If you’ve seen an action film with horses over the last several decades, chances are you have witnessed the work of a gifted equine actor called a “falling horse.” Falling horses are trained to fall to the ground on cue, giving the appearance of a horse that has been gravely wounded. Without the skills of the falling horse, classic films such as Dances With Wolves and The Horse Whisperer, and recent films such as Avatar and Django Unchained would not have been the same.
Before the advent of trained falling horses, action film directors used cruel methods of bringing horses to the ground. The most popular, a device called a Running W, was used to trip horses as they ran, causing them to fall head over heels, resulting in serious injury and sometimes death.
In the 1940s, the American Humane Association began putting pressure on film studios to stop this cruel practice. As a result, trained falling horses were used in some films. Because of the amount of training involved, these horses became prized for their skills. Cocaine, Coco, and Tadpole were a few of the hardest working equine actors of their day, starring in films such as The Wonderful Country, Border River and The Wild Bunch, respectively. A talented modern-day falling horse is a sorrel gelding named Wonderbread, who starred in both Django Unchained and the 2010 remake of True Grit.
Teaching the Fall
Trained falling horses are valuable, and for good reason: It takes a special horse to execute this behavior.
“Think of a falling horse as an acrobat,” says Petrine Mitchum, author of Hollywood Hoofbeats: Trails Blazed Across the Silver Screen. “They need to be athletic and fearless, and also need to have a very trusting nature. So they have to not only have a calm, strong nature but also be willing to place total trust in their trainer.”
Before a horse is asked to fall, the ground is softened with a mixture of dirt, sand and sawdust, according to Mitchum in Hollywood Hoofbeats. With the trainer on the ground, the horse is taught to lie down from a halt. The animal’s left foreleg is tied up, and the trainer stands on the left side of the horse and gently pulls him off balance by pulling the right rein over the saddle. The trainer repeats the process daily until the horse learns the rein cue and no longer needs to have his leg tied. The trainer then teaches the horse to fall with a rider.
“The training is very specialized and not just anyone can do it,” says Mitchum. “It requires extreme patience and confidence, and the ability to read the horse and know what it is capable of, and when to push and when to back off. The trainer also has to have impeccable timing and a certain fearlessness, as well. To deliberately fall down with a 1,000-pound animal in a gallop is not for the faint of heart.”
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