I recently finished watching the first season of the History Channel's show Knightfall. The show is centered around the order of the Knight's Templar in 14th century Paris. The costumes and the sets are amazing, and of course, they use beautiful horses who carry the handsome, bearded knights around the city. But one glaring historical inaccuracy I see in every scene is the horses are always wearing their bleach white caparisons (capes) along with their shaffrons (face armor) and crinets (neck armor). While it makes for a dramatic image, the knights would never put their horses' armor on unless they were charging into battle.
In the Middle Ages, knights wore highly effective armor into battle to deflect arrows and swords, so their horses became their enemy's main target to strike down and disengage the knight. A mounted, armored knight had the advantage over his enemy only if he had a well-trained horse under him. (Click here to read about war horse training.) In response, horse armor was fashioned to protect the war horses.
The armor was made out of iron or steel metal. Being out in the elements and attached to a sweaty horse would inevitably cause it rust and weaken. Armor was very expensive to create, so a knight would only want to use it when going into battle or a tournament. The knight's squires spent much time sanding off any rust and oil the metal to keep it in pristine condition.
In Knightfall, the horses only wear armor on their necks and face. Having the horses wear armor everyday would eventually cause strain on their neck and back muscles. In the example above, the shaffron weighs just over four pounds and the crinet is almost ten pounds. While fourteen pounds may not seem very heavy, the horse would feel the weight on its neck after a long day. Also, the armor's underside was padded with thick leather to prevent rubbing the horse's skin, which added even more weight.
Also in the show, they don't show the filth of the Paris streets--feces, spoiled food, and mud. The horses' white caparisons would have easily become soiled walking through the streets. Again, not a practical idea to wear one around if it needs to be cleaned everyday.
While the knight and war horse in shining armor is a romantic image, in reality, the knights would not be riding their horses around in armor and in capes all the time.
Everything about the 2003 movie Seabiscuit is inspiring. Watching the stories of a broken businessman, a misunderstood trainer, a half blind jockey with a temper, and a horse one step away from the glue factory, all coming together and achieving the impossible. The best part about this movie is just about everything shown in the film is true. Laura Hillenbrand authored the biography Seabiscuit: An American Legend, and the movie stays true to her book.
While watching this movie, I did wonder about Red Pollard and the life of a jockey. Many of the jockeys during the 1920s and 1930s were teenage boys as young as twelve. Many were orphaned or given to the trainers by their parents who could not support their sons during the Depression, just like Pollard. None of them had schooling past the 8th grade.
Once a boy won his first race, he officially became an apprentice jockey. When his name was printed in the racing program, he would have an asterisk added by his name, which looked like a bug. So he became known as a "bug boy."
Usually after the boys went through their growth spurts in their late teens, they had to quit because they became too heavy. Before hiring and training a bug boy, trainers would measure the bug boy's feet. If the boy had large feet, it was a good sign he would grow out of the required weight limit range.
The boys would be sold between trainers without any notice. Sometimes the trainers were kind and treated them well, others would beat them if they lost their races and withhold food to keep them underweight. Being a jockey was emotionally difficult and lonely, but meeting the physical requirements was what drove many of the boys away. It even drove some with no other options for making a living to suicide.
For a boy to become a jockey, he could be any height, but he had to meet the weight requirements. The jockey worships the scale, and prays it points to a low number. During the 1920s and 1930s, many of the horses were assigned to carry between 83 to 130 pounds. A jockey's weight could not exceed 5 pounds over the horse's assigned weight. Red Pollard was 5'7" and weighed 115 pounds. Like many other jockeys, he went to extreme lengths to keep his weight down. During one year, he was known to only eat eggs, and stuck to 600 calories a day.
The quickest way jockeys lost weight was by ridding themselves of water. The most common methods were to not drink water, sweating it out, vomiting, or using laxatives. Soaking oneself in a salt bath was another popular method. There are many stories of jockeys losing 10 pounds of water weight overnight. It would not be uncommon to see a jockey faint before or after a race from dehydration. If a jockey was very desperate, he would swallow a tapeworm and have it surgically removed later after he lost weight. Consequently, many jockeys became malnourished and lost their teeth and suffered from pneumonia. Some jockeys were able to cheat the scale by bribing the official checking the weights. Others were able to figure out where they could stand on the scale so it would not register their full weight.
Even today, jockeys range typically between 4'10" to 5'6" and weigh between 108 to 118 pounds. While required to be light, they must be strong enough to control a 1,200 pound horse running 40 miles per hour. I e-mailed with a professional jockey to see what its like to work in this profession today, and to see if anything has changed since the 1930s.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. Did you grow up with horses? When did you learn to ride?
My name is Víctor Rodriguez, I am from Montevideo, Uruguay. I grew up with horses; my father was a trainer with many horses at the racetrack. I started going to the stables at 7 years old, 6:00am most mornings. I learned to ride as a kid, taught by my dad and other trainers and jockeys at the track. I started galloping the racehorses at 12 years old, and ran my first race at 15 years old. I decided to come to the United States after the track in Uruguay closed in 1997.
What is your height and weight?
5'5" and about 115 pounds.
When did you decide to become a jockey? How does one become a jockey?
All my life I wanted to be a jockey. My dad was a jockey, and both my brothers are jockeys. It is the family business.
Most jockeys in the US are from other countries, and have a professional jockey license from their home. In Uruguay, you start by galloping (exercising) a lot of horses for practice. When the trainers think you are ready, you get sent to "Jockey School." Here, you learn professional jockey skills, such as how to use your whip/change whip hands, how to break a horse from the gate, the "traffic" rules of the track (stay in your lane, how to pass, when you can move over). School also teaches you how to manage your weight.
In the United States, there is no official school. You first must get permission from the track stewards to become a "gallop boy" in the mornings at the track. You then practice with the seasoned, professional jockeys. You must also practice breaking horses from the gate with the gate crew. The gate crew and seasoned jockeys must approve of your riding skills; their recommendations get sent to the Racing Commission. You then get an "apprentice license," and are considered a "bug boy" and can ride in races. You then must prove yourself under the pressure of racing before being considered professional.
How tall can a jockey be and what is the weight limit?
A jockey can be any height, as long as he can make weight. A jockey's weight is determined by how much weight that horse is allowed to carry for that race. Each horse is different. The rules surrounding how much weight a horse carries are complicated, but in general if the horse has a better record than the competition, it must carry more weight. Most horses carry 118-122lbs. This weight includes equipment (saddle, bridle etc) so the jockey actually weighs 5lbs less. If a "bug boy" is riding, the horse is allowed to carry 10lbs less to make up for the rider's lack of experience (which means bug boys weigh less than 115lbs).
A professional jockey can be up to 5lbs overweight and still be allowed to ride, but the trainers get angry if the rider doesn't make weight. If a jockey is consistently overweight, he will lose the rides from that trainer (and therefore, in essence, his paycheck).
Also, jockeys must weigh-in before every race (at Charles Town, we have 8 races per night, Thursday-Saturday). Jockeys learn their required weights 3 days before the races.
How does a jockey keep fit enough to race and stay under a certain weight limit?
Everyone stays fit in their own way. Most of the jockeys gallop horses in the mornings (also let's us get to know the horses we will be racing later in the week). I usually gallop 10-15 horses every morning. Running is also a common form of exercise.
To keep weight off, we all wear a lot of clothes when we work so that we sweat off the weight. Usually we eat once a day, at dinner. On raceday, sometimes we do not eat at all that day. We also use the hot box in the jockey's room to sweat off weight (up to 7lbs if needed).
What muscles hurt the most after a race? Shoulders, arms, legs?
Shoulders and back
What kind of fitness routines do jockeys commit to to be in good enough shape for a race?
Riding and galloping horses is the best way to get and stay fit.
Victor's usual schedule
6:30 am: Arrive at the track. Gallop about 10-15 horses.
10:30: Head to private farm to work/break some green horses.
Noon: Head to another private farm to work a couple more green horses and do some chores
1:00: End of work day. Nap, run errands, etc
Thursday- Saturday (racedays)
Same as earlier in the week, but he may gallop fewer at the track.
1:00-5:00 nap, relax
5:00 go to jockey room, sit in hot box, hang out with other jockeys.
7:00 First race.
11:30 Finish racing 2 to 6 races.
Sunday: Rest a bit, then do some side work such as riding race Quarter Horses. Twice a month they race, other Sundays he gallops those horses.
As your can see from this interview, not much had changed in terms of weight limits and methods used to keep a jockey's weight down. I really hope none of them uses the tapeworm.
Since the premier of the British show Downton Abbey, sidesaddle riding has gained new interest in the equestrian world. When many people think of sidesaddle riding, they may imagine Victorian ladies with their frivolous gowns riding down the country road with their groomsman and dogs following behind doing nothing more than a walk. Downton Abbey shows some of the versatility and skill in sidesaddle riding, and the evolution of women riding on a horse. In Season 1, we saw Lady Mary participating in a foxhunt wearing a fitted riding habit, jumping over a fence, and galloping through mud to keep up with the men. You can read my post about this scene here: Downton Abbey - Equine Traditions from Fox Hunting. In Season 5, we see Lady Mary again riding in a sidesaddle, but this time racing in a point-to-point steeplechase in a more fitted tweed hunting habit. Watch the video below explaining the making of the point-to-point scene, and make sure to listen to the historian's comments in regards to sidesaddle riding.
Instead of reading about sidesaddle equitation, I decided to experience it for myself and speak with someone who has ridden in a sidesaddle for many years. I took a road trip out to Eastern Washington into the Palouse fields and met with Judy Hastings--Vice-President of the American Sidesaddle Association with 30 years sidesaddle equitation experience. She mainly travels within the Pacific Northwest teaching equestrians and horse enthusiasts about sidesaddle riding at clinics with her mule Atti-May. She also loves to participate in parades riding in one of her sidesaddles in period dresses she has sewn herself. Judy had agreed for me to come out to her farm and let me ride in a sidesaddle on her mule.
Judy first showed me some of her saddles. I always thought sidesaddles were only English, but saddle makers also made Western sidesaddles. All of Judy's saddles were Western and were all originally made between 1880 and 1910. When her saddles were built, their trees (the wooden skeleton of the saddle) were formed for horses with narrower backs. Many antique sidesaddles do not fit modern horses who tend to have broader backs than their pre-20th century ancestors. Also, these saddles were made for smaller ladies. A sidesaddle needs to fit the rider as well as the horse which is done by measuring from the rider's bend of the knee to the back of the tailbone in a sitting position. Antique sidesaddle seats are typically 18 inches, which typically fit women under 5'3", so finding an antique saddle that would fit a modern horse and rider today would be difficult. I am 5' 7" and my thigh length is about 21 inches, so the saddle was a little small for me.
Judy's husband, Dick, saddled up Atti-May with another Western saddle. Something interesting to notice about the saddle on Atti-May was the skirt was trimmed to the embroidery. Usually, the saddle skirt would have extended out further to protect the lady's legs from becoming sweaty against the horse. Judy believes the leather was cut and likely used to repair someone's leather shoes in the past, which was a common practice done if supplies and money were limited. Another feature to this saddle was the back cinch. This is called a balance strap and it is attached further back on the right side and comes under the horse and attaches right next to the front cinch. This helps keep the saddle from twisting and popping off the horse's back.
To mount, a lady traditionally needed a mounting box or a groomsman to kneel and offer his knee for her to step on. She'd placed her left foot in the stirrup, and gracefully pull herself up into the saddle, placing her right knee around the pommel while keeping her dress modestly draped over her legs and ankles. As a scandalous modern-day woman in breeches, I stepped onto a mounting block, and mounted as if I was about to ride astride, and then brought my right leg around the upper horn/pommel.
The groomsman would always tighten the cinch/girth on the horse's right side after the lady mounted so he would not need to lift up her dress, see her ankles, and break social conduct. Dick properly tightened from the right side keeping my honor intact; what a gentleman!
In the picture to the right, there were two horns/pommels on this sidesaddle. The lower one over my left leg was called a leaping head (also called a leaping horn or leaping pommel.) This was a safety device that rotated on my left thigh and acted as a brace. Leaping heads did not exist until the 19th century. Earlier saddles have only one pommel on the top to wrap the right leg around. To keep my left thigh snug against the leaping head, my left foot was placed in a high stirrup at about the same length as a huntseat stirrup. Then there was the upper horn/pommel that I wrapped my right leg around. My upper body faced forward as if I was riding astride, and my right thighbone lined up with Atti-May's neck which kept me square and centered. Now my feet position was a little awkward at first. I have been riding horses most of my life, so keeping my heels down has never been a problem for me. However, in a sidesaddle, I kept wanting to bring my heels up to push into the leaping head and lean into the upper horn/pommel. I just had to keep checking myself, but as I rode and began to trust the saddle, I became more relaxed and comfortable. I know if I had more practice, I could easily ride sidesaddle as well as if I was astride.
In regards to the bridle, the only different feature was the longer reins. Since the rider sits up higher on the horse, longer reins are needed. If you are familiar with riding in Western or Saddleseat, riding Sidesaddle is not that much different in terms of sitting up, keeping your hips vertical, and riding with longer reins. Huntseat riders who are accustomed to keeping their hips tilted forward would have more difficulty adjusting to the seat position.
The only major challenge I had riding Atti-May was posting at the trot. When posting in a sidesaddle, the rider does not lift from the stirrup since that causes imbalance and the saddle to slide left. The rider must grip with the right leg and roll the hips forward a bit, but never leave the saddle. It's half way between posting and sitting the trot. I used to ride an Arabian who had the choppiest trotting gait, and honestly, I have no idea if I could have successfully posted in a sidesaddle on him without bouncing all over his back.
I asked Judy if there was any special training for a horse to be ridden in a sidesaddle. Judy said any horse that is calm and confident would not have any issues with a sidesaddle. It usually only takes a horse about an hour to get accustomed to the rider's legs being on one side. Communicating gait transitions in a sidesaddle is what would take some time for the horse and rider to learn. Sidesaddle riders will usually hold a cane or crop in the right hand, which many riders will use to replace the right leg, but a horse can be trained to understand subtle weight shifts from the rider on when to transition into a walk, trot, or canter or change directions.
Okay, so you want to watch me ride sidesaddle for the first time? Watch the video below.
There were some (okay, many) moments in this video where I lost my center or did not have complete control, but I never felt like I was going to fall off. Instinctively, I would tighten my knees to grip the horns/pommels, keeping myself secure in the saddle. If you watched the first video of the point-to-point race in Downton Abbey, the historian spoke about how the ladies would stay on their horses better than the men. I can see how this was possible after riding in a sidesaddle with the leaping head to stabilize me.
Another question I had was why did sidesaddle equitation diminish and become unpopular? Back at the beginning of the 20th century during the women's suffrage movement, women wanted to ride astride just like men. They felt safer riding astride in breeches where they did not need to worry about dresses getting caught on the horns/pommels if they should fall. Also, sidesaddles were not always available in many areas. In order to push their cause, women burned their sidesaddles and protested how it was part of women's oppression. Sidesaddle riding fell out of favor and saddle makers stopped making them completely by the 1950s . It was not until the 1970s did a new interest in sidesaddle riding came around. Breed organizations started adding sidesaddle classes to their horse shows, celebrating the traditions of sidesaddle riding with their breeds. The International Sidesaddle Organization and the American Sidesaddle Association are two wonderful groups that can help anyone interested in learning to ride sidesaddle or offer information about the sidesaddle.
One of the last questions I asked Judy before my riding lesson ended: was there anything a sidesaddle rider can't do? She answered, "Rope cattle. There's no roping horn, but you can still drive cattle." I may need to have a few more lessons before I try and drive cattle in a sidesaddle.
Would you be interested in riding in a sidesaddle? Have you ever ridden in a sidesaddle? What was your experience like?
The movie War Horse pays homage to the equine soldier. Armies all around the world throughout millennia knew the value of the war horse. Usually, the army with the largest and best trained horse cavalry won the war. But the advances in technological warfare seen in WWI -extensive trenches, barb wire, advanced firepower, bombs, and chemical bombs - cut down the effectiveness of the horse cavalry.
During WWI, horses were primarily used to haul supplies and soldiers to the front lines. Here are some photos of the real horses from WWI showing what they experienced.
Britain did not have enough horses of its own, so they had to import great numbers from all around the world. Even though the USA did not officially enter the war until 1917, they did send 1 million horses, donkeys, and mules over the Atlantic.
Most of the highly trained cavalry horses were Thoroughbreds who could run fast and jump over obstacles.
Notice the saddle and all the equipment a soldier needed for the battlefield - rifle, canteen, sleep blanket, ammunition, grain feeder or possibly a gas mask, halter, bridle.
A clear sign of how the nature of war had changed in WWI. Poisonous gas was weaponized on both sides of the war, so gas masks were developed for the horses along with the soldiers. Here are two designs pictured above.
Heavy machine guns were transported on the backs of horses.
2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI. With the advances in motorized vehicles used to transport soldiers and equipment, horses eventually became unnecessary in armies by the time WWII started.
In the movie Black Beauty, there is a scene when after running through a storm all night, Beauty (the horse) is taken care of by the inexperienced stable boy Joe. Beauty is in his stall, wet and steaming. Joe refuses to cover Beauty with a blanket thinking he is too hot, and then proceeds to give him cold water to drink. The next day, Beauty is found lying down and in pain.
Cold Water Myth
This scene may confuse general audiences and horse owners because it implies the cold water - "felt like a kick in the guts" - is what made Beauty sick. It's still a commonly held belief that if you give a horse ice cold water, especially after a heavy workout, it will colic. However, this is untrue. It's not that the water being cold will make horses sick, it's that horses do not generally like to drink ice cold water. Drinking cold water is uncomfortable on a horse's stomach making the horse tend not to want to drink much even if it's thirsty. People then draw to the conclusion that cold water makes horses sick when actually the sickness is likely brought on by the lack of enough fluids in the horses' systems. During very cold winter months, horses are in greater danger of becoming dehydrated because they won't drink as much water if it's nearly frozen, which can lead to colic, hypothermia, and other illness.
Hypothermia and Dehydration
This movie is based off a novel by the same name by Ann Sewell, and she describes more of Beauty's symptoms. Here is an excerpt from the book after the hard ride: I was glad to get home, my legs shook under me, and I could only stand and pant. I had not a dry hair on my body, the water ran down my legs, and I steamed all over....He [Joe] rubbed my legs and my chest, but he did not put my warm cloth on me; he thought I was so hot I would not like it. He then gave me a pail full of water to drink; it was cold and very good, and I drank it all; then he gave me some hay and some corn, and thinking he had done right, he went away. Soon I began to shake and tremble, and turned deadly cold, my legs ached, my loins ached, by chest ached, and I felt sore all over.
After a horse goes through a strenuous workout, it needs to be walked to help dissipate the excess heat produced by its muscles. Sweating and breathing both release heat from the body to help the horse's core temperature return to normal. If the stored heat is not properly released, it can become trapped in the horse's muscles and its core which can lead to colic and "tying up" aka rhabdomyolysis - a condition of muscle stiffness, pain, and trembling. At the same time, when a horse is being cooled down, it needs to replace all those lost fluids. Dehydration reduces blood flow to the muscles and organs, which can cause the core temperature to drop and make the horse hypothermic.
Proper Cool Down and Hydration
Two things that Joe did incorrectly with Beauty is he did not cool him down properly and he did not hydrate him enough. If your horse has had a hard workout, let it walk until it's breathing normally and not sweating. Also, let it drink. Make sure the water is a comfortable temperature (not ice cold) so the horse will want to drink enough. Keeping a horse from water while cooling it down may make it more difficult for its body to circulate blood properly and return back to a normal core temperature. Also, after only the horse is properly cooled and dry can a rug be placed on it. Trapped sweat can make the horse cold later on and also lead to skin problems.
It seems to be a divisive issue in the equitation community on when to let a horse drink after a hard work out. If you own a horse, what do you do after a hard work out? Do you let your horse drink water immediately or do you wait?
Let's explore the Grand National Steeplechase featured at the end of the 1944 movie National Velvet starring Mickey Rooney as Mi Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet Brown. Here is a clip of the race from the movie: National Velvet Grand National.
First, here are some fun facts about the film.
1. Mickey Rooney was young once. Yes, this surprised to me, too.
2. The horse actor who played "The Pie" was named King Charles, and he was a first cousin to the famous thoroughbred racer Seabiscuit. Man O'War was their grandsire.
3. King Charles was gifted to Elizabeth Taylor after filming. They had developed a strong bond while making National Velvet that MGM decided to gift him to her on her 13th birthday. She kept him for the remainder of his life.
In the movie, The Pie is entered in the Grand National Steeplechase, one of the most exciting horse races in the world. The race was founded and designed by William Lynn and first raced in 1836. The race became official in 1839 in Liverpool, England where it is still raced today.
The circular course consists of 16 fences, but 30 jumps as the first 14 fences are jumped over twice. The total race distance is 4.5 miles long.
Notable fences on the course are fences 6 & 22 known as "Becher's Brook," fences 8 & 24 known as "The Canal Turn," and fence 15 known as "The Chair."
At Becher's Brook, the horse jumps up 5', but then lands 6' 10" down. With the longer fall, jockeys need to lean far back in their saddles to keep their seats.
At the Canal Turn, the horses jump over 5', but then need to immediately turn 90 degrees to the left. This turn has been known to confuse horses as some of them have wanted to keep running straight and not turn. There used to be a ditch before this jump, but it was removed in 1928.
The Chair is the tallest fence standing at 5' 3" with a 6' ditch on the take off side. The ground is also 6" higher on the landing side. It is also the only jump in the race's entire history to have claimed a jockey's life in 1862.
In the movie, Mi and Velvet cannot find a jockey to ride "The Pie," so Velvet decides she will race him even though she knows her and The Pie would be disqualified once the officials found out she was a girl. It was not until the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 passed that made it possible for female jockeys to compete. The first female jockey rode in the 1977 race, and the first one to complete the race was in 1982. The female jockey who had placed the best is Katie Walsh in 2012 placing in 3rd.
Here is a video of the actual 1962 Grand National Steeplechase that shows how intense this race is: 1962 Grand National
Have any of you been to the Grand National Steeplechase? What was your experience?
Have you ever wondered where the concept of a unicorn came from? Unicorns are mythical creatures who are described as white horses with goat beards, long thin tails, cloven feet, and have a single horn coming out of their foreheads. They are wild woodland creatures who symbolize purity and can only be caught by virgins.
In the movie Legend starring Tom Cruise, the unicorns are sacred creatures in the forest and they bring light to the world. In the movie, they are portrayed by large, white Andalusian horses with single horns attached to their head. Their horns can be seen wobbling as the horses are running towards the camera. You can watch clips of the unicorns in this video (you will also see young Tom Cruise with a uni-brow): Legend Unicorns video.
So, where did the concept of the unicorn come from? Well, the description of a unicorn was first written down by a Greek doctor named Ctesias from the 4th-century BC who traveled through Persia with Indian men who told him about the animals back in their homeland. One of these animals was described as a wild donkey as big as a horse with a white body, a red head, bright blue eyes, and a long, single horn extending from its forehead. The Indians also spoke about how the horn had magical properties, and when grounded down and ingested could help with stomach problems, epilepsy, and poison.
Most likely the Indian men were telling Ctesias about the White Rhinoceros who is as big as a horse, has a white body, and a single horn on its head. Sorry to spoil the romance.
It was not until the Medieval period that the unicorn, as we imagine it today, appeared in Christian art and became associated with the Virgin Mary and Christ as being a pure creature that can heal. Unicorns were also believed to rather fight and die than be captured, hence why they were chosen as Scotland's national animal and can be seen in British coats of arms today representing Scotland.
Would you want to own a unicorn? Can you imagine trying to manage a horse that had a long horn coming out of the middle of its forehead? How the heck would it fit inside a horse trailer comfortably? Thoughts?
A topic I will explore in this post comes up in the movie Running Wild. This movie is about a woman who is threatened to have her family's ranch taken away because of unpaid debts. When she finds a herd of starving wild Mustangs on her land, she decides to work with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and open her ranch to have convicts come and care for and tame the Mustangs to make them suitable for adoption.
A big problem the BLM faces with wild horses is there is not enough grazing land to sustain large populations. With the lack of predators, horse herds can easily double in size within a few years. The BLM set up a horse adoption program so private citizens could take in these horses, but many people are not interested in adopting unbroken horses. The BLM did not have the resources to hire multiple trainers, so they came up with a solution to have groups of prison inmates train the horses under the guidance of a professional horse trainer. This program is formally called the Wild Horse Inmate Program (Whip.)
The prison inmates are from medium to low security prisons, and sign-up to volunteer to work with the horses. They are brought out to a ranch each day, and they learn to feed, water, and care for the horses. They first have classroom training to learn about horse behaviors and training methods, and then they are put to work. Over the months, the convicts learn patience, gentleness, and compassion to earn the the horses' trust and make them suitable to ride. The program has become very successful in helping to find these horses homes and also helps the inmates as well. The inmates learn life lessons and social skills that they may not have learned before going to prison. Some of the prisoners have gone on to become farriers or work on horse farms after their release.
Here is a great video and article showing real prisoners working with the wild horses. This quote from one of the men really grabbed my heart:
"Learning how to love that horse; I did not not know how to love. That was a big thing for me, too. I did not know what love was."
VIDEO: Rehabilitation Program Pairs Prisoners with Wild Horses
Here are some interesting statistics provided by the BLM.
- 3,735 horses were removed from public lands to control herd populations.
- 2,905 horses were adopted out to private owners
- 1,430 horses were trained by non-profit groups, volunteers, and federal and state prisoners.
In the 2002 animated movie Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, there is a scene when U.S. Army soldiers capture Spirit and attempt to incorporate him into the U.S. cavalry. You can watch the scene here: Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.
At the end of the scene, you can see the farrier attempting to use a hot "US" branding iron on Spirit. In 1853, the United States military started branding their horses on the left shoulder with the "US" mark showing the horses belonged to the United States government. In the mid 1880s, the branding was modified to include the number of the regiment below the company's letter on the left hip. When a horse was decommissioned, it was branded with a "C" for "condemned" on its right shoulder.
Tracking individual horses in the military had become an arduous task. Farriers relied on physical descriptions in their logs to track when each horse was last shod and their age. Can you imagine trying to track twenty bay horses with star markings or twenty chestnuts? As one can imagine, this method proved to be very inaccurate and disorganized.
Around the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865,) the Preston system was developed where a unique four-digit serial number was burned into the front hoof of each horse. The problem with hoof branding was farriers needed to re-brand the numbers every six months and sometimes the numbers would become illegible if the hoof wall was damaged. In 1912, the military started experimenting with lip tattoos placed on the inside upper lip for identification. By WWI, lip tattooing had replaced hoof branding.
Today in the United States, freeze branding has replaced hot iron branding as a permanent branding method. Freeze branding uses liquid nitrogen and alcohol to take the dark pigment out of the skin, making the skin white and the hair grow white. The only horses that are branded today by the U.S. Government are captured Mustangs set up for adoption and horses that are carriers of equine infectious anemia. The brand placed on Mustangs contains the registering organization (the U.S. Government), the year the horse was born, and then the serial number.
Mustang gelding adopted out by the Bureau of Land Management (USA). You can see its freeze brand on the left side of its neck near the mane's crest. Photo by Ealdgyth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Hoof branding can still be done if owners wish to have their horses branded temporarily. Some horse owners have branded their zip codes on their horses' hooves if they are in a high risk danger area where they may need to evacuate quickly. Some horse clubs will also brand hooves for special memberships.
Lip tattoos are still used today on certain breeds and racehorses to match them with their registration papers which includes their full name, birth year, breed, owner, and history. It is also a way to help identify stolen horses.
Branding is starting to give way to micro-chipping. It's still very new in the equine world, but as people are becoming more familiar with it, I can imagine most registered horses being chipped in the near future.
Horse Owners - do any of you have a branded horse?
If you are a STARZ Outlander fan, you will likely recognize Ronnie B. Goodwin from Season 1 as he played one of the 18th-century Scottish Highlanders of the MacKenzie clan. He can mainly be seen with the other MacKenzie men riding through the countryside escaping the English red coats, collecting the tenant rents, and keeping an eye on the strange Sassenach woman. His character never had a name or any lines, but he did have a formidable presence on screen that was hard to miss.
Ronnie was gracious enough to agree to an interview with me and answer some questions about his experiences working as an actor on Outlander and working with the horses in the show. He also shared some information about his personal passion for horsemanship and photography.
Can you tell readers who you are, where you live, and your experience in film?
My name is Ronnie B Goodwin. I live in a small town called Dumbarton about 30 minutes from Glasgow, Scotland. I have been making films and working on films since my early 20's predominately riding horses and acting. I always have had a love for film, photography, and art. My background is in engineering, farming, and most outdoor activities along with a love for adventure and exploration.
How did you hear about and audition for Outlander? Did you take a riding test to show you knew how to handle a horse?
One morning I was doing my usual emailing and social networks, and an ad appeared on Facebook "Bearded Horseman Required," so I clicked the "Like" button. Next day, I was being auditioned for a little known show called Outlander. It was the first days of auditioning, so I got to meet the main cast, show runners, and mingle a bit. From that day on, I had the most intense, enjoyable, miserable, and taxing experience of my life. I was cast as a Highlander Horseman-no name, no lines, just a lot of shouting.
Tell me about the horses you rode in the show.
I was handed a 17.2 [hand] Hanoverian called George - an old hand at filming. He was in War Horse and Van Hellsing, and his CV (resume) was greater than mine. He was a very gentle giant and responded to almost every instruction I gave him. His ability to not spook and keep his head was fantastic as guns shots and squibs were going off every time we were out on set. He was a joy to sit on.
Was there any other horse on the show you wished you could have ridden such as Sam Heughan's (Jamie Fraser) Friesian or Graham McTavish's (Dougal MacKenzie) Percheron? Did you get to ride any of the other horses seen on the show off-screen?
I was on George for the duration of my time on the show (8 months) on and off, not consistently. I did wish I was on a smaller horse at some points, particularly when having to mount and dismount 20 times in a row. I am tall, but after awhile it got quite exhausting. I would have loved to sit on Sleepy - Sam's horse. Never had the chance to ride off-screen other than the riding auditions.
Do you have any funny stories about the horses on set? I heard in an interview that sometimes the horses would take off with the actors and the camera people would keep rolling hoping to get some good shots.
On one occasion I was to mount George, and then lift Roy on to the back of mine as his horse had been shot from under him. I mounted, leaned down to gather up Roy, and his weight took the two of use off the horse. My feet were still in the stirrup irons, and I ended up upside down under George; my kilt was around my ears, and the entire crew were watching. We had been in the wet all day and George was very wet, and as the day went on his girth loosened. The groom got a ticking of as did I.
There were a couple of occasions when horses were spooked and both horse and rider would be off like a shot. Nobody was hurt, but a few red faces :).
I saw some interviews from the main actors who talked about how the horses were cared for more than them. During breaks, how were the horses cared for?
The horses were very well cared for. There was always a vet nearby, and yes, fed and watered more regularly than cast and supporting actors. I was happy to see the care they received.
Did you have much time to work and get comfortable with the horses you rode before you started filming or did you arrive on set and ride a strange horse?
We showed up, the horses were tacked and ready, we got on and started our day. Sometimes after long periods of standing around, we would walk the horses to keep them warm.
What is it like to ride in a kilt? Was it hard to keep a good leg grip and stay steady in the saddle? Would you ride in the kilt again on your own time or never again?
Firstly, the saddles were Portuguese saddles with big thick sheepskin numnahs (saddle pad,) and this made it tough to grip. I could barely touch the horse with my heels. The saddles were high in the front and high in the back, so mounting was always a task; always fiddling with the kilt after seated on the horse, not very Highlander, and riding in the kilt was not so bad. Getting off was sometimes difficult as I got tangled on the high points of the saddle with steel weapons and musket, could get messy, but all went well. On my own time, I would never ride in a kilt; always getting nipped on the thigh, and could get very cold and wet. Crazy times :)
Have you been involved in other film productions where you worked with horses?
I was a rider on Lorna Doune many years ago. Also, umpteen short films and work for TV.
Tell me about your history with horses. What breeds have you owned?
I owned for a short while a Clydesdale cross Irish Draft named Leah. He was a big sweetheart and still works for the disabled kids. I had to sell him when he turned 5.
Where is your favorite place to ride a horse in Scotland?
When I visit my sister, we go for the occasional ride on the grounds of Balmoral. She breeds Highland Ponies for the Queen. Balmoral is also where I take pictures on a good day.
Tell me about your photography. How did you get into it? What do you enjoy shooting the most?
I make films as well as photography. My career took a bit of a twist. Last day shooting on Outlander, we were making the Time Warner ad for the show; riding and doing my thing. On the way home I started to sweat and feel extremely sick. I had been bitten by a tick, and soon after I found I had contracted Lyme. So for the next almost 3 years I had to rethink my career and get healthy, so I put down my film camera and started gathering wildlife images, landscapes, etc. I had no energy to make a film so did what I could to keep active. My images are now how I make my living.
Describe your style and what you hope to communicate with your photos.
I simply like to make pictures that get me excited, and when I put them on my site, it is a joy to see people from all over the world purchasing my work and hanging the images in their homes. As far as style is considered, I have worked hard to create my own style; unique I would think.
Where in the world would you like to travel to photograph? I see you were able to get some great pictures in Colorado.
I love to travel Scotland as the light always changes, and even a mucky day can look amazing. I did travel to Colorado. I had an event organised by my good friend Brian Terpstra. I did a talk at the Drake Centre, we explored the Rockies, did some fishing for wild trout, ate a lot of food and had a ball. I am hoping to do a proper explore on my next visit.
Below is a sample of Ronnie's beautiful images including some wonderful shots of Scottish ponies. You can view his whole collection and purchase images on his website https://ronniebgoodwin.selz.com/
Great thanks to Ronnie for this interview and for giving some great behind-the-scenes on Outlander and what it's like to act with horses. Please check out Ronnie's websites and follow him on social media.
Gallery and shop: ronniebgoodwin.selz.com
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.