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.  

BenHurBen 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.

BenHurpullsaheadBen 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.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.

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

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