Equestrians often say that horses take them on amazing journeys in life. That’s certainly true for trainers Rex Peterson and Cari Swanson. This duo, one with a background in Western riding and the other in dressage, has combined their horse training talents to produce equine actors that have become film stars. Their joint venture – Swanson Peterson Productions – has provided horses and training for dozens of top films including The Horse Whisperer, Sylvester, The Black Stallion movies, Hidalgo, Secretariat and the Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp as Tonto.Their most recent movie venture is a film called Winter’s Tale much of which was filmed on location in New York City stars Russell Crowe, Collin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay. Due to be released Valentine's Day, February 14, it will be the perfect "Date Movie" for people with a passion for horses, not to mention Crowe and Farrell. The equine star in that film is Listo, a white 14-year-old Andalusian stallion trained by Rex and Cari and was recently purchased by dressage rider Ashley Waller of Texas.
Listo plays the role of Athansor, a white horse that serves as guardian angel to Farrell’s character of Peter Lake. Although Listo had the lead, equine actors, like their human counterparts, often have doubles to help carry the load. Listo’s doubles for Winter’s Tale were Zeke, Peaches and Merlin – all horses trained by Rex and Cari. “You can use doubles for scenes that don’t show the head, such as galloping scenes where you just show the legs or scenes of the horse from behind,” Cari said.
At the moment, this bi-coastal movie couple – Rex has a ranch in California and Cari runs the East Coast operation from Windrock Farm in Amenia, New York – is spending their time running back and forth from Windrock Farm to New York City, where they are on location for an upcoming HBO special called The Knick. The Knick is about a New York City hospital in the early 1900s and hence, horses and carriages are needed for the street scenes. Providing horses for production was the easy part, Rex said. Coming up with a dozen carriages of different types was the bigger challenge.
“I drove all over the country and in Canada looking for carriages to buy,” he said. “One day I had as many as 12 carriages hooked up on the set.”
Rex, who has actors such as fellow equestrian "Bobby" Duval on speed dial, has spent decades of his life involved in the movie production business but his success in the movie world results from the lifetime he has spent exploring the relationship between humans and horses. His understanding of that relationship and his ability to connect to horses is evident in the dozens of movies in which he served as head wrangler. Not all of those films have a horse as a central character. Of those that do, perhaps Hidalgo is one of the better known. It was also this film that perhaps best exemplifies Rex’s ability to build a relationship with horses.
Much of Hidalgo was filmed on location in Morocco and Rex had personal knowledge of the challenges of working in that country’s environment. He had also been head wrangler for The Black Stallion, parts of which were also filmed in Morocco. Location shooting for that film was so challenging that when it was over Rex said he “swore I would never do a movie in Morocco again.” He initially turned down Hidalgo because it was being shot in Morocco. But friends convinced him conditions in Morocco had improved since he’d been there and the producers agreed to all of Rex’s demands for production. Rex gave in and took on Hidalgo but said conditions in Morocco weren’t really a whole lot better than the last time he was there. What was better was that he had complete control over anything related to the horses and he needed it.
“You had no fences for hundreds of miles and in the starting line scene you had 120 stallions on that line,” Rex said. The potential for chaos on the set was great and nothing was more important than ensuring horses were all well cared for and under control. What Rex exhibited on the film set for Hidalgo was an ability to keep the star horse, a paint stallion named RJ Masterbug, completely focused on him during shooting regardless of what chaos ensued around him. Twice during filming Rex landed in the hospital. The second time was for bronchitis and the hospital conditions in Morocco were so atrocious that Rex ended up being flown back to California to recover. But with Rex off the set, the entire production company had to pack up and return to California and finish shooting scenes in the California deserts.
“People wanted to know why the whole crew had to return to the U.S. when I left,” Rex said. “They were told that it was ‘because that paint will only listen to him,’ and that was the truth.” Without Rex on the set, RJ, who had been with Rex since the age of three, turned into a very temperamental star.
One could say that RJ is responsible for creating the Rex and Cari team. While Rex was making movies, Cari was building a successful career as a dressage trainer and FEI competitor. When she saw the film Hidalgo, she was so impressed with the horse in the film that she had to meet his trainer. “A friend wanted to introduce me to Rex when he was up in Saratoga Springs working on The Horse Whisperer but I never made it up there. Years later when I saw Hidalgo I was so impressed that I called my friend and said I’d like to meet that horse,” Cari said. At the time Cari was in need of a cover photo for a book jacket and thought a celebrity horse like RJ could help sell the book. She fell in love with the paint stallion when she met him and spent the next two years trying to convince Rex to sell her RJ. He finally relented and she brought the horse to New York.
“And then I started getting calls from people saying they needed a horse for photos or for video and film productions. It was small stuff at first but from that work I just sort of fell into the production business,” Cari said. Slowly, the production jobs became more complicated and Cari reached out to Rex for assistance. A partnership was born and it has blossomed into a successful venture that combines Rex’s decades of film experience and training skills with Cari’s training skills. Cari has found that preparing horses to perform on the set is much like the years of preparation that go into performing in a show ring. What Cari also discovered is her talent for dealing with producers and directors. She knows what the horses can and can’t do and is good at working with the production team to get what they need within the limitations of the horses.
In fact, it is the production aspect of the film business that Cari really enjoys. “I really love being on a set,” she said. “Everyone wants to be there and you have all these experts in all these areas coming together to achieve a common goal. You have tremendous talent on a set that unites to get a project done. There is an excitement on a set and things often don’t go as planned so you are improvising all along the way. It’s a bit like triage. There are always problems like weather or actors or budgets or sets not working. The problem solving is something I enjoy, seeing how it all comes together and can be made to work. It’s this complex puzzle that is just exciting and fun to do. With films you have to find solutions to problems and get it done quickly.”
Life on a movie set is also a learning environment. Cari said she has learned much from trainers on the set who work with other species of animals. “So much is about consistency and repetition, which is really what most horse training is about. It’s about being precise. Rhythm and balance are part of all of it and then you add speed and straightness depending on the discipline. “
It’s a common saying in the equestrian world that horses take you to interesting places and both Rex and Cari can certainly say that. They have been all over the world working on location and giving training clinics. “When you are involved with horses it seems that wherever you go, you end up falling in with horse people. Horses are like a common language and once they are in your blood, they take you on these journeys,” Cari said.
Rex would agree but is also quick to note that while working in the film industry might seem glamorous in reality the work is more often very hard and quite exhausting. Working conditions on location can be tough and days long. And, as with any project, there is also the challenge of managing all the pieces. By Hidalgo Rex had learned the lesson of having control and insisted on having full authority over everything – and everyone – involved with the horses on the set.
“This is not the glamorous job that many imagine,” Rex said. “I am proud of the work I did on Hidalgo but that film took one year of my life and several trips to the hospital. The working environment in Morocco was tough and no one will know what I went through to get horses ready for Morocco. The conditions there were very challenge. Consider just trying to protect the U.S. horses from disease in that country and keeping control over a situation with that many horses.”
One of the other big challenges often faced by Rex and Cari is dealing with actors who must ride but can’t. Cari said they deal with these actors the same way they teach children to ride. “We start kids in a round pen and teach them to ride with their seat and that’s often what we do with actors. But we need to teach them in matter of days so we’ll spend hours with them in the round pen. Still, many actors aren’t really expert riders so much depends on us bringing in horses that are very well trained.”
For his part, Rex is proud of his lifetime of achievements but he sees himself as a dying breed. He got his start in the movie business working with another great trainer – Glenn Randall Sr. who trained the famous Trigger, partner of Roy Rogers. Rex says when he started in the film business there were nearly 200 movie wranglers. Now, he says, there are about 15. “The things we did in Hidalgo will never be done again because everything is becoming computerized,” he said. Hidalgo had scenes with nearly 600 horses running across the desert but computer graphics can now create scenes of herds of horses or hundreds of wagons rumbling across the prairie.
Despite the perceived glamour of being movie wranglers, one must remember that they key to the success that Rex and Cari have had in the business results from their skill as trainers. They think of themselves as trainers first and Rex makes clear it’s the training that he loves most. “You build a relationship with a horse and you turn him loose in a place like Morocco where there is no fence for 500 miles and the only that keeps him with me, is me. Being off camera and having the horse on camera listening to you is what I love,” he said. “I’m proud of the work I’ve done but I’m most proud of the strength of my relationship I build with the horses.”
In truth, despite all the time spent on sets, the bulk of Rex and Cari’s time is actually spent training horses. When not involved in a film project, they are busy working with client horses and giving clinics. This spring they’ll be heading to Europe to teach clinics in England, Germany and Italy. Their training skills cross multiple disciplines – Western riding, dressage, jumping, eventing and even driving. Although known as an FEI competitor, Cari cross trains even her dressage horses in jumping, cross country training and trail riding. At her farm in New York, she’s built a course of obstacles that include tents and tarps, banging cans and varied obstacles dangling from trees in order to have not only the movie horses but also her dressage horses capable of handling any situation. “I see so many horses at dressage shows that are unmanageable on the show grounds. Why not put a better foundation on them?”
You can call them movie wranglers, but they preferred to be defined as trainers. Rex has a simple way of separating those who are real horse trainers and those who pretend to be. “Real horse trainers spend their lives trying to become better horse trainers every day. They are willing to learn from every horse, every day.”