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'War Horse': How Steve Spielberg trained his horses

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War Horse 1
Andrew Cooper

In Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel War Horse, Joey, an English plow horse, narrates his own harrowing journey through the horrors of World War I. For the current blockbuster stage adaptation of War Horse running in London and New York, a masterful crew of puppeteers bring Joey to dazzling, heart-rending life.

But for Steven Spielberg’s feature film of War Horse, Joey is simply a real horse, with nothing more than his eyes and body to communicate what he’s going through.

Now, make no mistake, Steven Spielberg knows from horses. His family has kept a stable of steeds at their home for over a decade; his 14-year-old daughter has even traveled the country to participate in riding competitions. But when the director first committed to making War Horse, that flesh-and-blood limitation was his primary concern. “I didn’t know what contribution the horse was going to make beyond what they were trained to do,” Spielberg told film journalist (and EW columnist) Mark Harris in a webcast Q&A after a sneak preview screening of the film. “I thought that we were only going to get from the horses what they were trained to perform.” 

As anyone who has seen War Horse in the past few days can attest, the Oscar-winning filmmaker needn’t have worried. “The horses were amazing,” Spielberg told Harris. “Joey had a sense of what was happening in the scene. Joey added things, as the cameras were rolling, that none of us ever asked for, that brought a performance to [the audience] that we didn’t expect when we made the movie.”

Actually, “Joey” was performed by a company of 14 equine actors, among the over 100 horses used in the film. So how did the filmmakers, actors, and horse trainers get these horses to achieve such a rich sense of Joey’s emotional life? EW spoke with actor Jeremy Irvine — who plays Joey’s devoted young owner, Albert — and the film’s horse master Bobby Lovgren to find out. It seems that getting a great performance out of a horse can be quite similar to getting a great performance out of a human. (WARNING: If you have not seen War Horse yet, some major SPOILERS are ahead.)

War Horse 1
Andrew Cooper

CASTING IS KEY

Much like those mercurial actors, different horses have different personalities. Thoroughly understanding each horse’s individual behavior and temperament, more than anything else, was what allowed Lovgren and his team to find horses they believed could deliver the performance needed for any given scene. “They need to be able to bring some emotion to every scene that they do,” says Lovgren. “And quite honestly, that is the most difficult thing to achieve, because it’s not something that is very typical of them … Before we start filming, I have to learn what each animal’s characteristics are, what do they do, whether it’s good or bad. That’s when I can recognize, Oh this [horse] is going to fit well for this sequence or not. Or on the day [of filming], when the director wants a different option or a different look, I can say, ‘Oh, okay, here’s what I can show you.'” Perhaps not surprisingly, Lovgren’s own horse, Finder, did a large number of Joey’s most emotionally driven scenes — Lovgren purchased Finder after working with him on Seabiscuit — but the animal trainer is quick to point out that “every one of the horses was a part of the team, and we could not have done the job if one of them wasn’t there.”

YOU’VE GOTTA HAVE THE RIGHT TECHNIQUE

After the horses were “cast” in their roles — including the four horses who primarily played Joey’s steadfast companion Topthorn — Lovgren and his team of trainers began prepping them for their scenes. There were almost always at least two horses set to play Joey and Topthorn for any given scene — when one horse tired out, his double was brought in. In some cases, getting an emotional performance really was just a matter of learned behavior. “When Topthorne is walking and they’re going to take him to pull cannons, you see Topthorne walking with his head down and looking really sad,” says Lovgren. “The horse doesn’t normally walk that way. I can teach that very easily to walk that way, or walk with a limp, and things like that.”

And to be clear, it was Lovgren, or one of his trainers, who directed the animal’s behavior just off camera, and not the actor with the horse in the scene. “The actor does interact with the animal a lot, but the horse is being directed to interact with him, and then his focus is back to the trainer,” says Lovgren. “So that way we can always, always guarantee the safety of it. The actor has to concentrate on his acting. The last thing he needs to think about is controlling the animal.”

NEXT PAGE: Jeremy Irvine on his training, and the horse so young, it didn’t have a name

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