Horses in Film: Abused for Entertainment?


ANIMALS have been used in film since moving pictures were first introduced. They offer entertainment to humans on many levels.

“Animals actors don’t have to talk to make you laugh or to steal your heart. They can be strong and fierce or cute and cuddly.”

Animals play a wide variety of roles in the movies, and never cease to amaze their audiences with what they are capable of achieving. As Warren Epstein reported in the July 12 edition of The Gazette, “Animals in films were our rescuers, our attackers, our best friends.”

Unfortunately the treatment of these beloved creatures has not always been humane. Animal Rights have not always been in existence; therefore, many animals have been abused, injured, and killed during the making of movies. Some of the most heinous cases of animal abuse and neglect noted in film making involve horses.

It is understandable why horses are so frequently used in the movies.

Horses are represented in many facets of human history and lifestyle. They have been a part of human communities for thousands of years. Horses often represent aristocratic leisure and status. Their association with cowboys and the Western movie is unparalleled. They were once the primary source of power and transportation. “Horses represent not just strength, but strength combined with beauty and grace.”

Their presence in period films is necessary to make the productions historically accurate. Nearly two hundred horses were used during the filming of the chariot race scene in the 1925 Fred Niblo film, Ben-Hur. Fortunately, it was reported that not a single horse was injured. This would probably relate more to luck than a deliberate attempt by anyone to ensure the safety of the animals. Many of the horses used in Westerns were not so lucky.

It is not surprising that so many horses were injured or killed during the making of Westerns, considering what horses were subjected to.

In her book West of Everything, Jane Tompkins discusses what horses endured, in Western films, for the sake of entertainment.

The horses were routinely whipped by stage drivers, they were forced to climb up and down steep hills, and they were forcibly driven through raging rivers. Horses were forced to pull heavy loads in the blazing sun. They were spurred, shot at, forced to jump through windows, and ridden through burning buildings. What horses endured in Westerns is similar to that which the heroes themselves endured, with one exception; the horses were not acting voluntarily.

The American Humane Association (AHA) has fought for animal rights since 1877, but it was not until the tragic death of a horse, during the filming of the 1939 Henry King film, Jesse James, that the AHA was given legal rights to monitor the treatment of animals in films. The horse in question was forced to jump off a cliff into a raging river. The device used to make the horse fall was a slippery platform called a ‘tilt shute,’ which when tilted up forced the horse to slip off the cliff. This is just one of the many cruel methods utilized in the movies to force animals to fall against their will.

The public was outraged and demanded action. This prompted the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to grant the AHA legal rights to set guidelines and to monitor the treatment of animals on movie sets. The contract fell under the administration of the Hayes Office, which had the responsibility of setting the standards and practices of film making during that time. Unfortunately, in 1966 the Supreme Court dissolved the Hayes Office, ruling that their practices constituted censorship. This meant that film companies no longer had to abide by the regulations protecting animals that had been set by the AHA.

From 1966 to 1980 the American Humane Association tried to monitor the treatment of movie animals, but since film companies were no longer legally bound to have them there, they often refused to allow the AHA on their production sets.  Gina Barrett, former Director of the Western Regional Office of the American Humane Association, stated, “During that period of time, frankly, animal abuse in film making grew again.”

Unfortunately, it took the death of another horse before reform was finally brought about, and animal rights were reinstated. During the filming of the 1979 Michael Cimino film, Heaven’s Gate, a horse was severely injured when explosives were placed underneath his saddle, and the animal had to be euthanized. So, in 1980, the entertainment industry granted the AHA sole authority to protect animals used in film through a contract with the Screen Actors Guild.

Filmmakers would now be required to notify the AHA in advance if any animals were to be used in their productions. The AHA seeks to prevent the mistreatment of any animal actors by reviewing scripts, working with the trainers prior to filming, and by being present on the sets to make sure guidelines are being followed. Although the complete list of guidelines and procedures is quite extensive, the AHA follows four basic principles:

  • No animal will be killed or injured for the sake of a film production.
  • If an animal must be treated inhumanely to perform, then that animal should not be used.
  • Animals are not props!
  • If an animal is used off camera as background or to attract the attention of an animal being filmed, the same humane guidelines must apply to that animal.

“Animal” means all sentient creatures including birds, fish, reptiles and insects.

Once filming has been completed, the AHA publishes reviews of the movies describing how the animal action scenes were accomplished. They then rate each production based solely on the treatment of the animals. The movies are rated as: acceptable, believed acceptable, questionable, unknown, or not acceptable.

The “no animals were harmed during the filming of this production” credit, which can only be issued by the AHA, is reserved for those movies that have received an acceptable movie rating.

The 1998 Robert Redford film, The Horse Whisperer, received an acceptable rating. Live horses were used to ‘set up’ shots and then animatronic animals (robotic remote computer controlled replicas) were used when potential for injury to the live animal existed. Specially trained stunt horses were used in the scenes that showed rearing, bucking, or falling. The horse trainers stood just off scene and cued the animals using verbal and hand commands.

The 1999 Steve Miner film, Texas Rangers, also received an acceptable rating from the AHA. Horse wranglers, trainers, and veterinarians were present on the set during the filming of all the animal action. All actors who rode in the film were required to take horse-riding lessons. Specially trained stunt horses were used for this movie as well. Any gunfire in the movie was shot at least fifty yards from any horse or other animal, and limited amounts of gunpowder were used to reduce the noise level, and limit the chances of bothering or spooking the horses.

These techniques would have been well served during the filming of the 1903 Porter film, The Great Train Robbery, in which several horses were caught up in a fight between law officials and train-robbers. The horses in that movie were obviously bothered and quite spooked by the mock shoot-out.

The AHA gives the believed acceptable rating when they have reviewed the script and consulted with the trainers but were not actually present on the set during the filming of the movie.

The 2001 Brian Helgeland film, A Knight’s Tale, received a believed acceptable rating. The horses used in the jousting scenes were trained falling and rearing horses that were also conditioned to wear armor, carry the weight of the actors in their costumes, and to race towards each other. AHA was told by the production veterinarian that there were no serious injuries, illnesses, or deaths of any animals used in the film. The AHA screened the film and asked for explanations of how some of the animal action was accomplished. Satisfied with their inquiry, they rated the film as believed acceptable.

A questionable rating is given when it is believed that, though no animals were intentionally harmed while making the movie, questionable practices were noted. The Matthew Warchus film, Simpatico, was given a questionable rating by the AHA. After being injured in an accident, a horse had to be euthanized. After investigating the accident, the AHA reported that no intentional cruelty had occurred. The films credits contain an unauthorized ‘no animals were harmed’ disclaimer, which was not granted by the AHA. Therefore, the movie received a questionable rating.

An unknown rating means the AHA neither monitored nor were able to acquire any information regarding the animal action scenes.

A not acceptable rating is given to movies where deliberate cruelty towards animals has been proven.

Many of the movies that have been rated as not acceptable involve cruelty towards horses.  The tripping of horses is the most commonly cited reason why these movies received a not acceptable rating.

In addition to the aforementioned ‘tilt shute,’ there are other cruel devices used to show a horse falling down.

In the 1982 John Milius film, Conan, the Barbarian, horses were thrown into front somersaults with the use of tripping wires. The horses’ ankles were cuffed with a wire that led to the rider. When cued, the rider pulled the wire, causing the horses’ legs to be swept out from under them. One of the horses was forced to fall into, and over, pointed stakes.

Horse abuse was also cited in the film’s sequel, the 1984 Richard Fleischer film, Conan, the Destroyer. In this film, a horse was tripped with a ‘toe tap.’ A wire device was attached to the horse’s front hooves and then held by the rider. The horse’s head was pulled to one side, using the reins, while its front legs were swept out from under it. Not only did the AHA give these movies an unacceptable rating, they also encouraged moviegoers to boycott the films. The boycott resulted in the horse scenes being removed from the movie for its showing in the United Kingdom.

There are other animal rights groups that fight for better treatment of entertainment animals. A few of these organizations are Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

Unfortunately, none of these groups has any legal rights pertaining to the use of animals in film. “The organizations sponsor letter writing campaigns to film critics, circulate lists of films to be boycotted, and urge their members-if they do see the films-to hiss and heckle during the animal scenes.” The AHA remains the only animal rights organization that has been granted legal rights to monitor the treatment of animals in film.

The treatment of animal actors has improved greatly since the American Humane Association was granted the legal right to monitor their care and treatment while on film sets. Advances in technology have helped to make the job of the AHA easier.

As Gina Barrett commented,

“I think that what technology has done is really increased both the visual opportunities for filmmakers and the safety for animals at the same time.”

It is now common for a film to use live, stuffed, animatronic, and digital animals. With the use of modern editing techniques, the combined usage of all these animal types becomes visually seamless in the final film version. Technological advancements also offer safer alternatives to risky animal action. This gives filmmakers the opportunity to realize their creative vision without jeopardizing the welfare of the animal actors.

It is a shame that any animals ever had to die for the sake of entertainment, but it is reassuring to know that organizations now exist to help prevent any future deaths of animal actors. As Alan Wild put it, “Animal stars are like humans at their best. They are loyal, brave, honest and helpful. That makes us love them—and their movies.”

July 14, 2004; From the Int’l Fund for Horses ( archives).

THF 2019 Logo. ©The Horse Fund.


Horses in Film: Equine Mechanics — The Digital Horse

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Tuesday's Horse

Tuesday's Horse is the official blog of ©Fund for Horses

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