With Robert Redford, Buck Brannaman, and Rex Peterson in charge, this could be one of the best horse movies ever made.

With Robert Redford, Buck Brannaman, and Rex Peterson in charge, this could be one of the best horse movies ever made.
A troubled Pilgrim stands quietly while Redford works with him. Several horses played the role of Pilgrim. Photo by Elliott Marks, Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures

In 1995, a novel by Nicholas Evans shot to the top of the bestseller list and stayed there for months. There are nearly 1 million hardcovers and 2.5 million paperbacks in print. The book was a lead-pipe cinch to become a movie, and now film buffs and horsemen are anxiously awaiting its release, which was scheduled for the Christmas holidays, but will now be delayed.

Robert Redford directs the movie and also stars as Tom Booker, the “whisperer.” Well-known as an actor, producer, director, and environmentalist, Redford is also a horseman and Utah rancher.

As we all know, many horse films produced by Hollywood are poorly done and riddled with inaccuracies in terms of how horses should be properly ridden and handled. Evidently Redford was determined to not let this happen with The Horse Whisperer because he recruited two of the best trainers in the horse business, Buck Brannaman and Rex Peterson, to help with the film. Buck, who lives near Sheridan, Wyo., ranks as one of the very best equine clinicians today and could certainly be called a horse whisperer. In fact, author Nicholas Evans spent a great deal of time with Buck while researching horse behavior and horse handling for the book. Evans, who lives in England, also visited with Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance.

Buck’s official title for the movie is technical advisor. He coaches Redford on how to work with Pilgrim so the horse overcomes his fear and hatred of people. How this is accomplished, and how Pilgrim’s recovery helps with Grace’s recovery, makes a marvelous story. Seeing it unfold on screen with first-rate actors, both two-legged and four-legged, and with the horse handling done skillfully and accurately, should be a real treat for horsemen. Combine that with the wonderful love story between Tom and Annie, toss in the magnificent Montana scenery, and the movie should surely get two thumbs up from Siskel and Ebert.

Rex Peterson, who lives in Acton, Calif., is a superb Hollywood horse trainer, perhaps the best since the late Glenn Randall, for whom Rex worked for 6 years. Rex is probably best known for training Docs Keepin Time, also known as Justin, who played the title role in Black Beauty. Justin makes a brief appearance in THW as Gulliver.

In THW, four horses are used for the role of Pilgrim, Grace’s horse who becomes so dangerous after the accident. Rex Peterson owns the three horses – High Tower, Cash, and Maverick- who play the traumatized Pilgrim who rears, strikes, and bites at anyone approaching him. One of Buck Brannaman’s horses, a registered Thoroughbred gelding named Kentucky Pet, is the “gentle” Pilgrim.

Considering that author Nicholas Evans had little or no horse experience before writing the book, he did a masterful job of getting most of the “horse stuff” accurate. However, there are a few incidents that do not ring true. For example, a Montana cow ranch having an equine swimming pool (a pond is used in the movie), and how Booker is killed.

One might also wonder if a horse who was kind and gentle before a tragic accident could be so traumatized that he turns vicious, as Pilgrim does. When asked if this could happen, Rex replied, “Oh, yes. The trauma of a wreck and being severely injured, sewn up, and doctored can certainly cause a horse to turn bad. I’ve seen a lot of horses mishandled after being treated get so bad you could hardly do anything with them.”

The Story Line

Although the movie closely parallels the book, Redford has made a couple of major changes. One involves the love that slowly and quietly grows between Tom and Annie, and which is an integral part of the story. Although the romance plays an important part in the movie, it isn’t interpreted the same as in the book.

Annie Tom
Kristin Scott Thomas, who stars as the hard-driven Annie, with Redford. Photo by Elliott Marks, Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures

I asked Katherine Orloff, publicist for the movie, why Redford changed it. She replied, “I’ve never directly asked Bob why. But my feeling is that he believes the story as we tell it in the film is a little bit more consistent with his vision of who Tom Booker is. What Bob did say to me at one point, and I think he feels very strongly about this, is that people want to believe there is such a man in the world as Tom Booker.”

And such a man would perhaps handle things a little bit differently than what takes place in the book.

We are not divulging the specific changes because, as Katherine said, “If the audience knows these things (changes) going in, it will take away from their experience of seeing the film.”

She also added, “I think that this is probably one of the most important horse movies made in a very long time. There have been some wonderful horse movies, such as The Black Stallion, but this one is completely different. It’s very much about human relationships with horses. Its message is very positive about the respect and trust between man and horse, and what incredible rewards that can bring.”

More on the Horses

Pilgrim bolts from the stall when Redford tries to approach him. Photo by Elliott Marks, Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures

As mentioned earlier, several horses play the difficult role of Pilgrim, and Rex Peterson provided three of what he refers to as “fighting” horses. On cue, such a horse rears, charges, paws, or bites … whatever the scene calls for.

Rex’s No. 1 fighting horse is the 14-year-old gelding High Tower. A race-bred Quarter Horse, High Tower is not registered because he was a catch colt, the result of a teaser stallion getting loose one night and breeding an expensive mare. Rex bought High Tower years ago and has used him as a ranch and movie horse and for dressage, open jumping, driving, team penning, and roping wild bulls. “It’s easier to tell what we haven’t done with him,” Rex grinned.

For this movie, High Tower’s greatest attribute is the ability to instantly “fight” on cue and instantly shut off on cue. He can be likened to a police K-9 dog who charges after a bad guy on cue but stops dead in his tracks when so ordered. Rex said teaching a horse to fight is easy. “It’s teaching him to stop when you tell him that’s the hard part.”

High Tower excels at this, and Rex said, “I’m not afraid to let him get right in your face because he’ll quit when I tell him.”

With that said, Rex gave me a personal demonstration. I stood next to him, and High Tower was about 10 feet away when Rex cued him to charge. Even though I trusted Rex, I instinctively jumped back when this 1,200-pound horse suddenly thundered toward us. But right on cue, High Tower stopped inches away from where I had been standing.

Because High Tower is so honest and responds instantly to cues, he was the horse Rex always used when Redford was between them. In other words, when Pilgrim was charging Redford, Rex stood behind Redford, off camera, cueing the horse. Rex trusted High Tower to stop before freight-training the star.

What’s really amazing is how quickly High Tower turns off his “anger.” After charging, attacking, or doing a biting scene, he stands calmly and quietly as if he’d been munching hay. Rex’s No.2 and 3 horses are not that way.

Says Rex: “It takes about 30 minutes for the No.2 horse (Cash) to turn it off and forget it. The No. 3 horse (Maverick) … well, a fight scene is no game with him. We have to be ultra-careful with him.” Both Cash and Maverick have racing Quarter Horse bloodlines.

Mike Boyle, Rex’s brother-in-law, was the head wrangler for the movie. He told me that shooting in the stall, in Connecticut where Pilgrim was confined after the accident, was extremely difficult. First of all, the horse playing Pilgrim bad to be very disinterested because he didn’t like people, he had no human friends, and he was in bad condition. He’s all to himself and doesn’t want anything to do with people or other horses. He stands off in a corner until feed is thrown into the stall. Then he has to come up like a wild horse.”

Shooting a fight scene in that stall was complicated because the stall was so tight and because the horse had to express just the right attitude, then charge. Added Mike, ” It took days to get it, then we had to reshoot due to some lighting problems. So we brought the ‘detention stall’ to Montana to set up and do it all over again. We finally got a great fighting scene.”

Incidentally, Mike’s wife (Rex’s sister), Shelley, is a stunt rider who played the role of Judith, riding Justin, in the accident

Another equine star not mentioned yet is Buck Brannaman ‘s Rambo, who plays the role of Rimrock, Tom Booker’s No. 1 horse. Rambo, registered with the AQHA as Rambo Roman, is by True Roman, a descendant of Fair Truckle (TB). Buck has owned the 10-year-old Rambo for 5 years. Buck first saw the bay when he was brought to one of Buck’s clinics as a 3-year-old for starting under saddle.

Buck’s wife, Mary, describes Rambo as being extremely sensitive to the rider, operating off featherlight cues. But Mary added that Rambo seems to adjust to other riders less skilled than Buck. That includes most of the rest of us.

One of Buck’s colleagues and protégés, Curt Pate of Helena, Mont., served as assistant technical advisor. His wife, Tammy, also had a bit part as one of the ropers in the branding scene.

This article was originally published in the December 1997 issue of Western Horseman.


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