his ranch.

    Elizabeth Taylor was gifted with the horse she rode in National Velvet for her 13th birthday. She had been riding since the age of three, and performed all her riding in the film. She loved that horse and the horse who played Pie (named King Charles) loved her.

    William Shatner is also an expert horseman and raises horses. In the 1994 film, Star Trek film Generations, he rode his horse during the scenes with Picard. In fact, they filmed the scenes between the two Star Trek captains on Shatner's land and in his house. As you might gather, I love film trivia.

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  4. You always write the most wonderful posts--not only thoroughly researched, but thoughtful and often touching. This one almost got to me.
    I grew up in a small West Texas town, and at the time we had two very small theaters. One was The Rose, and the other one--two doors down, was The Old Rose. This latter one was Spanish-speaking movies only--this was in the fifties in oil and cotton country. The other one had Saturday afternoon matinees featuring Westerns..black and white, of course, so my little sister and I went many Saturdays. A quarter fee and candy or popcorn was a nickel. I loved the horses each hero rode as much as the hero himself. Gene Autry--was his horse Champion?--and Roy Rogers, Lash Larue, The Lone Ranger, and others I've forgotten. Our favorites were Roy--my sister's pick--and mine was Gene. She always made me mad because she said Gene Autry was fat. I'd get back at her by saying Roy had squinty eyes. Both of us loved those horses.
    Remember the 1961 movie The Misfits?..with Clark Gable, a young Marilyn Monroe, Cliff Robertson?? And I believe, Eli Wallich. They cooked up a scheme to round up wild horses in the desert and sell for the slaughterhouse. I will never forget Marilyn's impassioned plea and outcry, heart wrenching, to stop, stop, stop.
    Horses have some magical spell they cast over humans...I, in fact, am frightened of horses...but I'll stop on the side of the road and watch horses in a field. They are magnificent and one of our most precious creatures--and one of the most beautiful.
    Thank you, Ashley

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  5. Celia - Thank you so much for your kind words, and sharing your memores with us. What a great way to get out of the Texas heat and have fun with your sister.

    Yes, Gene Autry's horse was named Champion. Topper was the name of Hopalong Cassidy's horse - although the same horse was used by The Lone Ranger and called Silver. To be honest, I have never seen any films by them, but they play Hopalong Cassidy's radio show on the Radio Classics channel on Sirius FM. I can't listen to him because of his laugh. Kinda annoying. lol But I love listening to the original Gunsmoke, Fort Laramie, and Have Gun, Will Travel. :)

    I do remember that scene in the Misfits. The actor you remember was Montgomery Cliff as the rodeo rider with Eli Wallach and Clark Gable. Very disrurbing and sad film, and the best part was when she yelled at them and pleaded for them to stop, then they cut the horses free. I can understand being afraid of horses;,they are big and powerful. But, to me, they are sweet, intelligent and angelic animals that can almost see into your soul.

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  6. What a wonderful post, Ashley! I loved it. I didn't know any of this "behind the scenes" info--I was just heartsick to read that someone would be so cruel as to come in and kill those magnificent horses in the livery stable like that. I'm really surprised that no one was apprehended for that!

    These are just lovely stories about so many of our cowboy heroes and their horses. I really enjoyed your post.

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    1. I am happy you enjoyed the post, Cheryl. It broke my heart when I ldiscovered what happened to Cochise. Such a beautiful horse. I learned that when Lorne Greene heard what happened, he was fearful for his horse, Buck. When you think how much we love our dogs, then realize how much time these men spent with these beautiful animals on a daily basis, you understand what they felt, and what it must have been like for people in the Old West. I recently found the probate records for my great-great-grandfather, a physician who died from tending the wounded during the Civil War. On the inventory of his estate, they listed many things from household furniture to surgical equipment, apothecary items, medicines, books, and the buggy he used to visit patients, etc. But the most valuable piece of property listed was Henry, the horse that he left behind for his pregnant wife to use with the buggy. Henry was valued at $500.00. In 1862, that amount averages out to approximately $11,905.00 in 2015. I wish I knew more about Henry. I know he was a Kentucky thoroughbred, but wonder if his value was based on bloodline or inflated because most horses like him were scarce because of the War and military needs. I wonder what happened to him. Did my great-great grandmother keep him? I wish I knew. Maybe that's why I have been so curious about the fate of these horses we grew up watching. Anyway, thanks for your comment.

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  7. What a fun post, Ashley. I loved Bonanza and was able to visit the place where it was filmed at Lake Tahoe. I had no idea those horses were rentals. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thank you, Paisley. Happy you enjoyed the post.

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  8. Such an enjoyable post to read, Ashley! Loved Bonanza and great to hear how caring the actors were about the horses they rode, so much so that they wanted to own them ... with the exception of Roberts. Loving horses as I do, I also have included horses in my stories considering them important secondary characters!

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    1. Thank you, Cheri. Appreciate your comment, and I am happy you enjoyed the post. Happy Writing! :)

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