Hollywood Horses

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Does Justin (on the left) look familiar ? He should. This 15-year-old Running Quarter Horse by Docs Keepin’ Time, and owned by Hollywood horse trainer Rex Peterson, has a show business resumé that would make any Oscar winner envious.

Justin was the major animal player in “The Adventures of the Black

Stallion” television series, and has appeared in at least 40 films. Justin actually is a black stallion, confirms Peterson, of Acton, California.

Peterson, 47, remembers the initial casting for the Family Channel’s series. “The studio had already bought three Arabians, but they weren’t movie horses. I’d been looking at Justin for some time at a racetrack and bought him just in time for the show. The first week of shooting, Mickey Rooney got on him, rode him around the set, got off and then turned him loose in the middle of everyone. Justin was perfectly behaved. Rooney liked him so much that he refused to work with the Arabians.”

Making a great horse isn’t as easy. Peterson subscribes to solid, all-around training and horsemanship, and lots of it. It’s a trait he acquired from the revered Glenn Randall, Sr., trainer of “Trigger,” Roy Roger’s famed trick horse. Peterson, who spent 15 years with Randall, owes his unwavering persistence and commitment to excellence to the veteran.

“Glenn got up in the morning talking about his horses, and went to bed doing it, 365 days a year. He believed in his horse, and in consistency. He trained horses to do what no one ever has.”

With 15 performers currently in his stable, Peterson is immersed in a project with “seven black horses. I can’t tell you what it is, but it’s scheduled to be released in mid-2002.”

On “The Horse Whisperer” with Robert Redford, Peterson brought seven sorrel horses and six black, all of whom played major roles in the memorable opening truck-wreck scene that was ultimately shot, then re-shot, in two locations.

Years earlier, Peterson’s first full-length feature and introduction to Redford had been on the set of “Electric Horseman.” In the case of “The Horse Whisperer,” it was Peterson’s other silver screen star, Hightower, an 18-year-old sorrel Running Quarter Horse, that stole the show. Peterson remembers his pre-production meeting with Redford to discuss horses for “The Horse Whisperer.” The film’s producers had already selected horses that Peterson ultimately deemed inappropriate for the work. He does not believe in taking on a project with performers trained by someone else.

“I waited for Redford to show, and then Hightower got his attention. He was impressed,” recounts Peterson.

Hightower and Peterson have shared some memorable occasions, both off screen and on. “Once we were roping wild bulls in Simi Valley and the horse actually took several hookings. One bull carried us 20 feet or more. The horse was fine.”

Another story transpired on the Kurt Russell film, “Winter People,” where Hightower had to simulate dragging a character to his death. “We set radios in the snow, but the horse couldn’t see me. I’d call him over the radios, and he’d move from one to the next, following the sound of my voice. It was just one of the times I realized just how good he was.”

Hightower, also a veteran of 40 films, doesn’t live in the “Ritz Hotel for Equines,” but rather in a pasture with five geldings. “I’ve done team penning, cutting, bull roping, jumping and dressage with him,” notes Peterson, who adds that the versatile horse can do one, two or three tempe canter lead changes.

Peterson’s on-screen newcomer is a six-year-old Paint named, “Tie,” who’s already debuted in “All the Pretty Horses” with Matt Damon. Like Justin and Hightower, this horse is exceptionally broke.

“They all ride, drive, jump, rope. The more you do on a horse—including cross-training—the better they become. Keep challenging their minds.”