Horse training – and insect management – on LOTR
Alan Sampson of Wellington’s Dominion newspaper was allowed to conduct a thorough investigation of the animal-training techniques used in The Lord of the Rings.
“To listen to LOTR 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 gentle, 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 treatment. 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 1940’s 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 Studios. Watching him at the Te Horo stables, it’s apparent that the key is persuasion: the horses are neither fed sugar nor 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 from view; 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 gatheredtogether 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 PJ’s mammoth production hits the screen. A splendid white animal is identified as Sfax (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 Mortensen, who is filling the shoes of axed Irish 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 Abbott, 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, the elf queen Galadriel, who arrived in Wellington earlier this month.
At Te Horo, it turns out 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 the 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 at an identical cart for scale shots. Expect to see Frodo on a regular horse, not a pony, to accentuate his small size.
But why stay with horses? The Te Horo team also has deer, sheep, rabbits and ferrets. All have important parts to play in THE LOTR. 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. PJ’s version will have the peculiarly NZ 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 underneath them. But the trick that has attracted the most attention has to do with the horses or, rather, with avoiding them: a barrel with springs is used to simulate a galloping rider in close-up shots. On the screen it may be difficult to tell just what is real. Ultimately, the magic of LOTR may be the triumph of illusion.”
Very big thanks to Tiggy for that transcript!!!