Not to mention the actor’s own horse training. At first, when Jeremy Irvine was cast as a complete unknown for the central role of Albert, he wasn’t too worried about the fact that he had never once been on a horse. “The fact that I had to learn to ride from scratch kind of paled into insignificance to the fact that I had to learn how to act in a movie,” he laughs. “I was skeptical about forming actual emotional relationships to these horses. I certainly wouldn’t call myself an animal person before the movie. Within about a week, I was a sucker for all of them.”
Irvine, along with fellow actors like Tom Hiddleston (Thor) and David Cross (The Reader), spent two months of intensive work with Lovgren and the horses. “These horses are some of the most highly trained horses in the world,” says Irvine. “I went from learning to ride on riding-school horses — which is the equivalent of, I don’t know, a little beat-up car — to having to learn to ride and work with the equivalent of a Formula One race car.”
That is, except for one horse, a colt so young (likely 18 months to 2 years old, says Lovgren), it did not have a name — so people just started calling him Joey. That horse, which was used in the scenes of Albert teaching Joey how to plow a field, “was so young when it came to us that you couldn’t really get in the stable with it,” says Irvine. “Part of my training process was being around to help train this horse. We started off with me spending hours and hours just standing in the stable with it, getting it used to me and being able to touch it. By the end of the process, we were running around fields playing hide and seek. We taught it to do things — I’d have my shoe off, it’d sneak up behind me, grab my shoe and run off. The sort of stuff that meant when we got to set, all thatwas real. It was all there.”
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!
For two of the film’s most emotional, harrowing sequences — Joey mourning the death of Topthorn, and Joey racing through the barbed wire of no-man’s-land, only to get tangled up inside it and freed by a British and German soldier — Lovgren did what any other smart director would do: rehearse. “We did a lot of our rehearsals with [the horse playing Topthorn] laying down, giving him confidence, obviously making sure we had doubles for them when they get tired,” says Lovgren. “We had a lot of different options and different looks to show Steven of what we could achieve in that scene, and then he would pick what he wanted, or change little things and say, ‘No, I wanted this or that,’ before we ever really went to camera.” For Joey’s race through no-man’s-land that ends in a snarl of barbed wire, Lovgren says a CG or animatronic horse was used for anything that he he thought would pose any safety concern for the animal. (Lovgren’s horse Finder, however, was used for some of the close-ups; the barbed wire was plastic.)
BUT BE READY TO IMPROVISE
Even with all that planning and training, the filmmakers still had to expect the unexpected. “I learned very quickly that you have to be very fluid when you work with animals,” says Irvine. “The horse isn’t just going to stand there for the five minutes while you’re doing a scene. It’s going to want to move around. You have to work with whatever it’s going to do. They are incredibly highly trained, but at the same time, it’s an animal, and you have to be adaptable to be able to work with them.”
Not that the horses are divas. “If that was the case, then they wouldn’t be paying attention to the trainer,” chuckles Lovgren. “Then they’re losing focus on us. At the end of the day, they are awesome and wonderful — but, you know, they are our horses. We keep them on that level. We never have them lose focus on us, and the job at hand.”