It took 70 trained horses to fill the cast of the epic American motion picture starring Charlton Heston in 1959. 

Written by Anthony A. Amaral in the June 1960 issue.  

Ben Hur scene
Ben Hur drives matched Lippizaners in the climactic chariot race scene from the film, Ben-Hur, based upon Lew Wallace’s novel.

Of the 180 minutes that the acclaimed motion picture, Ben-Hur, is on the screen, the 15-minute chariot race scenes are the most vividly remembered and, the most talked about by movie fans and critics. Unfortunately, the names of Glenn Randall and Yakima Canutt won’t loom large in the credit titles, but they should, since it was the efforts of their combined talents that enabled the cameras to record the galloping sport of the Circus Maximus.

Horse race in Ben Hur
Thirty-six horses line up for the start of the reckless race scenes in the film Ben Hur.

Randall is well known at the Hollywood studios and is popularly associated as the trainer of Trigger. He spent 11 months on location in Italy supervising and training the chariot horses; while Canutt, a former westerns stuntman turned director, ramrodded the action for the cameras.

The entire race sequence was filmed on an 18-acre backlot of the Cinecitta Studios, and required 15,000 extras to emulate the huge crowds that feverishly attended the Roman games. In the center of the sandy arena rested the awesome Spina, a long, huge base on which four towering statues were erected. It was the Spina with its 1,000-foot straightaways around which the chariots raced. During the actual games in Rome, the charioteers raced around the real Spina seven times. Either end of the Spina was the site of many crack-ups, as the drivers attempted to maneuver for position in the original Roman chariot races.

Six months before the cameras would turn, horse experts from M.G.M. Studios were scouting throughout southern Europe for particular horse types. The talent searching finally centered in Yugoslavia, where 70 of the horses were purchased, while eight others of matching color were located in Sicily. Average cost for each horse was $600.

When the horses arrived in Rome by boat, stables had already been erected, and farriers, veterinarians, and 20 stable boys hired full-time to keep a watchful eye on the health and appearances of the troupe. After a few days of rest and adjustment to their new environment, the horses were started in a huge training program by Randall. The first problem was to match the horses for similarity of temperaments, as they would be grouped into teams of four to a chariot. While this psychoanalysis was in process, Randall had to also match them by color. Some of the horses were Lippizaners and no matching problem was confronted with them. Others, however, were matched and sized into sets of bays, browns, and greys. A single set of blacks was assembled for the chariot the villian, Messalla.

Horses jumping in Ben Hur
The Lippizaners were taught to jump a chariot wreckage by Randall for the final scene of the chariot race around the Spina with its 1,000-foot straightaways.

Training began with each horse being taught first to drive individually, and then as pairs, sets of three, and finally as a quartet. All the horses were given this training, although only 36 of them, or nine chariot teams, were to be used in the picture. The others were to “play the roles of doubles, stand-ins, and replacements. Most of them took the training schedule easily, but in several cases it required a full five months of training before a quartet was able to work as a team at full gallop.

The Lippizaner team was tutored in extracurricular training by Randall. These white horses were to be driven by the picture’s star, Charlton Heston, and had to be instructed to rear while hooked to the chariot for the added realism of horses in a frenzy during the race. At the end of the race in the film they perform a jumping stunt that is quite spectacular. In that sequence, Messala attempts to force Ben Hur into the wreckage of two chariots. Instead of avoiding the wreckage, Ben Hur leaps the horses over the crashed vehicles, which in turn lifts the driver and chariot high into the air, and then drives to a spectacular win. Randall spent many weeks training the individual Lippizaners to jump obstacles of progressively higher size, before jumping them as a team.

Ben Hur pulls ahead
Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) pulls ahead of Messala (Stephen Boyd), driving blacks, in the chariot race. The horses were trained in special stunts by trainer Glenn Randall.

Training the horses was only half the problem of photographing authentic scenes. The other half of the problem was recruiting drivers who could handle the chariots. In the film, American stuntmen, most of them horse specialists, and two Italian counterparts drive the chariots in quick turns at the gallop and initiate the chariot crashes. Before the race is over, five chariots will have smashed, spilling the drivers and horses. Upsetting the chariots to gain realism in the film required fancy driving and split-second timing. The chariots used by the stuntmen were also equipped with hydraulic brakes to bring about a sudden flipping over, as well as with well-placed bits of dynamite to cause them to disintegrate as the stuntmen weaved in-and-out or crashed into each other. To insure some safety to the horses, many of the horse spills and the violent effects recorded on the film were the result of camera angles rather than placing the horses in dangerous situations.

As could be assumed from the fast-paced action of the race, unscheduled accidents did occur. The major mishaps, however, consisted of the unpredicted overturning of a couple of the chariots or drivers getting tossed out of the chariots, in addition to the usual numerous cuts, bruises, and blisters. The stuntmen, with their typical agility, were able to avoid serious injuries in all instances.

Rearing horses in Ben Hur
Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur works out the Lippizaners purchased in Yugoslavia.

When the entire sequences were finally filmed after three months’ shooting, the studio auctioned off the horses. Circuses, stables, and horse lovers purchased the bulk of the horses. Randall bought six of them, three of which are Lipizzaners and now housed at his stable in North Hollywood. They will be further trained for future showing in a variety of liberty horse routines.

When asked how he felt about the training of the horses and the filmed product; Randall explained, “It was an exhausting chore. But I’d bet even Nero would have stopped fiddlin’ long enough to watch this race.”

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