The scene we are going to look at in this post is from Game of Thrones Season 1 when Ser Loras Tyrell challenges Ser Gregor Clegane "The Mountain" to a joust. In this scene, Ser Loras rides a white mare and Ser Gregor rides a black stallion (click here to watch). You will notice the black stallion starts nickering and becomes agitated when the white mare gets close to him. As Lord Petyr Baelish "Littlefinger" then explains later to Ned and Sansa Stark, the white mare is in heat, giving off a scent signaling she is ready to mate and causes the the black stallion to become distracted, which ultimately makes Ser Gregor lose the match.
The sex of the horse was an important factor to consider for soldiers and noblemen when choosing a war horse. Considering the two choices - a stallion (male) or a mare (female)- there were benefits and vices to each sex. Stallions develop thicker muscles than mares, which helps them to carry heavier loads and run faster. They also tend to have more energy. The main drawback in stallions is their proneness to become aggressive. In the wild, stallions fight each other over mating rights to the mares. Domesticated stallions still have these strong instincts to fight and reproduce, which generally makes it difficult for their human masters to control them when other horses are nearby, especially mares in heat. There are exceptions to this general statement as many well trained stallions in high level competitions today do not always, if at all, exhibit aggressive and uncontrollable behavior.
Mares tend to be more docile than stallions, but they also can have troublesome behaviors, especially when they are in heat in the spring and summer months. They can be inclined to nip and buck at other horses, and be overall grumpy. Some mares become very sensitive and unfocused, and have a difficult time minding their riders.
So, which sex did army soldiers tend to use? From records, stallions were the most popular choice, partially because the mares were reserved to reproduce and replenish the cavalry. However, there was still the problem of how to manage a group of testosterone-filled stallions and keep them from injuring each other while out on campaign.
There were some simple solutions to manage the stallions naughty behaviors, such as taking the very aggressive stallions away from the group and keeping mares away from the stallions. Wild stallions, who do not have a herd of mares, will live in “bachelor groups” and are able to cooperate with one another without any problems, so it can be assumed cavalry stallions could tolerate each as long as there were no mares to compete over. Muzzles were also used on some stallions who had the inclination to bite, but this was only a temporary solution until the stallions were trained out of that behavior.
A proactive method to prevent aggressive behavior from developing in male horses was to castrate them, turning them into geldings. Castration has been a practice in many ancient cultures for centuries. If a colt was castrated early, he could avoid developing aggressive behaviors and become very docile. He would not attempt to flirt or bolt at the mares and would not feel the need to fight other males.
Today, most horse owners castrate their male horses unless they plan to breed them. When castrated, horses usually are sedated and given an anesthetic before their testes are removed by a veterinarian. But how did people castrate stallions before the time of modern animal medicine and not get hurt by the horse who did not care to have his testicles removed? Well, there are a couple methods that have been found in old records. One method found in ancient Roman records was to use “gelding irons.” We can only guess what the irons looked like or how they immobilized the horse, but my guess is they would be used in the same way people use rope to temporarily impair a horse. Today in the US, some farmers will tie-up a colt’s legs, knock him over, and have others sit on him while someone cuts the testes with no anesthetic. Since horses are considered livestock like cows and sheep in the US, horses are not required to have a trained veterinarian castrate them, while in Great Britain, it is required by law that horses have a licensed veterinarian with medicine to perform the procedure.
Another method was to tie the testes so they would atrophy and fall off. This method had less risk of infection since there was no open wound, but would still be uncomfortable for the horse. Whatever the method used to castrate a stallion before modern drugs, it was never an easy task for the horsemen or a comfortable one for the horses.
Today, most people will opt to castrate their stallions to make them more manageable. Modern medicine limits the risk of infection, but back in earlier times, it would have been tough to risk having a well-bred stallion be castrated and be open to the great possibility of infection. Many people who do handle stallions today are usually very experienced horse handlers, and take extra precautions when handling them in the vicinity of mares. I personally thought it was very clever what Ser Loras did in this scene to give him an advantage. Maybe Ser Gregor should think about riding a mare next time.
Special thanks to Ruby and Hannah for their insights in working with stallions.
Ruby Butchers is the author of EquiPepper.com focusing on changing negative attitudes towards Thoroughbreds, in particular ex-race horses.
Hannah Ibbotson is the author of Jack's Kissing Spine Story that tells her journey with her horse Jack, and his recovery from kissing spine.
This article is slightly different from my previous posts, but it is still inspired by a movie. In modern movies and shows at the end of the credits, there is a phrase: “No Animals were Harmed.” This phrase is not put in the credits by the free will of the film producers to assure the audience they did not harm any animals in making their film, but the phrase actually needs to be granted by meeting the strict animal care guidelines written up by the American Humane Association. Founded in 1877 in Cleveland, Ohio, the AHA’s mission was to fight for the humane treatment of working animals and livestock. Before the AHA started monitoring Hollywood film sets in 1941, film makers had the liberty to do what they wanted to animals to capture dramatic shots, no matter the expense to the animals. There are numerous cases where animals were severely injured and/or killed during stunts with no precautions taken to prevent harm. It was all done for the sake of entertainment. Not until the AHA started bringing attention to the abuses that happened to animals in the film industry, did the public protest for humane treatment of the animal actors.
The 1936 movie Charge of the Light Brigade, starring Errol Flynn, was one of the early films that had a dark shadow cast over it for how cruelly the film director treated the horses. Errol Flynn wrote about the horse abuse in his biography My Wicked, Wicked Ways:
“Horses have been perhaps the most badly treated animals in the motion picture industry. Especially in the days when these early Westerns [Charge of the Light Brigade] were being ground out. A device called “the running W” was used on horses. A trip wire, to make the animals tumble at the right instant. The stunt man, riding the horse, knew where the trip wire was. He knew when he had to get off and all he had to do was take a fall. But the horse would go headfirst, and sometimes get hurt and have to be shot. They stopped this because so many horses broke their legs and their necks, and there were protests by the actors and the public.”
Here is a clip from Charge of the Light Brigade showing horses being tripped by "the running W." Unfortunately, this clip is very poor quality, but you can still see the horses falling: Charge of the Light Brigade - horse falls.
Hollywood did eventually start to find ways to get its dramatic shots with less harm to horses and the actors. Errol Flynn continued:
This gave ride to a wonderful breed of man. This was the stunt man who would train a horse so well that he could ride down the side of a cliff, and at a certain signal, the rider, putting his left foot under the horse, could trip him. The horse knew he would be tripped. It looked just as good, and nobody was hurt.
Since 1941 when the AHA became involved in Hollywood, the treatment of animals has drastically improved, resulting in less and less animal injuries and deaths on sets. Today, when a film wants to include animal actors, the producers need to contact the AHA and have their script reviewed by AHA representatives who will then make suggestions and changes in the script to insure the safety of the animals. An AHA representative will also be present on set with the animal actors to make sure the guidelines are being met, and then will approve the film to advertise that "No Animals were Harmed" in the credits. If you wish to see all the current guidelines, you can check out the AHA's website here: http://humanehollywood.org/index.php/on-the-set/certification-definition
From the AHA guidelines document updated in 2015, I pulled out a few rules that are specifically directed towards the humane treatment of horses and now prevent abuses that can be seen in Charge of the Light Brigade.
Actors riding and handling the horses
8-76 No cast members, extras or animal handlers shall be allowed to ride or work with a horse unless they have adequate riding skills and horse knowledge. At a minimum, all riders must be skilled enough not to jerk or twist the horse’s mouth. It is the producer’s responsibility to ensure that cast members obtain adequate training to prevent such unintentional cruelty.
8-77 Anyone required to ride on a production must first be auditioned by the wrangler boss to determine his/her riding ability. Productions, animal handlers and American Humane Association shall work collaboratively to ensure that people required to ride are qualified to perform the action required.
a. Only riders from the approved wrangler boss list may be hired.
b. Production must provide adequate lead time for such demonstration and determination prior to filming American Humane Association will have final approval of the skill, knowledge and physical limitations of any rider.
In this clip (click here) from Charge of the Light Brigade, the actors, including Errol Flynn, can clearly be seen pulling harshly on their reins and making their horses open their mouths in pain.
I really question how much riding and horse experience some of those actors had before this film.
Stunts and horse falls
8-87 When filming horses or livestock lying down, production must prepare the ground by making sure all rocks and other debris are removed. The ground should be softened by the use of peat, sand or other soft substance and/or by digging up the ground.
8-92 Only trained falling horses shall be used to perform horse falls; only trained jumping horses shall be used in jumping scenes; and only trained rearing horses shall be used in rearing scenes. Rearing horses must not be pulled over backwards.
8-93 For running horse/livestock falls, the ground shall be prepared to cushion the animal’s fall. In determining the number of falls allowed, consideration will be given to how the ground is prepared, length of approach, condition and skill of the animal, method of fall, and other adjacent action.
a. The ground should be softened either by spreading 4 or 5 cubic yards of sand, peat or other soft substance, or by digging up the earth, making sure that all rocks and rough clods are removed.
b. For running horse/livestock falls, the area should not be less than 20 square feet, 12 to 19 inches deep, and filled with sand or other similar materials. It must be checked for rocks, glass and other potentially harmful materials.
c. The softened earth should not be covered by materials that may lessen the effectiveness of the prepared ground. For example, grass clippings rather than sod should be used. The entrance and exit routes to the prepared horse-fall areas must be checked for hazards as well.
I highly doubt there was any ground prep for the horses to fall on in this film.
8-126 When a pistol is fired from horseback, the weapon shall be held at no less than a 45-degree angle to the horse’s head. This will decrease the chances of powder flashes causing burns to the horse’s corneas.
8-127 When firing a pistol or carbine from the ground, the weapon shall not be pointed at a horse.
8-128 When firing any type of artillery piece around horses, quarter loads must be used. Although an animal may be accustomed to loud noises, there is a danger of damage to an animal’s ears from the percussive force of the ammunition.
8-129 Artillery pieces being fired must be a minimum of 25 feet from the nearest horse.
In the scene during the gunfight, many of the horses looked very frightened by all the guns going off, indicating they were not desensitized to the gunshot sounds. I also wonder if any of those guns were at half charge.
Hollywood has come a long way in treating its horses and other animal actors with dignity and respect. In other film and show interviews I have seen, the human actors mention the animals usually get better treatment than any person working on set. Since the strict guidelines of the AHA have been implemented on film sets, filmmakers have come up with creative ways to display dramatic, astounding shots that feature horses without compromising their safety, whether it be by the camera angle or by using puppets or CGI.
It’s comforting to know when I watch a scene in a modern film and I see a horse performing a fantastic stunt, I know the horse and the stunt person are well trained and strict precautions have been taken to ensure their safety. However, knowing what I know now after researching the abuses done to horses in early films, my heart aches and it sickens me knowing that the horses were very likely ill treated, injured, and possibly killed during the making of those films.
In the 1990 movie Dances with Wolves, I want to examine the symbolism behind the markings plains Indians painted on their horses. It is commonly believed that Indians only painted their horses for battle, but they were also painted before buffalo hunts. Specific symbols were reserved for hunting to display a horse's past achievements, and bring protection and good luck to the horse and rider. Watch this clip on YouTube that features the character John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) riding with the Lakota warriors to a buffalo hunt, and pay attention to the symbols painted on the horses.
On Dunbar's horse, named Cisco, there were zig-zag patterns painted on his legs. These symbols represented lightning bolts that gave honor to the lightning god and were believed to give the horse greater speed.
Kicking Bird's horse, the white horse in the group, had a ring painted around its eye and blue patches with white dots on its shoulder and rump. The ring around the eye was meant to enhanced the horse's vision while the blue with the dots represented the buffalo tracks in the ground, which indicated the horse had participated in successful buffalo hunts in the past.
Wind in His Hair's horse, a dark bay, had horseshoes on its hind quarters and a hand print on its shoulder. The horseshoe symbols showed how many other horses this horse helped steal from rival tribes and European settlers. It was common for plains Indians to steal horses to enlarge their own tribe's herd. The hand print on the shoulder meant that the horse brought its owner back from a previous dangerous mission.
Other hunting symbols that could be painted on horses were a circle around the nostril to enhance the horse's sense of smell; a fence painted on the jaw to keep the good luck from escaping from the mouth; a buffalo painted on the shoulder gave thanks to the Great Spirit for past kills; yellow triangles on the hooves made the horse more sure-footed and nimble; and the sun was to wish for good weather as it was dishonorable to hunt during bad conditions.
Paint colors did have some meaning to individual tribes, such as red for the color of blood and blue for the color of wisdom, but individuals would use what ever colors were available at the time with no special meaning. Colors were usually made out of different colored soils, charcoal, and flowers; and then were mixed with something to help it stick, such as animal fat or urine.
Here are some fun facts about the buffalo hunt scene in Dances with Wolves:
I am Amy. I love movies, TV, and horses. I grew up with horses and taught kids how to ride during my summer breaks from school. Now I am a country girl living in a city hoping to someday move back into a rural area and own a horse again.