The Lone Ranger, The Magnificent Seven, Hostiles, and News of the World will likely conjure up thoughts of the stars Johnny Depp, Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks. But when Mary Towslee discusses those movies, the actors aren’t the stars of the show. For her, it’s all about Wimpy, King, Ace, Cowboy, Riley, and the many other star horses she has worked with and trained for those movies as a Hollywood stunt horse trainer.
“We always had horses from the time I can remember,” she says. “I was riding from before I could walk.”
She competed in hunter/jumper events until her junior year in high school, then convinced a racehorse breeder that she knew how to break colts.
“I lied and said I’d done it before, and fumbled my way through it, breaking a set of colts for her,” Towslee recalls. “Her husband trained racehorses, and I ended up going to the racetrack after that and grooming horses. Later that year, I started galloping them.”
Big Screen Serendipity
She spent the next decade as a gallop girl and assistant trainer at racetracks around the country. While in New Mexico outriding and galloping horses on tracks, breaking horses, and running a training stable, Towslee stumbled upon stunt horse training. Or, rather, it stumbled into her.
“I got into it completely by accident,” she says. “A friend of ours had been working on a movie job, and they needed some horses that looked like racehorses but were broke. All of my outriding horses were old racehorses, so they could still gallop around, but you’d say whoa and they’d put on the brakes. They were perfect because it was a racehorse-based teen drama, Wildfire. I started wrangling and renting horses to them and doing stunts.”
Wildfire ended after four seasons, and Towslee moved on to managing a breeding farm. She turned down a couple of stunt horse trainer jobs because she felt obligated to the breeding farm owners.
Then The Lone Ranger (released in 2013, starring Johnny Depp) came calling.
“I thought if I didn’t make the jump in careers then, I probably never would,” she recalls. “So, I went ahead and took a leap. I [left] my job and my house at the same time. I bought a travel trailer and went to work on movies, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
The Highs and the Lows
As a stunt horse trainer on the set of The Lone Ranger, Towslee worked with Bobby Lovgren, one of the most well-known movie horse trainers.
“There was a lot of liberty trick horse work,” says Towslee. “The movie had some complex stunt sequences that had to be worked out, and the director wanted as little computer-generated stuff as possible. The Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver, had to be on rooftops and jump from building to building. Silver [also] had to be in a tree over the Colorado river, so they built us one. Bobby had trained the horse to stand on a rail, so it looked like he was standing on a branch. Silver had to jump up into a train car and run through it while the Lone Ranger was shooting, so they built us a train car that was big enough.
“It was a process keeping things safe,” she adds. “You have to be pretty creative to figure out how you are going to get what they want to see on camera.”
The cast, crew, and of course the stunt horse trainers travelled to spectacular filming spots, including Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley, and several locations in New Mexico.
But lest you think working as a movie stunt horse trainer is all teaching horses tricks in spectacular scenery, there are downsides to the work. Think white horses working in red sand.
“We had five white horses—I spent a lot of time washing [them],” Towslee laughs. “We were in Monument Valley in all that red sand, and there were windstorms. Our white horses turned pink, and when you’d wash them, they’d turn orange. And it was cold, so you couldn’t really give them good baths. It was just awful. I think they digitally fixed it; we couldn’t get them clean!
“We would be working all night and doing rain scenes, freezing our butts off,” she adds. “But you also get to do some really cool stuff as well and meet some really neat people.”
Horse wrangling work on A Million Ways to Die in the West and The Magnificent Seven, which included 140 cast horses, followed.
Stunt Horse Trainer Gangboss
Towslee’s first gig as wrangler gangboss came in the 2017 film, Hostiles. A gangboss runs the wrangler crew, trains the movie horses, gives the actors riding lessons, and handles the horses and actors on set.
“I would say the most important component to being a gangboss is communicating with the assistant director’s department, relaying that information to the wranglers, then getting them organized to achieve what the director wants to see,” says Towslee. “A lot of it is making sure everything’s safe for the horses around the cameras and making sure the actors are alright. Then we have other wranglers that are handling the background horses. Any time there’s a horse on set, we’re there.
“Quite often, we’re really close—if the camera sees half of the actor and half of the horse, we’re probably on our knees helping hold the horse still. It’s not always glamorous,” she adds with a laugh.
Towslee is one of just a handful of female stunt horse wrangler gangbosses in the industry.
“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a disadvantage being female, but there is [also] no advantage to it,” Towslee says. “And it does have its challenges. I’ve been very lucky that my boss, Clay Lilley, has always had my back. Some of the cowboys have been in the business longer than me, although they have been very supportive of me. I very much respect their opinions.”
It’s easy to respect anyone who has the skills to work at this level—in other words, an accomplished horseman. Galloping scores of racehorses and breaking and training horses for decades goes a long way toward helping one speak horse.
“You do have to know horses: how they’re going to react to a situation and whether they’re going to be bothered by it, or whether you can use a situation to get the desired action,” explains Towslee. “You must know what drives a horse.
“Another thing is being a person that really pays attention to what’s going on around you all the time and can spot things that are going to cause a problem,” she continues. “Movie sets are incredibly busy, and there’s a lot of moving parts. We have actors on horses in very tight situations sometimes. You need to always have your head on a swivel.”
If pressed, Towslee will name Sam Elliott as her favorite actor to work with.
“I worked briefly with him years ago, and now for the past five months on the series 1883 [a prequel to the hit show Yellowstone]. What a wonderful man. He possesses a certain humility and grace.”
But any conversation inevitably turns back to her horses.
“Pistol, a Quarter Horse, is fantastically talented as a movie horse,” she says of a horse she recently worked with while filming a series. “He’s like a Border Collie, he’s so darn smart.”
King, a Friesian cross, is another favorite who has been in half a dozen movies and doubled the main horse on News of the World.
Some of the horses know they’re performing.
“[Some can be] a bit of a ham,” says Towslee. “You have some stunt horses that you use for years and years. They’ve done umpteen Indian raids and bank and stagecoach robberies, and they just keep going. It never shakes them up. They’re in a whole league of their own.”
However, the work isn’t all fast-paced cowboy shootouts.
“Your background horses are basically walking from A to B all day long or standing tied to a hitching rail,” she explains. “A movie set has all these moving parts that are often very close to horses, so they have to be super tolerant of stuff.”
Temperament is the No. 1 trait Towslee and her boss look for in potential movie horses.
“Sometimes you’ll get a horse who you think is going to be perfect for the movies, and as soon as they set foot on a movie set, they’re like, ‘Nope! Can’t do it!’” she says.
“There’s a different energy to a movie set, with so many people and equipment and cameras. You try and introduce the horses to it slowly, but only your very best ones ever end up with actors [riding] them. They’re really special, the ones that make good cast horses.”
Variety is the Spice
No day as a Hollywood stunt horse trainer is the same.
“That’s probably one of the things I like most about it,” says Towslee. “I’m not good at things that are incredibly repetitive. Every day is different; it keeps your mind busy. I really enjoy that, plus the fact that I get to work with animals every day.
“The funny thing is, way back when, I always thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be cool to work with movie horses?’ And just out of the blue, I’m doing that.”