War Horse and Those Amazing Equine Actors

by Kristin Berkery

If you haven’t seen War Horse and you don’t like spoilers, you may want to read something else on ilovehorses.net. I’ve tried not to reveal too much about the climactic parts of the movie (of which there are many) while still providing some teasers.

Hollywood Hoofbeats
After reading Hollywood Hoofbeats, I admit it’s changed how I watch horses in movies. I’ve learned that incredibly life-like mechanical horses are used for those scenes that no horse would tolerate or survive, and CGI can produce unbelievably realistic and heart-stopping moments. Watching War Horse, I knew exactly what to look for to spot those special effects. Even so, they were so convincing that I was still shocked and amazed.

Hightower with his owner and trainer, Rex Peterson. Photo by Ken Regan/Camera Five

Hollywood Hoofbeats tells amazing stories of professional stunt horses who work just as hard as their human counterparts. Some horses are such accomplished actors that they have several films to their credit. One such horse, a Quarter Horse named Hightower, was so well-loved by his Runaway Bride co-star Julia Roberts that the horse was Fed Ex’d across the country to appear in another scene at the actress’ request.

Thoroughbred gelding Finders Key playing Joey with actor Jeremy Irvine as Albert. Photo by Dreamworks II Distribution Co.

Prior to Runaway Bride Hightower also played Pilgrim in The Horse Whisperer. In this challenging role, he played a horse who survived a devastating accident that left him severely injured and completely uncontrollable. Robert Redford portrayed a horse-whispering trainer who gentles the horse. Hightower had the amazing ability to play a vicious animal on screen yet change into a sweet-tempered horse the moment the director said “cut.”

The painting of Joey by Alexandra Bannister. Learn more about its story below.
Photo by Apex

Hightower also played Black Beauty’s love interest, Ginger, in the 1994 version of Black Beauty. Interestingly, the horse who played Black Beauty, a Quarter Horse stallion named Docs Keepin Time, also starred in The Horse Whisperer as the ill-fated Gulliver who was killed in the horrible accident.

In the accident scene, a realistic mechanical horse was used to portray Gulliver immediately after he was hit by an 18-wheeler. The on-location American Humane Association representative actually believed the mechanical horse was real until he was shown otherwise.

Hightower died at the age of 26 after a long, successful career in the movies. Hollywood horse trainer Rex Peterson plans to write a memoir about Hightower.

Unlike some of Steven Spielberg‘s other historic films, like Schindler’s List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan, War Horse is a more romanticized tale. This makes sense considering it was inspired by a juvenile fiction story about a horse’s relationship with various people during the brutality of World War I. Since the other epic films were based on true events, comparing War Horse with those other flicks is like comparing apples and oranges.

I think because the book is a fictional story told from the viewpoint of the horse, Spielberg took the opportunity to inject some less-than-realistic elements to get the viewer emotionally involved in the film. For example, the horses are anthropomorphized in several parts, such as when Albert, the young protagonist, puts a harness collar over his head as a demonstration for Joey the horse. After seeing this, Joey immediately accepts the collar for the first time. In another part, Joey volunteers to take the place of his equine friend, a black gelding who isn’t up to the task of pulling extremely heavy artillery up a hill.

To experienced horse handlers, these moments sound a little hokey because horses’ brains just don’t work that way. Still, these anthropomorphized moments are brief enough that they don’t distract from the rest of the movie, and I suspect they’re used as a tool to draw in non-horse-loving viewers.

Albert introduces Joey to the harness collar. Photo by Dreamworks II Distribution Co.

There are other fanciful moments, and as with so many films these days, our hero, Joey, seems to have super-equine abilities to survive horrific disasters with few injuries. But because Joey is expressive and the human characters are likable, you can’t help but be affected by their relationships.

Depending on your personality, War Horse will leave you tearful at various scenes. I saw the movie with three friends and we were all touched at different times. One horse-loving friend began crying at the very beginning when Joey was born while another one held back the tears until close to the end of the movie when Joey is given back to his devoted friend, Albert. The waterworks started for me during the scene when Joey is rescued in No Man’s Land — it was emotionally touching to see a horse bring together men from warring nations in the midst of World War I.

I’m a tad sensitive about watching violence in movies, but Spielberg handled it differently from Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Much of the violence in War Horse is implied, hidden from our view, but you know what’s happened. There are plenty of grenade explosions, bodies being thrown around, and horses being injured or killed, but there’s little blood. The battle scenes are still shocking but probably won’t leave viewers emotionally scarred.

The equine star of War Horse, a California-bred Thoroughbred gelding named Finders Key, is a gifted actor who conveyed believable emotions at the right moments. The horse master on the film, Bobby Lovgren, owns “Finder” and praises the horse’s ability to take direction and look animated during the intense scenes.

Finder’s talents are pretty amazing — at the age of three he was one of a few horses who played Seabiscuit in the biopic, and according to the London Daily Mail, Finder even portrayed the mare giving birth to Joey at the beginning of War Horse.

While 14 horses were used to play Joey’s role in the movie, Finder was the star that all the other equine actors had to emulate. His stunt doubles were chosen based on how closely they resembled Finder. With his handsome good looks and acting chops, Finder has already moved on to other TV and movie projects we can look forward to seeing.

About Kristin Berkery

Kristin is a freelance graphic designer and writer in Sacramento, California, with a life-long passion for horses. She designs websites and marketing materials for businesses. In her spare time she's active with her daughter and son. See Kristin's online portfolio and LinkedIn profile.

10 thoughts on “War Horse and Those Amazing Equine Actors

  1. Hannah Noel says:

    Do you have any idea who the black horse was? I wondered if it was Docs Keepin Time.

  2. Tammy says:

    Doc’s Keepin Time aka Justin is dead. He’s been dead for years now. He has a son that is a stunt horse in Hollywood and looks like him named Tuff. Tuff was in The Ring for the boat scene and he was a double for Flicka and he was under Jeremy Irons character in Appaloosa. But Doc’s Keepin Time passed away. I think one of the last movies he did was as “Gulliver” in The Horse Whisperer. He played in the opening scene as the horse that was hit by the truck and killed. Pilgrim, played by Hightower the star of that movie was also cast with Doc’s Keepin Time in Black Beauty. He played Ginger.

  3. Kristin says:

    Thanks for the update, Tammy 🙂

  4. Hannah Noel says:

    I actually was in contact with his trainer today. They said he died this past winter. Very sad 🙁

  5. Kristin says:

    Thanks for the update. Is there a news story about it online? I’d like to link to it. Thanks!

  6. Kristin says:

    [SPOILER AHEAD]
    I wondered the same thing, Hannah. It’s possible it was Docs Keepin Time in some scenes, but not in the scene where the black horse dies because I could clearly see it was a gelding. I’ll do some digging and see what I can find. Thanks for the question!

  7. Keith says:

    Sounds like a nice movie. Hopefully no horses were injured in the making of it because the title “War Horse” sounds pretty rough. But it’s a good plot though. War is tough for people to talk about, particularly those who have been through it, so when you see war from the eyes of a horse it gives it a different spin that would be easier for some people to digest.

  8. Kristin says:

    From what I’ve read, the horses were treated well on the set of War Horse. For the No Man’s Land scenes, a mechanical horse was used and it was amazingly real. There’s a pic of it at the bottom of this article, The Humane Movement Goes to Hollywood to Protect Horses. Thanks for your comment!

  9. Hi Kristin, lovely to read your article. Thank you for inculding my painting and input into the film. If anyone’s interested more information about the drawings and paintings (and prints) can be found at:

    http://www.warhorseart.com

    I’m planning to do a painting of Topthorn soon to accompany the one of Joey. I’d like to use one of the horses from the film as the main reference.

    (I don’t like to disappoint but sadly Doc’s Keepin Time wasn’t one of our ‘Topthorns’).

    More of my artwork can be found at:

    http://www.alibannister.com

    There’s a horse on there who would have made a wonderful Topthorn. His name is Jaguar Hope (an ex-racehorse by Turkoman). I thought he was just stunning:

    http://www.alibannister.com/cart/poetry-in-motion-p-8.php

    He had his part in the War Horse film though:

    http://www.warhorseart.com/warhorse-artwork.php

    Keep up the great writing :0)

    Ali Bannister
    (only Alexandra on very official occasions or of I’m in trouble, or in film credits!)

  10. Kristin says:

    Thank you so much for your comment, Ali! Your artwork is stunningly realistic and beautiful. I’ve shared links to your site on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. Thanks again! –Kristin

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