First Look: Horses of ‘The Lone Ranger’

By June 23, 2013
Silver strikes his "hi-yo and away" pose.

Hi-yo, and away! (Photo courtesy Walt Disney Pictures)

Silver and Scout share the screen with Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger, opening July 3 from Walt Disney Pictures.

The glossy re-imagining of the popular TV series that ran from 1949 to 1957 is directed by Pirates of the Caribbean’s Gore Verbinski and features herds of horses trained by Hollywood wranglers Bobby Lovgren and Clay Lilley.

The tale unfolds in the Wild West, with Native American warrior Tonto (Depp) recounting the mythic tales that transformed law school graduate John Reid (Hammer) into a Texas Ranger and masked legend of justice. Costume designer Penny Rose describes the Reid character as “kind of a ‘GQ’ Lone Ranger. He’s naturally got style.”

So of course he has a stylish horse. Silver is an equine icon, right up there with Roy Rogers’ Trigger and Gene Autry’s Champion. Although that “fiery horse with the speed of light” was beloved by millions on the radio programs and television shows, Verbinski was determined to give this Silver something his predecessors didn’t really have: a distinct personality.

In the new movie Silver possesses what Disney production notes seductively describe as “a beguiling combination of mystery, humor, majesty, eccentricity and heroism.” Hey! Is he available for a date Friday night?  “It’s all true!” laughs Lovgren, who concentrated his efforts on Silver and Scout, while Lilley wrangled a band of 80 background players. Silver “is a very talented horse,” Lovgren says.  There were four different Silvers used in the film, but the hero horse was actually named Silver, and is owned by Lilley.

Silver tete-a-tetes with Tonto.

Silver holds his own onscreen with Johnny Depp. (Photo by Peter Mountain)

In the film, Silver has a knack for appearing in unlikely places – in treetops, on a train-top and on the roof of a burning barn. “Silver is a scene-stealer,” confirms Verbinski. “He shows up in the most unexpected places.”

As per the script, the horse “recognizes something special about John Reid,” even when he’s already buried after being left for dead at Bryant’s Gap. “Something very wrong with that horse,” notes Tonto to the Lone Ranger, puzzled by some of the animal’s behavior. Drawing on the themes of Native American mysticism, Tonto determines Silver is John Reid’s “spirit horse,” a being intrinsically connected to the young man, recognizing him as a “Spirit Walker,” one who has been to “the other side” and returned.

With Silver featuring so prominently in the film, it was vital to find not only the perfect horse,  but also the perfect trainer. South African–born Lovgren, whose base of operation is a ranch in Acton, CA, grew up in an equestrian family and was a stable manager and rider in his home country before moving to Los Angeles and training with legendary Hollywood horse wranglers Glenn Randall Sr. and Corky Randall.

Seeking the Perfect Silver

When seeking a stellar Silver, “you have to find ones that play and look the part,” Lovgren said. “You have to find out what their personalities are, what they can and can’t do, whether they jump well, stand quietly for a long time. All these things are very important.” Because the “hero” Silver was owned by Lilley, he was already leagues ahead of the competition, having benefited from years of screen training.

A 10-year-old Thoroughbred–quarter horse mix, Silver is an authentic white horse. That is, he has pink skin and was born white, as opposed to most so-called “white” horses, which are born another color, lighten with age and are technically classified as gray. Conveniently enough, he was named Silver. Lovgren, whose credits include Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, the Zorro films and Seabiscuit, had previously worked with Silver a few years back. “It was nice going in with a horse that I knew and could rely on,” he says.

Silver strolls through an Indian emcampment.

Silver struts his stuff. (Photo by Peter Mountain)

Although Silver performed most of the actions the role required, his back-up,  Leroy, Parrot and Cloud, were called on for specific actions. It’s Cloud who races across the rooftops of Promontory Summit, a sequence that took weeks of preparation with Lovgren, the horse wranglers, and stunt rider Lyn Clarke. “That whole sequence was an unknown,” admits Lovgren, “because that had never been done before, to my knowledge. Our biggest concern, as it is every day, is the animal’s safety, making sure there was no room for error. We had a lot of rehearsals on lower containers, and for that sequence, we patterned the horses so that whenever they went up there they did exactly the same thing over and over again, which normally on a film set never happens because things change from scene to scene.”

Tonto’s mount, known as Scout in the classic television series, was played by two American paint horses, one called Sergeant and the other—believe it or not—called Scout! At least one of them was owned by Disney prior to filming The Lone Ranger (still hanging around the lot looking for carrots after Seabiscuit?).

Lovgren began training Silver, Scout and their cadre four months before filming began at the Horses Unlimited breeding farm a few miles from Albuquerque Studios. “It’s always the slower things that are much more difficult,” notes Lovgren.

“Running, jumping, those are relatively easy. But standing there doing a certain behavior, like picking up a hat, or a bottle, many times in a row, you find out how patient a horse is. The question is how many times the horse can do it before I have to switch to the double, because everything we do is backed up by another horse.”

The Lone Ranger and Tonto, mounted at a precipice in Utah's Monument Valley.

John Ford Point in Utah's Monument Valley. (Photo by Peter Mountain)

Sometimes Lovgren was challenged by not only the horses’ limitations, but his own as well, particularly for a shot of the Lone Ranger and Tonto sitting on their horses on the edge of a cliff at John Ford Point in Monument Valley. “I’m not fond of heights, so that was scarier for me than it was for the horses,” he confesses.

And yes, there is a classic “Hi-yo, Silver” moment where Silver rears up with the Lone Ranger on his back—imbued, of course, with a Verbinski-esque twist. “Honestly, that was one of the easier things,” says Lovgren, “and it was really nice because Armie Hammer did that himself. Armie was really awesome.”

Lovgren had worked with Hammer on the 2012 film Mirror, Mirror, which required him to do some riding. But the actor was by no means a horseman. “It’s very counterintuitive to rear on a horse,” explains Hammer, “because you’d think you go backward, but in reality you have to throw all your body weight forward, because that horse knows where the tipping point is.”

Time for Boot Camp

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer set up a cowboy boot camp at Horses Unlimited where he sent the principal cast to learn to ride, rope and fire a gun for the three weeks preceding principal photography. “Riding horses for two hours a day, throwing lassos for an hour, shooting guns, riding in a wagon, putting on a saddle and taking it off. It was like an immersion project. After just a few days of boot camp, I did more riding than I cumulatively had in my entire life,” Hammer says.

Schooling the talent on horsemanship was the film’s crack wrangling team under the supervision of head horse wrangler Clay Lilley and wrangler gang boss Norman Mull. “A horseman can look at an actor and know that person can’t ride a horse,” says stunt coordinator Tommy Harper. “You can just tell by how they walk up to it, or how they mount and dismount. So teaching them how to look correct was really important.”

Tonto and Scout race alongside the Ranger.

Depp took a spill in this scene, changing horses. (Photo courtesy Walt Disney Pictures)

Depp skipped cowboy boot camp. Not surprisingly, during filming he fell off Scout. The scrape he sustained to his bare chest was inflated to devastating proportions in the media, but Disney actually included the incident in one of its publicity video clips, and the actor’s joking banter afterwards makes plain no serious injury was sustained. He was also doing a pretty mean stunt at the time – climbing off Scout and onto silver, riding shotgun with Reid.

Hammer, too, was pretty much up for anything as far as riding was concerned. “I told him that if the whole acting thing didn’t pan out, he could come work for me anytime because he did a fantastic job with all his stunts,” Harper says.

Hammer admits he was actually a bit nervous. “I’d been on horses before, but I thought, ‘This animal thinks for itself, and that makes me a little nervous. What is it going to do if it sees a bunny?’ But they don’t give you a choice; they just stick you on a horse and say, ‘Go ride!’ It was nonstop fun for three weeks.”

Another principal actor who got a major stunt workout was William Fichtner as the villainous Butch Cavendish. “Bill really embraced that character,” notes Harper. “In one scene, he jumps from a moving train onto his horse, and he really did that.”

Armie Hammer at cowboy boot camp.

Armie Hammer at cowboy boot camp. (Photo courtesy Walt Disney Pictures).

Strangely enough, Fichtner found that incredible stunt considerably less intimidating than the road rig work. “All I can tell you is that jumping out of a 20-mile-per-hour train onto a full galloping horse and landing on an empty saddle was not nearly as nerve-wracking as standing on top of a moving train when it’s flying around the bend!”

James Badge Dale, the New Yorker who plays tough Texas Ranger Dan Reid in the film, came clean about his riding skills when he met with Bruckheimer and Verbinski. “I didn’t have the job yet, and I met with the two of them. Jerry was just sitting quietly, as he often does, observing and listening. Gore asked me if I knew how to ride a horse. I went back and forth with some story, and finally said, ‘Gore, I’m sorry, I have no idea how to ride a horse. I’m from New York City!’ Then Jerry suddenly starts laughing, and said, ‘You’re the first person who’s come in here and told us the truth!’ Then Gore added, ‘Well, you’re going to learn.’ And I did. I learned things about horses that I never thought I would. These wranglers are very good at what they do. They love their horses and they teach you to respect them.”

Props Where They’re Deserved

Also making an important contribution to boot camp was Kris Peck’s prop department, which was responsible for providing the period-correct tack for the horses. They custom made upwards of eighty Western saddles, twenty-five U.S. Cavalry saddles, and thirty Native American saddles. “We have to teach the actors how to take off all their props and look as if they know what they’re doing,” explains assistant prop master Curtis Akin. “They have all kinds of stuff that they’re going to use for the camp scenes, so when they ride up they’re going to get off their horses, pull all this stuff out, lay their saddles around the campfire, and lay their bedrolls out to make camp for the night.”

John Reid with brother Dan Reid and posse.

Hammer as John Reid and James Badge Dale as his brother Dan Reid.
(Photo by Peter Mountain)

There are a million small details that create authenticity in a film. Stetson supplied 30 custom-made white Lone Ranger hats, faithful  down to the period labels inside the brim. The mask was also critical. A couple of slips in the contour and it goes from cowboy to superhero, noted makeup artist Joel Harlow, who created a goat-leather mask that was vacuum-formed to fit over Hammer’s face.

“It fit my face perfectly,” Hammer says. “I remember putting it on and just thinking, ‘Damn, this is badass! This is actually going to be very cool!’”

Tonto and Scout streak across the screen.

Home on the range: the Lone duo race across the Utah plains.
(Photo courtesy Walt Disney Pictures)

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