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Saturday, May 4. 2013
"Well, howdy there, nei-ei-ei-ei-gh-bor!"
I credit Mr. Ed (played by the incomparable Bamboo Harvester) for initiating a lifelong love of horses within me, although why they would train a horse to harvest bamboo is anybody's guess. Remember how he used to move his lips to the words? Trick photography? CGI? Someone glued some puppet strings to his lips and pulled on them? By way of Wikipedia, here's the lovable Wilbur, himself, played by Alan Young:
For you equinistic aficionados out there, below the fold I'll review a number of horse-related movies and documentaries and provide over ten video clips of some choice moments. I'll also drag the concept of Intelligent Design into the mix, then we'll examine four ways a single person can manually bring down a horse to lying flat on its side, then touch upon the mysterious 'fifth gait' and its role in ancient history.
Just another day at the races.
Since I piqued your curiosity with that Intelligent Design remark, let's get to it first.
From the 'Misc' page in Doc's Bag O' Clips:
I'll review these in the order I watched them. I saw Seabiscuit and the documentary years ago, Secretariat a few months ago, and the rest within the past week, which inspired this post. As usual, all DVD clips are high quality and designed to be played in full-screen mode.
Seabiscuit — This remains my pick of the litter. Superb story line, directing, casting, music score, and with a delightful touch of the surreal as it occasionally morphs into a black & white newsreel documentary denoting Seabiscuit's fame as seen from the masses. If you want to see William H. Macy at his comedic best, here ya go. A clever, engrossing movie from first minute to last.
Since I already had a clip from it on one of my sites, I'll just use it here. It's in the 'Music' section of my Bag O' Clips as part of a collection of movies that use a very understated music score during the action scenes. In this case, a soft acoustic guitar and some guy humming along during the mad fury of a horse race. But it puts most of the above accolades on display, as well as the sharp photography and editing.
Secretariat — Also a marvelous movie, in particular because the woman they cast for the lead (Diane Lane) was absolutely brilliant. Rather than playing the usual Hollywood role of 'tough business gal' (see The Horse Whisperer, below), she epitomized the word resolute. She never lost her charm and femininity, yet never wavered a step from her allotted path. The scriptwriters have to be given a special hat tip for this one because they set the table, and Lane carried it off to perfection.
The only down side is that John Malkovich, who I usually think is outstanding, plays a French horse trainer and earned the ignoble "Worst Accent In The History of Cinema" award from every critic on the planet. Don't give up your day job, John.
I'd only add that the horse they used was friggin' awesome. Secretariat was supposed to be pretty hefty in real life, and they found the perfect
Here are two merged news conferences with a dash of humor. There's a clip of Big Red down below.
The Horse Whisperer — What a disappointment this thing was. Not only did Robert Redford not do much whispering to the horses, but the main characters played horribly Hollywoodish stereotypical roles. She was the tough business gal, taking no prisoners, unafraid to crush underlings beneath the iron heel of her size 7 pumps. A first-class bitch, in other words. But within days of being around the rough, tough cowboy, she's acting like a 14-year-old girl on a date with a pop idol. Simpering might be the word.
Her kid is the most sour, ungrateful, wretched person you've ever met... until everybody else goes to elaborate, sometimes dangerous, lengths to tame her damn horse and she finally gets to ride it. And just look at what a happy little girl she is!
Redford really wimped out in a couple of places when he should have actually been the rough, tough cowboy he was portraying — and why the handsomest over-60 cowboy in a radius of 1,200 miles would fall for The Bitch From Business Hell is anybody's guess. Anyway, she leaves him in the final minutes, so I'm delighted to report that the movie has a happy ending.
Buck — A documentary on Buck Brannaman, the 'horse whisperer' Redford's character in the movie was (extremely very roughly) based on. This documentary is eminently engaging from start to finish.
One thing it highlights is that horses don't need to be 'broken' in the traditional way. Like dogs, the trick is to first get them interested in learning for its own sake, then the real tricks come easily afterward. Why get them to perform through fear when you can get them to want to do it?
What's particularly notable about the DVD is how much common sense Buck passes along during a single session. The adages and axioms, gems, nuggets and mots just pour out of the guy in the following. And what he does with the horse is, well, typical Buck.
Horses Of The World — The 'world' part of the title is just a wee bit misleading. It takes place at a dressage school in Vienna. Perhaps they meant the school was 'of the world', not the horses. The second part was inside a traveling Swiss circus and some of the dressage was fairly impressive. And I'm forced to admit you don't often get to see a lot of giraffe-busting.
Dressage is the art of teaching horses to step, jump and run instantly in various directions upon command, including sidestepping and lying down. It was originally used to train horses during World War I to step around land mines and such, then became an actual discipline. If you see a bunch of circus horses doing a sideways shuffle in tandem, that's dressage at the max. From this point of view, the movie was quite interesting, and the old guy who started the school really did have a masterful way of handling them.
Oh, wait, did I say 'jump' up above? Surely, I meant performing the airs above the ground.
Bottom line? If you're racing across enemy territory on horseback and suddenly spot a land mine directly in front of you, you want your horse to know the corvette.
It also apparently needs to come with a small disclaimer. A number of reviewers on Netflix criticized it because it wasn't "accurate", but it's not trying to be a documentary, it's trying to be — as it says in the title — a story. As such, there are actors (the horses), scripted lines ("Nei-ei-ei-gh!"), and it wasn't 'accurate' in the sense that, for one, horses won't run miles into unfamiliar territory away from the nearest herd as one of these did. But the three stories are nicely done and it's certainly worth the rental. And the three
Personal note: I've seen lots of newborn puppies and kittens over the years, and some of them were the cutest little rascals in the galaxy, but none of them touched me half as much as the above does. The birth of a horse seems to be one of God's greatest touches; Mother Nature at her apex; evolution in its finest hour. From the spindliest of starts comes one of the most brilliantly intuitive creatures on the planet, and, unlike every other creature out there, one that's perfectly designed for us. Puppies and kittens are cute, but there's something about the above that borders on the edge of magical.
Next, let's take a look at two things, both the PETA-inspired age we're living in, as well as answering what sounds like a damn good question on the face of it. We'll harken back to the days when men were still men and animals were still animals — as crazy as that sounds.
From the IMDb 'Trivia' section for The Shawshank Redemption:
I presume no further commentary on the state to which reality has sunk is necessary.
So, imagine how refreshing it was to be watching The Outlaw Josie Wales the other night and see the following. In any movie made today, the horses falling off the raft would have to be computer-generated, simply because the 'animal cruelty' complaints would come roaring in. Imagine, if you dare: actually using the animals in the movie as...animals!
The modern mind recoils in horror at the very thought.
Under the same heading, the following scene without question would have been viewed by the American Humane Society and PETA as "undue cruelty to animals" because — wait for it — they were treating the horses like... horses!
Here's Clint exhibiting a feat that, in a way, is truly amazing. How does a 175-pound man bring a 2,000-pound animal completely to the ground?
There are actually three interesting things to note about that last clip. Not only (1) is this an actor pulling this off, but (2) from what I can tell listening to his footsteps with headphones during the break between horses, this was all done in one take, and (3) notice how he actually uses two different take-down methods; letting the first horse 'walk' itself backward into the ground, but actually manhandling the second one down using sheer leverage, as nicely illustrated in the preview pic.
Which isn't to say those are the only two ways to bring down a horse, of course. Watch how he bends the forelock of the last horse to trigger the chain of events.
From Secretariat, here's a marvelous remake of the above:
What a unique, incredible creation the horse is.
And then there's the mysterious fifth gait. A horse naturally has four gaits (walk, trot, canter and gallop), but ancient history resounds with stories of a mysterious, arcane fifth gait whose manner of teaching was known only to an elite few. Like the wheel, entire civilizations rose and fell without discovering it, and given that it probably increased the accuracy of the cavalry and their arrows by 500%, it was an immense advantage in battle for the few civilizations that discovered and used it.
Ever tried to shoot an arrow at an enemy on the battlefield from a galloping horse? Of course you have. Not quite as easy as the movies make it look, is it? You're bouncing all over hell and gone.
Now try it from what today is commonly called the pace:
Here's a decent example. Note how the guy's bobbing up and down while the horse is galloping, then how he suddenly smooths out at the far bend (right behind the first tent) as he shifts it into battle mode, then watch him kick that sucker into gear on the backside.
Ironically, today the gait has been reduced to the lowly role of carriage races, but it certainly had its day of mystery and glory.
Hail to thee, noble steed.
Posted by Dr. Mercury in The Culture, "Culture," Pop Culture and Recreation at 09:30 | Comments (47) | Trackback (1)
These are what I consider my better pieces: "Do these genes make me look fat?" — As these things go, this is probably the most official 'exposé' on the site. It's amazing how we're being lied to. Beautiful Camp Elmwood — I just l
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On the comedic front, there was a movie where Bob Hope and Trigger where sharing a bed - each stealing the covers from the other (don't remember the name, but the snippet is on Youtube). Trigger must have been a VERY intelligent, too.
I also remember a movie in the '60s about the Lipizanner stallions (being saved during WWII, IIRC). Wonderful horses.
The Lone Ranger's 'Silver' was also pretty sharp. They'd sit around the campfire at night playing 5-card stud and Silver would constantly out-bluff poor old Tonto.
Zorro's horse 'Tornado' was also no slacker. There were some great horse scenes in 'Mask of Zorro'.
Just to note, I never referred to them as 'smart' or 'intelligent' up above, just briliantly intuitive. In that regard, they're dumb as a fence post, but that's another reason the Intelligent Design people should be taking a closer look. You don't want a 'smart' beast of burden, you want one that's intuitive and responds instantly to your every command. That's how you both stay alive. A 'smart' animal would figure it knows the best way down the steep mountainside and tumble you both into the abyss.
With regard to the term 'intelligence' and its use with horses, I'd have to say they aren't all that smart.
Smart in some ways? Easy to develop habits you want them to develop, very Pavlovian.
But smart? I've heard it explained this way to me. A horse will carry a load that it's not designed to carry, far more weight than it should. It will carry it until it falls from exhaustion and dies.
Mules, meanwhile, won't budge if you overburden them. They are called stupid and stubborn.
Which is smarter?
"Which is smarter?"
Gosh, that's an easy one.
The animal who uses the beast of burden. :)
Yeah Bulldog, but can a mule play poker? :-)
It reminds me of all the cats (or dogs) are smarter that dogs (or cats) arguments. I always maintained that dogs were smarter since they learned tricks to their own benefit (a treat) whereas cats are thought to be smarter because they are aloof and don't play childish human games. But a cat generally doesn't make the connection between a treat and a trick (or it could be that their relationship to food is different!).
Muds - They're still talking about dogs and cats in the 'Who's smarter" category? Gosh, I thought that had been settled by now. Shows what I know!
Of course a mule can play poker. Just not with you. Or anybody, dangit, and you can't make them.
I love animals but I'm not particularly a "horse person." I am too worried about trusting my life to animal that I don't find particularly tractable or smart. But, I respect the opinion of those who hold the opposite view. Just as my brother is a very much a cat guy and I am dog guy (obviously).
I ha a very good friend, really more the age of my parents than me, who was more at ease amongst a large number of horses than amongst a crowd of people. His horse was named "Ichabod." Icky was a good dude.
Are you a fan of the Icelandic horses with their additional gaits?
Knucks - That last clip was from an Icelandic competition. A Google search for "horse riding gaits pace" pulled up a number of Icelandic events and individuals, so they're obviously really into it. And while I saw a few other clips of horses doing the pace, none of them touched the speed that guy got out of it. For an unnatural gait, that horse was smokin'.
I believe Mongolian horses and Peruvian horses also have this smooth gait.
Tom - In the future, please leave the satire to professionals. :)
"that I don't find particularly tractable or smart."
I was at a family reunion in Colorado a number of years ago, and we decided to go on a horse ride. There were about ten horses, and we're poking along the side of some real steep mountain. Looking down, it looked like we would have tumbled for 10 minutes if the horse had slipped.
On the horse in front of me is a 9-year-old girl. Behind me is a mom and a young'un.
Given the potential for lawsuits, I figured if the riding company trusted the horses that much, then they're probably a lot more sure-footed than they might appear. Or, to use your word, tractable, uh, because they have such good traction on tracts of land.
Something like that. :)
I have a long love/hate relationship with horses going back to when my two lovely and charming daughters wanted their own horses. So being a doting father, and having enough land and barn to properly house, pasture and ride on, I purchased 2 ea. Horse - Haflinger. The theory being that, on the one hand, they are slightly larger than a pony for the smaller one but at the same time robust enough for the bigger one. Problem solved.
Well, not really as it turned out. For one thing, they weren't the brightest animals on the face of the earth. I'm used to working with Border Collies and Aussie Cattle Dogs - which are pretty close to the ideal of intelligent animals - so working with horses became something of a trial.
Then came the vet bills - large animal vets have a racket let me tell you. The slightest little damn thing wrong and it's $150 down the drain plus meds if necessary. Finding a competent farrier was almost an impossibility - I did manage to find one who was very good but he had to drive from Leominster, MA and that wasn't cheap as I had to pay him for travel time.
Feed was another cost factor even though I owned 100 acres of highly sought after 50% alfalfa and the rest a mixture of timothy, orchard grass, redtop and a variety called tall fescue. It still cost me $2.25/bale to harvest - first cut was always a loss and generally used for bedding, second cut I sold half of and third cut I kept for the horses.
Then came the goats to keep the horses "company". Pygmy goats. PiTA Pygmy goats. Ever try to keep goats in a pasture or paddock? You have to lock the damn things down like Fort Knox to keep them in one area. And that ain't cheap.
Then came the horse riding "lessons" at $35/hr (at that time - I understand they are up to around $50/hr now), the proper clothes (heavens they didn't have the proper clothes for whatever) and blah, blah, blah, two saddles, English and Western, blankets....ugh....
Then came the custom trailer to take the horses around to all the horsey shows (most boring exhibition on the face of the planet) where the kids dressed up in their English riding outfits on their English saddles on their horses, did their thing, then back to the holding area to change into their Western outfits, change the saddle and so their Western thing....my blood pressure is rising as I just think about it.
It also turned out that the Haflinger isn't exactly the best horse for shows so the badgering started for quarter horses. At that point, I put my foot down and said that's it - no more horses.
I could continue but I think you get the concept here. They were beautiful animals - gorgeous really. And to tell the truth, friendly and not at all mean tempered. Eventually, the riding tapered off as they became interested in boys and cars and high school sports. One of the local farmers bought them from me to use a sleigh horses for his tree farm, his Summer carriage rides and Fall hay rides in his orchard.
He also bought the damn goats. As I understand it, the goats became the center piece of the annual Jamaican celebration at the end of harvest season before the workers went back home. I'll leave that one to your imagination and just say that it was a well deserved end to their existence.
Years ago, I found a website that claimed Mr. Ed was a zebra. It was a terrific hoax, and one I loved to forward around just to see and hear reactions.
At one point, I'm pretty sure even Snopes fell for the zebra hoax, but maybe they did it for April Fool's Day. Still, it was terrific laying out the case on why he was a zebra and seeing people stare.
I've owned two racehorses, and I can say they are wonderful and intelligent animals. The group I purchased these horses through is still around and doing quite well, now that they've learned the game. I should've stuck it out, but there were demands at home for the money I was sending to the horses. Someday I will get back in the business.
Another complaint about "Secretariat" is the way they did some timeline shifting. Penny's barn was not in default at the time Secretariat joined them. It had been in default years before, but Penny was an excellent businessperson and had already saved it. Anybody who is unfamiliar with horse racing wouldn't have noticed, so it made for a better story.
I agree, Malkovich was miscast.
BTW, Penny Chenery makes an appearance in the movie.
Also, I love Diane Lane. My wife is aware, thankfully, so I'm just waiting for Diane to realize we were meant for each other and call me. It can happen.
Because someone may mention how I describe them as intelligent here, but not smart in another comment, I realized I should clarify.
They learn their habits quickly and easily. In watching a jockey and trainer work with a horse, you can tell how successful the relationship will be early on. A good trainer, or a good jockey, will learn to work with a horse's quirks and needs quickly. They learn the things the horse likes, and tailor their training and race day strategy to suit the horse, rather than relying on the horse to 'figure it out'. Horses may be intelligent, but they are not intuitive.
"Seabiscuit" covers this (the book does a better job of it than the movie) when they discuss preparations for the big race. The trainer switches out the bells, and in addition walks the track to find the preferred lane over which Seabiscuit would find a desirable route.
So the term 'intelligence' is really one of how well we transfer our own intelligence to them, and get them to respond to our cues via habit. Which they are very good at doing.
Minor quibbles: dressage predates WWI by centuries (if not millennia, the earliest training is by Xenophon, pre-Christ)
And dressage movements have nothing to do with avoiding land mines; instead, they exhibit the skill and training level of the rider and his horse.
Modern dressage competition no longer includes the "airs above the ground", either. You will only find those in some European schools of equitation.
Surely horses owe their ability to run fast and far to their need to outrun predators? Modern horses, of course, have been bred for millennia to suit their captors' needs, just as wolves have been turned into dogs. Humans put huge selective pressure on their domesticated animals, and get faster results than random-chance natural selection usually does.
Humans have gotten dog genetics so finely-tuned you'd swear Lamarck was right about the inheritance of aquired traits.
Dressage training was actually begun by cavalry officers in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, as a way to create officers' mounts that would respond instantly to the slightest, most precise direction of the rider during a battle (or on long treks in mountainous areas).
If you can establish a standardized system of communication that lets riders tell their horses "go sideways one step; now go back two steps; now go forward at a walk (or trot, or canter, or whatever)", both horse and rider are much safer in unfamiliar and potentially dangerous situations.
Modern dressage takes this old-school cavalry training and creates a complicated pattern of steps and moves at various levels of skill for both horse and rider.
One of my favorite horse-related Hollywood movie sequences is in the 1993 film Hard Target.
Wilford Brimley hams it up as Jean-Claude Van Damme's bayou-dwelling French Cajun uncle; at one point (of course) Brimley has to come to Van Damme's aid against various bad guys.
Before he became an actor, Brimley was a rodeo rider; he also used to bow-hunt.
So about two-thirds of the way through Hard Target, there's a lengthy shot of Brimley (all 200+ pounds of him) riding hell-bent-for-leather on a big old chestnut, shooting arrows at the bad guys from horseback and screaming in Cajun French.
It's totally and completely awesome!
John Woo's "first stateside outing", according to Netflix. I originally didn't queue it up because it sounds a bit corny, but with that kind of ringing endorsement, I had to.
I studied dressage for a decade, and in that time I dropped serious amounts of money on boarding, coaching, vanning, tack, vets, proper show attire and so on. That being said, there is no feeling in the world like working alone in the arena with a splendid horse who is interested in the task at hand, who is obedient, intelligent, playful and willing, responding to "invisible aids" (the imperceptible movements of hands, feet and legs signaling the horse to change leads, direction, collection or speed).
Man walks into a bar. Bartender, a horse, says, "Hey, why the short face?"
A fun to read post, Doc.
I liked Mr. Ed back in the day. I believe there are episodes out there on youtube.
A movie not mentioned that I liked ..... Casey's Shadow.
We had 4 or five horses over the years. Their primary function was to serve as pasture ornaments.
We never rode them much so when we needed them to chase cattle, they were only good for about a quarter mile or 15 minutes, which ever came first. After that, they were exhausted and refused to go anymore.
And all but one found a creative way to die.
We have moved on to a 4WD ATV. It doesn't eat everyday and doesn't get tired chasing cows.
Horses are beautiful, graceful creatures, but as Capt. Tom alludes, they are a money pit.
Glad you enjoyed, old buddy. As far as Cap'n Tom goes, see the word "Cap'n" in that title? That means "captain". That means he has in the past or currently owns a BOAT.
And anyone who purposefully owns a BOAT immediately loses all credence when it comes to knocking the cost of other endeavors. Because Cap'n Tom knows what the word BOAT stands for:
Break Out Another Thousand!
Owning one of those BOAT things, myself, I'll take the cost of hay and vet shots any day.
'Casey's Shadow' has been added to my Netflix queue and thankee kindly.
You should try the movie Phar Lap which is about an Australian race horse in the 30's. It is hard to find but it is a good movie
Thanks for the tip. The good news: it's on Netflix. The bad news: the availability is "unknown". Hmph.
I saw Phar Lap some years back. The movie was interesting but I wouldn't want to watch it again.
I know people who swear to this day that Mr. Ed could actually talk.
BTW, Alan Young is still around. He's an Englishman who had a particularly affecting role in the 1950s movie Time Machine, and he also did the voice of Uncle Scrooge in Ducktales, one of my favorites.
Proof a horse can talk
Cannot believe you left out "Hot to Trot" with John Candy as voice of the horese named Don. Also, The Great Dan Patch is one of my favorites.
Never heard of it. Looked it up on Netflix, not there. Looked it up on the IMDb, and, interestingly, there was only one entry in the 'Trivia' section, and nothing to denote why it's been relegated to the trash heap when it's got an A-Listers like John Candy and Dabney Coleman in it. Oh well!
Wow, what a post. I just dumped most of these in the Netflix queue. 'Buck' looks almost unbelievable. What's he using, mental telepathy? Secret hand signals? Puppet strings tied to their legs? CGI? I'm really looking forward to that one.
Yes, giraffe-busting. You know what horse-busting is? Just picture the same thing but with a really long neck. It's a circus and has giraffes to compliment the elephants, and a young 'colt' was being de-feralized in order to join the troupe.
As for Buck, I'm going with invisible puppet strings attached to their legs. It's certainly the most plausible explanation.
As a horse lover since day one, this is probably my favorite post on the internet. I've sent the link to lots of people over the past few years and they always write back in the positive.
I rewatched 'Secretariat' last night as I always do the night before "The Greatest Most Frantic Two Minutes In Sports". As soon as I saw "Frac Daddy" listed, I thought the same thing Erika did. Nothin' like good publicity!
Thanks again for the marvelous post. How great it is to be living in the internet age.
"How great it is to be living in the internet age."
Uh-yup. I have a related post here. Great, indeed! Have a fun race today.
I've seen a suv in my town with this on the back window:
EQUUS KEEPUS BROKUS
Lovely post, minor quibble already mentioned, dressage dates back to the Renaissance and picks up where Xenephon left off. Actually, there is a solid argument that it picks up from the Crusades but the evidence is less direct.
There is nothing like working with a horse, when you and it are in perfect communication, it is very hard to achieve in any discipline (my opinion of many of the current dressage trainers: flailing giraffes). But that feeling, when you get it, that you and the horse are one? nothing like it in my experience, perhaps a good waltz partner might be the closest. Except your waltz partner (in my case) weighed in at 1000 lbs and had a top speed of 35mph, ex-thoroughbred racehorse turned eventer.
Back in the '80s there was a Government program through which you could buy a wild pony from out West. IIRC, there were sizable herds of them, but too many for the land they were confined to. So they would catch them and sell them dirt cheap + shipping, absolutely no training. Transplanted wild horse.
My cousin Tom had three Quarter-horses. He had bought them for his three daughters, but they had all left for college, so I used to ride them. Then I went off to college, so they got lonely. Or one of the daughters decided they were lonely. She prevailed on Tom to get one of these wild horses.
I heard about this; so home from college during a break, I went to visit the horses. The wild one was - hilarious. Leaner and runtier than the Quarters. Standoffish. Would follow the other horses into the corral, but stand on the other side when I was in there. I would bring a treat in for the Quarters, and I think he just couldn't stand it, watching the three other horses go crowd around me. You could tell he was just sort of beside himself and wanted in on whatever I was doling out but couldn't make himself break in. Almost dancing in frustration.
Eventually he got used to people & would come right over to you, but he never got comfortable with you being around his hindquarters, so you had to be careful about that.
But one of the funniest thing I ever saw was his reaction when I saddled up and mounted one of the Quarters. He was flabbergasted. You could see question marks and exclamation points flying out his ears. I rode the Quarter out into the field and he followed, running circles around us trying to figure out just what the heck was going on. When we came back to the corral his curiosity got the better of him & when I started removing the tack, combing & etc. he came right over to watch. Stood stock still and stared. Came right up behind me to look over my shoulder, breathing on me. I slung the saddle on the fence and he sniffed and nibbled at it. It was very funny.
Great story! Must have been kind of confusing from the tame horses' point of view, as well.
"Say, as long as this guy's passing out the treats, shouldn't we invite Mr. Loner over?"
"What, are you kidding? That means less treats for us!"
"Mm, good point. Pass the salt."
On the subject of wild horses, there's a very interesting documentary called "Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies" out there.