Are Horses Killed In Movies

Maria Garcia
• Saturday, 31 October, 2020
• 8 min read

Yakima Canute, the legendary Hollywood stuntman (and occasional John Wayne double), created one dangerous procedure involving horses. His Running W device threaded a wire, anchored to the ground, through a ring on the cinch, to the fetlocks of a galloping horse.

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Restrictions were put in place after dozens of horses died in 1936’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (star Errol Flynn helped raise the issue). But the last straw came when a horse was jumped off a cliff by the producers of 1939’s Jesse James.

This collection of 12 essays examines films from an critical point of view. Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and the Wild West History Association’s vice president.

His latest book is 2018’s Arizona Oddities: A Land of Anomalies and Tamales. Writer-director Cory Finley isn’t exactly sure why he decided to kill a horse in his debut feature Thoroughbreds, but equine murder was there from draft one.

“People have them in stables, and they’re keeping their freedom contained.” In adapting Willy Latin’s novel, Haigh was careful not to anthropomorphize Pete, but he did see the parallels between the creature and Charley. He just wasn’t confident like the other ones.” Charley is a “skittish” creature, constantly suspicious of strangers no matter how well-intentioned they are.

There’s only one unspoken solution when Pete can’t win at the racetrack any longer, and a euphemistic “trip to Mexico” is exactly how Charley views the legal and foster system that awaits him after his father dies. So instead, he steals the horse and heads out on the run in an attempt to find the aunt with whom his father cut off contact.

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Pete wasn’t protecting Charley by any means, but he provided the teen a tether to a world he knew, one from which he was moving increasingly far away. Thoroughbred opens with Olivia Cooke’s Amanda gazing into the eyes of her steed in close-up, before she reaches for a knife.

Even though Amanda declares that she is completely devoid of emotion, her act was a mercy killing gone horribly wrong. “But they’re pretty huge, and they have these long dramatic, sort of mask-like faces and there’s a real eeriness to them too, so they’re a fun messy symbol to play with.” Monstrous, beautiful, and eerie: all words that could be used to describe Amanda, who wears tears and smiles like a mask when she truly doesn’t feel anything.

is quite a small story, but at the same time, it’s trying to explore some wider issues that are affecting a certain part of America. Thoroughbred has drawn comparisons to Peter Shaffer’s play-turned-film Equus (although Finley, a playwright, says it wasn’t on his mind).

The sensitive and intuitive cowboy aesthetic at the center of The Rider had been mined before in the not-so-naturalistic Robert Redford adaptation of the novel The Horse Whisperer. The melodrama finds a teenager, Grace, and her horse both searching for healing after a horrific accident that a friend and her mount did not survive.

In general, the genre’s reputation is one of uplift rather than sorrow: Racing movies ranging from Sea biscuit to National Velvet find scrappy teams leading underappreciated horses to victory. The Black Stallion riffs on the tale of Alexander the Great and Bucephalus, centering on a shipwrecked boy taming the wild Arabian that helped him survive.

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The same cannot be said of 1994’s Black Beauty, which, true to Anna Sewell’s novel, includes voice-over from the titular animal, who tells the story of his own life. Though by no means bad (or entirely cheery) films, these lean into the sentimental side of horses, playing on sometimes precious associations we have of the beasts as loyal friend and companion to man.

As you might imagine, wherever an organization has oversight of filmmakers (or any industry), there assuredly was some sort of incident or legal ruling that led to it. As soon as the film industry really began to take off in the 1920s, the American Humane Association sought oversight of its treatment of animals.

As time went by, the organization grew more insistent, especially as Westerns and war films increasingly popular, as both genres tended to treat horses as if they were taking part in actual battles. In particular, the use of trip wires (to tangle horses and show them dropping as if shot by guns or arrows) was protested.

Perspective was used to make a 70-foot drop seem higher, and then a stuntman jumped off of cliff along with a horse that was forced off using a slide mechanism. A different angle of the first shot was then replayed right after to make it appear as if the other James brother also jumped off with his horse.

This incident drew a great deal of attention from the public and anger against the filmmakers; it appeared as though Congress was going to be spurred into action. As we have seen over the years, one of the things industries are most frightened by is government regulation, so rather than let Congress get involved, the Motion Picture Association of America agreed to allow the American Humane Association to oversee the treatment of animals in films from that point on.

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American Humane Association President and CEO Dr. Robin Gannet commented on the Hobbit incident, stating: It is vital that we work with the industry to bring the kind of protection we have for animals during filming to all phases of production.

There is still much debate over the American Humane Association's current role when it comes to the protection of the rights of animals in films, but whatever your thoughts are on the topic, though, this particular legend is... When HBO's “Luck” was canceled after a third horse died during production, it was natural to ask what was going on.

Apparently the horses were being treated well, with greater care than actual working racehorses. The third horse was reportedly in good health and high spirits the day it died.

All you can blame is the fragile frame of the thoroughbred horse, which was created for racing. Even before the third horse death, PETA charged that “two dead horses in a handful of episodes exemplifies the dark side of using animals in television, movies, and ads.” Like all filming in the U.S., “Luck” was shot under supervision of the American Humane Association's Film & TV Unit, the people who certify that “No animal was harmed in the making” of a film or TV show.

Moreover, this latest incident shows just how much the treatment of animals has changed in Hollywood since the motion picture industry began. Take Thomas Edison's elephant electrocution as a starting point.

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This seems unfair and crass to most people today, but the idea was to find the most merciful way to kill Topsy. Early Hollywood was an anarchic world, with upstart production companies launching grandiose projects on every side.

Western star William S. Hart had a famous pinto, Fritz. Beautifully trained, Fritz would fall on command, lie down to act as a shield in a gunfight, even play scenes with a monkey.

In 1939 two horses were killed in the filming of “Northwest Mounted Police” and two more in “Jesse James.” The horses in “Jesse James” were wearing movie blinkers with eyes painted on them.

Unable to see, the horses had no idea they were running off a 75-foot cliff over white water until it was too late. This was the single biggest turning point in the history of Hollywood's treatment of animals.

In reaction to the outcry, the Hays Office worked with the AHA to write guidelines for animal performances. The Hays Office, well known for prissy extremes such as insisting that marital bedrooms feature twin beds and that Betty Book dress more modestly, also banned apparent animal cruelty.

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The end of the Hays Code contributed to the rise of the New Hollywood, a golden age of movie making. Younger filmmakers were creating realistic and daring movies, with more subtlety and less dependence on formula, contributing to a cinematic renaissance and a move toward realism and location shooting -- and, sadly, more problems with animals.

Gritty realism produced two of the most notorious animal welfare abuses in Hollywood history: In “Apocalypse Now” (1979), a real water buffalo was slaughtered with a machete (though it has been claimed that the buffalo was going to be slaughtered in this manner anyhow), and although the movie got great reviews, it caused a lot of upsets. “Heaven's Gate” (1980), the notorious flop, came out a year later -- such an expensive failure that it put United Artists out of business.

Other horses were allegedly bled to provide gore for humans to be smeared with. It was also claimed that cattle were killed and gutted so their innards could double for those of human actors.

The AHA, which hadn't been allowed on the set, led a boycott of the film, with picket lines. The boycott was taken up across the U.S. by local humane groups -- and this time there were no voices sticking up for the artistic merit of the film.

The Hays Code didn't return, but AHA monitors came back on sets through a contract with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AM PTP) and the “No animals were harmed ...” disclaimer came into being. The AHA Film & TV Unit isn't paid by the individual producers of film and TV shows, but gets most of its budget from a yearly grant from the Industry Advancement and Cooperative Fund (IAC).

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Since then, they say, the incidence of accidents, illnesses and deaths of animals on sets has sharply declined, although there are still occasional violators, especially when filming takes place overseas (some of Werner Herzog's films, which often include scenes of simulated animal cruelty, have aroused suspicions). Before production even begins, the AHA reviews scripts, looking for potential problem situations, and advises the producers on how to handle the animal action they plan.

Frequently mocked, it has probably also created a widespread awareness of animal welfare as a significant issue. On the set of “Horse Whisperer” (1998), a distressed crew member collared the AHA monitor.

Animal actors today have it cushy compared to the early days of Hollywood. After the second horse died during “Luck's” shooting, the AHA increased its precautions.

They insisted that a second, independent vet do health checks on the horses on the days they were to perform. They asked Rick Arthur, a veterinarian and director of the California Racing Board, to review their protocols.

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