Stunt Horses Are the Hollywood Stars Who Don’t Get Enough Credit

We recently wrote about stunt doubles not receiving enough credit in movies, something they’ve taken to heart themselves (thanks to Brie Larson) by demanding the Academy Awards create an award category for them. Let’s all champion that, even if the Oscars will likely continue to put it off. In the meantime, many animals are also doing stunts and can’t speak for themselves.

One thing we never hear much about are stunt horses, and how many of them are still used in movies today. These are often called “falling horses” because they’re trained to fall in scenes involving them being shot down in a western, or just throwing off a rider.

For a while, there’s been one man who’s trained these horses for Hollywood. The big question is whether we’ll see more stunt horses being employed, or if activists will prevent them from being seen often on film again.

Harrison Ford riding a horse as Indiana Jones
Harrison Ford | Murray Close/Getty Images

A ‘falling horse’ was an inhumane method in the older days of film

During the 1930s and ’40s, westerns in Hollywood were aplenty, though even more in later decades and on TV. Prior to the 1940s, though, horses were made to fall by tripping them, often causing severe injuries and even death. This was an unconscionable practice that’s painful to think about now.

Regardless, we all know the early days of Hollywood had many philosophies and practices we now deem as bone-headed, not including unflinching racial bias.

Had it not have been for the Humane Society in the 1940s, films might have kept doing this “falling horse” technique, making horses merely dispensable rather than deserving as much care as any living being.

By the 1950s, the Humane Society’s involvement made sure horses were fully trained to do the falling in westerns, kicking off an era we still see today.

According to Horse Illustrated, one of the busiest people training these horses for 21st-century movies is Rusty Hendrickson. He’s helped train horses for some very recent films taking place in the Old West. How much longer this lasts is anyone’s guess.

Seeing a horse being killed on film might not go over well in the future

Hollywood still has an occasional penchant for westerns based on the genre’s vast canvas for storytelling. Only a select few directors are able to successfully pitch big-budget westerns for the big screen, however. Notables like Kevin Costner and Quentin Tarantino are just two examples. Two of the most recent westerns made for theaters and streaming include The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Deadwood: The Movie.

There isn’t a western without horses, so the “falling horse” industry is obviously still booming. Let’s also be thankful officials are always there to back up the ethical treatment of these horses so filmmakers don’t go back to their old ways as they were 80 years ago.

It’s really a specialized process training these horses to fall on cue while running at a fast clip. You’ll only find a select group of trainers who can successfully make the horses do this properly without hurting the horse or the rider.

Horse Illustrated above indicated that when the horses fall, the ground has to be softened to ensure they won’t be injured, including the stunt riders.

Should the Oscars recognize stunt horses and their trainers?

Perhaps everyone would snicker hearing of an idea to award horses for their stunt work in westerns. No doubt this will never happen, yet there should be more recognition for what horses have had to endure for decades in making westerns look real.

If nothing else, there should be a special Oscar given for lifetime achievement to people like Rusty Hendrickson for properly training these horses on recent classics such as Secretariat.

Regardless, with a societal push to make animals free of having to endure performing in extreme conditions, we might not see this forever. Outside of dozens of westerns still being made every year, we might see an eventual time when horses won’t be forced to act in violent westerns as much as elephants were freed from circuses.