WATCHING THE HORSES
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1999:
HOLLYWOOD, Calif,––To know
whether the animals in a film or TV production
have been treated humanely, insiders say,
watch the horses.
Horses are not only the most commonly
used animal actors and props, they are
also easily replaced unless specially trained,
cost more to board than to buy, and are legally
classed as livestock, exempted from most animal
protection laws. Thus horses are the most
vulnerable species on most animal-using sets.
Watching the horses, ANIMAL
PEOPLE reader Mary Chipman, of Hazelwood,
Missouri, was alarmed in midsummer
by scenes from The Mummy and Joan of Arc.
Both, Chipman wrote, “featured
many horses who were yanked around and
made to fall during battle scenes. Some of it
could have been computer-enhanced, but there
is no doubt in my mind that quite a few horses
had a harrowing experience. Has there been a
resurgence in film cruelty?”
The short answer, from American
Humane Association western regional office
chief Gini Barrett, is “Yes.”
But the problem isn’t in Hollywood,
where Barrett and staff keep the screen industry
under scrutiny, with strong cooperation from
many actors and producers.
“Your reader has astutely picked up
on a new trend in the film industry that is of
great concern,” Barrett elaborated. “Many
U.S. film and television companies are filming
in foreign countries, with the projects legally
structured as international co-productions.
These do not fall under AHA’s oversight
authority. Some cooperate voluntarily. Some
do not. This is a new trend that has grown dramatically,
so we are just starting to see these
projects in theaters and on television. AHA is
reviewing those that have significant or questionable
animal action, and we are seeking as
much information as we can get on them in
order to respond to the public’s concerns.”
Of the films Chipman asked about,
The Mummy apparently came up clean.
“We agree that the battle scene in The
M u m m y looks frightening,” Barrett said.
“However, Universal Studios supplied us with
a video tape so that we could slow down and
stop the action. We were therefore able to
determine that all of the horse falls in that film
were accomplished using trained falling horses.
We have requested additional information from
the horse wrangler that has not yet been provided,”
Barrett added. “While we would like
more information, we are fairly comfortable
that reasonable procedures were used.”
The Mummy was filmed in Morocco,
a nation with a long tradition of pride in horse
care and riding skill. Joan of Arc was filmed in
the Czech Republic, where horses are eaten.
“Joan of Arc is of more concern to
us,” Barrett acknowledged. “Reviewing the
video, it appears that trained horses were asked
to rear at the edge of a hill and that the stunt
riders deliberately pulled the horses over backward.
There is also a scene where horses come
out of a river and sink into mud up to their
chests. Depending on whether or not solid
footing was provided under the mud, this scene
might or might not have been of great risk to the horses. The
trainer states that the scenes we are nervous about were all shot
humanely, with appropriately trained horses, animatronics,
and edited versions of various takes,” Barrett said. “His verbal
explanations sound credible. He states that he has video to document
how this was done,” but at the ANIMAL PEOPLE
deadline AHA had not yet received it.
Cinematographer Enzo Giobe was not involved in
any way with making Joan of Arc. But as cofounder with his
wife Staci Layne Wilson of the International Generic Horse
Association/HorseAid, Giobe hears the industry scuttlebutt
about whatever involves horses.
“If my sources can be believed,” Giobe said, “horses
were treated terribly in making that film. Some broke their legs
and got killed. There were a lot of problems, we’ve been told,
because horses were cheap and there was no supervision or tradition
of supervision. And, frankly, the Czechs don’t have a
great reputation for animal-handling, on set or off. The Czech
Republic used to be half of Czechoslovakia, and that used to be
a Communist country where all film production was done by
the state. Producers could do whatever they wanted. Who was
anyone going to complain to? They got used to working in that
atmosphere, and it’s changing, we hope, but it’s going to take
time. You have to get rid of the producers who got used to having
“Here,” Giobe continued, “if a horse were to break
her neck, it’s a tragic accident and the film goes for silver
reclamation. Every director knows the AHA and film-goers are
sensitive toward that sort of thing, so the directors have to be a
little cautious and not do things that put animals at risk. But all
over central and eastern Europe, in the old Communist block
nations, we’re going to have a hell of a time bringing productions
up to western humane standards.”
It can be done, though, Giobe stressed. He’s seen it.
“In Italy,” he explained, “horses used in films today are usually
taken care of well. There was bad stuff back in the ‘spaghetti
western’ era, and they got some bad press for it, got negative
AHA recommendations on some of their films, and learned to
do things a different way. Same thing with Australia. The
Australian horse wranglers these days are very conscientious.
We were concerned about B r a v e h e a r t, which was filmed in
Australia, because of the battle scenes. But the producers went
out of their way to avoid having horses hurt. They used all
fiberglas horses in injury scenes.”
In 1987 AHA staff were on the sets of 150 screen
productions. Under Betty Denny Smith, who headed the AHA
Hollywood office 1988-1996, the workload grew to include
monitoring 429 productions on set during her final year. Since
Smith retired, Barrett has nearly doubled the on set workload
again. The AHA monitored 850 productions in 1998.
The AHA Hollywood staff has grown from three representatives
in 1987 to 32. Yet the advent of music videos,
made-for-video movies, cable networks, and now made-forInternet
productions has expanded the volume of screen production
even faster. Hollywood itself hasn’t kept up. Foreign
studios compete for the work with cheaper talent, more accessible
natural settings, and less regulation.
The Screen Actors Guild estimates that Hollywood
lost the equivalent of nearly 19,000 full-time film production
jobs to Canada alone in 1998. About the equivalent of 3,800
jobs went to other nations. That’s a big problem for the AHA,
as well as for Guild actors, since the AHA’s current authority
to be on sets comes via the Actors/Producers Bargaining
Agreement negotiated in 1980 by the SAG and the Alliance of
Motion Picture and Television Producers.
“AHA is reaching out to humane organizations in
other countries,” Barrett said, “to partner with us in providing
seamless humane oversight. This is obviously a huge challenge,
that will take some time to accomplish. We have, however,
already begun. Some 80% of all U.S. ‘runaway production’
goes to Canada,” including many “western or historic
epics using large numbers of animals. The Calgary Humane
Society and the Alberta SPCA are working with AHA to develop
a model” for monitoring screen production worldwide.
“Working with Calgary Humane will help us figure
out how to train people in other countries to do this work,”
Barrett continued. “We have discovered that it is not as simple
as we had expected. We who have dealt with the industry for a
long time understand its weird, unique culture and workstyle.
Trying to explain it to others is trickier than I had thought. It is
often difficult for local organizations, always struggling for
adequate resources, to expand their focus beyond the daily cruelty
and neglect they fight and try to keep up with the wealthy,
fast-moving, decentralized, complicated screen industry. It is
also hard to shift from the traditional focus on investigating cruelty
after the fact to providing preventive protection and problem-solving.
But that’s the only way it works with movies.”
Giobe endorses that perspective––from experience on
either side of the issue, including on Canadian sets.
“Companies working in Canada are going to be very
resistant to anything that increases their costs,” he explains.
“They’re going to Canada, most of them, because they can
make a film up there for much less investment, a film that
maybe they couldn’t make at all if they had to pay U.S. scale.
They can’t afford $10,000 worth of robotics
for everything they need an animal to do.
And once they start paying anyone to do
anything extra, they know they’ll have to
keep on paying. I can tell you, it’s going to
be a hard road for anyone who goes into this
with a chip on their shoulder.”
“Face it,” Giobe adds, “sometimes
humane people are a bit less than reasonable,
because of the strength of their
beliefs and their concern for the animals. I
worked once on a show with Dobermans.
The humane representatives on the set,”
delegated from a local humane society,
“were absolute jerks. They held up the
whole production for two hours,” at cost of
$30,000 to $60,000 for idled personnel and
rented equipment, “over how we should get
a shot of a Doberman jumping out of a
parked car. While the director was arguing
with these people, the Doberman was jumping in and out of the
car, right behind them, just for activity. So finally I took the
shot, and called time out and told the director to let it go, that I
already had the scene in the can.”
That saved the film, but not the director’s interest.
“He was really gung-ho to make animal films before that,”
Giobe said. “After that, the director won’t ever do another.”
The AHA began monitoring film production in 1940,
a year after public outcry arose over the making of Jesse James,
starring Henry Fonda and Tyrone Power. A stunt man rode a
horse over a 70-foot cliff. He lost his hat; the horse was killed.
Has the industry come full circle, back to killing
horses to get dramatic shots?
“It hasn’t changed that much,” Barrett opines
“Horses have always been at greater risk than any other species
in film. I guess that’s why I get frustrated when many are so
upset about wildlife and exotics and ignore horses. Yes, the
wild animals are captive, and aren’t in nature, but these days
they get pretty good treatment in the movies––at least by the
good trainers. Horses are a battle every day.”