War Horse is the story of the unbreakable bond between a young man and his horse. But it’s set during one of the darkest, most violent periods in human history: World War I. Joey the horse charges in battle, pulls cannons up a muddy hill and even finds himself lost in the infamously dangerous trenches of no-man’s-land. Real horses performed nearly every single stunt in the movie — except for the dangerous scenes, like the ones in which Joey ensnares himself in barbed wire or falls into a trench, which had to be fudged with the help of CGI. TIME talked to the film’s head horse trainer, Bobby Lovgren, about his work on War Horse, why young foals make the most difficult subjects to train and how he persuaded a horse to jump over a tank.
Horses are animals of flight — they scare so easily. Before you start training, how do you know whether or not a horse will be good for a movie?
We pick seasoned show horses or horses that have been exposed to crowds before; horses that have been in parades make good subjects. Any jumping or rodeo experience will give horses some exposure too, so that when we train them they aren’t starting from scratch. For a movie like War Horse, where we have to train very young foals and 2-year-olds that haven’t been anywhere, that’s where my knowledge of horsemanship comes in.
The film is set during World War I. How do you get horses comfortable with gunshot and cannon sounds?
We’ll do something like make a loud noise in the distance and then slowly bring it closer and closer. We’ll submit them to smoke screens, popping sounds — basically try to show them a lot of different things and take them to as many locations as we can before we actually shoot anything. It’s just a lot of preparation.
How many horses did you use for War Horse? And how do you get them to all look alike?
We trained 14 horses of all ages and sizes but only ended up using about 10. War Horse follows the horse from a foal to adulthood, so we could fudge on sizes a bit. But color is important. We used Andalusians, warm bloods and only one thoroughbred — my personal horse, Finder. You try to get horses with a similar natural color but if not, you can always use makeup.
You used your personal horse, Finder, a lot in the film. What’s he like?
He’s 12 years old. I worked with Finder on [the 2003 film] Seabiscuit and when it was over, I bought him. This year he’ll appear in the Snow White movie with Julia Roberts. He’s got one of the most unique personalities of any horse I’ve trained. Horses have specialties, just like [human actors]. Finder’s the one I use whenever I need a horse to appear wild or panicked or out of control. The horse can’t actually be out of control, of course, so it’s difficult for many horses to do that convincingly. In War Horse, Finder is the horse that breaks away from the officers when he’s first sold to the military, and we also used him to jump over the tank.
How do you get a horse to jump over a tank?
More on how they treated and handled the horses on set: http://www.americanhumanefilmtv.org/on-the-set-war-horse/