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.
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.