The yard, bathed in early winter sunshine, is tranquil. Various horses stand peacefully, tethered or stalled in pillar reins. They are certainly not the thoroughbreds or sport horses which are the usual residents at a farm near Waikanae. Closer investigation reveals that the looseboxes house strange occupants ... rabbits, a hedgehog, a deer, rats, rooks, a ferret and even wetas. What's going on?
The 80-acre property has been taken over as the training base for the equine stars of the films, currently under production, that make up the J R Tolkien epic trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings."
Dave Johnson is the head animal wrangler, supported by Lee Somerwell, Chris Rutten, Robbie Miller, Kerrie Morgan, Carla Gammons, Ray Leneghan, Don Reynolds and Mark Kineston-Smith. This group provides the expertise in training, feeding, vet care and make-up, working with the 20 riders and 40 saddle horses that ‘star’ in the film.
The air of tranquillity in the yard is no accident. The team believes firmly in "keeping the adrenalin down". Their theory is that the quieter the horses, handlers and riders are, the easier it is when it comes to desensitising the horses to smoke, guns, sword fights, cameras and all the other distractions of making a major action film. Most of that work is done either in the enclosed and roofed lungeing/breaking ring or the big sand school, two of the features which made the property ideal for the film-makers' requirements. Another important consideration was proximity to Wellington so that the actors could come out a couple of times a week for riding instruction, to get to know the horses and to accustom the horses to their costumes.
"We do a lot of drill and formation work, too," said Chris, "and that helps. They have so many different things to cope with." By the time the training is finished, Chris is confident that the horses will be able to tolerate just about anything, but it's not all hard work. They relax on beach, bush and forest rides, and there is a 1000m track and a good hill ride for fitness.
Dave Johnston is also the proprietor of Heritage Clydesdales at Levin, and has sourced, bought or leased most of the horses, some of which will go back to their owners at the end of filming; others will be sold.
Some of the horses were cheap, others, Dave says, cost from $1,000, a few at $5,000, one at $8,000 and three at $10,000 – "I’d hate to tell you the money we have spent. It was a case of the price on the day. If we liked the horse and it looked like it would do the job, we bought it." And, yes, some of the horses were dog tucker potential which have been retrained and at the end, where possible, these will be sold as movie horses or auctioned.
In fact, many more horses and riders will be in various scenes, but they are largely ‘extras’, recruited from location districts by Horse Co-ordinator Steve Old, best known for organising The Great New Zealand Horse Ride.
"Using computer generation, we will turn 250 horses into 6000," says Steve, with some sense of relief that he doesn't have to find the entire 6000! With three months’ filming at various locations in the South Island back country due to start in mid- August, Steve has to audition and employ the 250 horses and riders. When I left him, he was pondering how to accommodate them in the middle of nowhere in the middle of winter!
"We'll take 40 horses to the South Island. The first 25 horses in any scene are always ours, including the doubles," Steve explains. "In a scene where they need 250 horses, for example, I need 225 riders and horses recruited locally, and they have to be all solid colours because they will be background and because the ‘star’ horses are white."
The horses that are to be at the front of the army in battle scenes had to be imposing and have personality ... and who’s here but Lockie Richards’ Warmblood dressage stallion, Uraeus, looking very impressive?
"It’s all happened in five minutes," says Lockie. "They rang me and said they wanted a stallion. I told them if they could get him on their truck, they could try him, but that he absolutely won’t go on a trailer and he’s only been on my truck in the past ten years. He went on the truck, they tried him out and he was fine - he had never been ridden bareback!
"He loves it. Stefan von Ingelgem said Uraeus was finished and at the end of his competitive career. So now he has a new career."
Steve Old chips in, "It's incredible how he has adapted to the set."
Uraeus is the mount of Aragorn the rightful king of Gondor. Viggo Mortensen, who stars as Aragorn, has become so enthusiastic about riding and so attached to Uraeus that he comes out from Wellington two or three times a week for lessons with Robbie - and is causing some hair-tearing among the film bosses by insisting on doing far more of the on-screen riding than was intended!
The star horses as well as the human stars have "doubles" - grey Andalusian gelding Blanco doubles for grey Andalusian stallion Demero who ‘plays’ Shadowfax, mount of the wizard Gandalf.
But there's an element to this film that is somewhat unusual. Because the Hobbits are meant to be 107cm (3ft6ins) tall, two horses are needed to play Sam Gamgee’s horse, Old Bill. One is little Rastus, a Shetland-Quarter Horse pony, who appears with little people wearing prosthetic masks to look like the actors. The other, Shane, is a horse who is on set when the stars are in the frame, to keep the scale. (There's also a very tall Gandalf for when he and the full-sized hobbits have to be together!)
On the day I visited, this pair were off, with Dave, to learn to go through artificial snow on a narrow mountainside track, all set up in the Wellington studios. (To turn the ponies, a platform pulls out of the mountainside!)
While the two chestnuts are alike, they are not identical, and that's where Mark Kineston-Smith plays his part. Mark, from Dunedin, has become the unit's horse make-up man and says it's just an extension of preparing show horses’ turnout. He can add, cover or change facial and leg marks, and enhance or alter coat colour.
"We did a test spot with human hair dye on my pony Jazz," Dave recalls with amusement, "but it didn’t work. It was easier to go and buy a horse the right colour! We’ve made a couple of dark bay horses black, and you sometimes just need those horse colour rinses - Champion or New Zealand Gold products - or if we want to hide a sock, we use sheep rattle (wool dye)."
The other make-up element is wounds, scars and blood. So realistic are these that when the full-time vet, Irishman Ray Leneghan, arrived on set, the first thing he saw was a horse with a huge gash down the back of the gaskin, pouring blood. He was about to panic when he realised it was just make-up. Morticians’ wax is used to create realistic scars, scabs and sores; the blood is a made-up mixture; custard can be used to horrifying effect on eyes and noses. It's all part of the creation of the illusion - and perfectly harmless to the horses.
There have been accidents on set, but no more than one would expect where lots of horses are working together. Two horses collided and suffered severe bruising when a rider got a cue wrong in a battle scene, but both are back on set. Another horse fell off a small jetty. He had, it seemed, galloped out and back along this a number of times, then took a wrong stride sideways and tipped off into very shallow water, suffering only minor injuries.
"The worst thing," said Ray, "was that the rider had heavy clothing on, including a cloak, and when it got wet he couldn’t get up!"
The film is US-based and in that country, where film-makers seek endorsement from the powerful Humane Society, there are strict rules on the treatment of animals. These are being followed here. "We hope to have on-screen credits from MAF, the ILPH and RSPCA," Steve told me, "and we’d like to have a representative from one of them on set whenever we have horses. That may prove difficult from a time point of view."
The non-horse film people are learning what horses can do, rather than just treating them like people, but, says Dave, "It’s great what the horses will do. We look at a job and tell the crew: "So many takes only, in fairness to the horses’, and they are good about that." Surfaces are carefully prepared so that horses won't slip, and bolt-on rubber shoes also ensure safety.
American Don Reynolds is training the speciality horses. He joined the team just two months before my visit in May to work on, particularly, Demero, the Andalusian stallion from Australia who will be Shadowfax, and Blanco, his 'double'. The wizard, Gandalf, has to gallop the horse in front of 250 others without saddle or bridle.
"I don’t know their background," says Don. "They have done a bit of liberty work, but the wrong way, so I have been battling that. In another month or two I will have a lot more control - right now I'm barely getting by riding without the bridle."
Don has been training horses all his life, riding from when he was a toddler. For a few years he rode bareback broncos and did trick riding, before going into film work. He can’t remember how many films, but guesses between 50 and 60. "Mostly," he says, "I work behind the scenes." That has included training reindeer for Dudley Moore, as Santa Claus, to drive! He has been wrangler-trainer for many movies and countless television commercials, and trained horses for the Universal Studios Wild West Shows for over six years.
His approach is quiet. He laughs at Blanco who, as soon as his saddle and bridle are removed, just keeps on rearing for fun. "Get down here, Saphead, I don’t want you up there," chides Don. "You’re feeling too good today." The boys on the sideline say this is the first time the horse has really played with the trainer, a sign that they are forming a good relationship.
Basil Clapham doubles for Gandalf. It’s a fair remove for a good country Kiwi bloke. "I’ve ridden all my life, but this is all new to me. It took a long time to get used to what to do with my hands, instead of hanging on to the reins, but it has certainly improved my riding skills!"
Basil came as a wrangler, but his resemblance to Sir Ian McKellen who plays Gandalf soon found him as the star’s double. Basil has really entered into the spirit of the venture, with his car sporting ‘Gandalf’ plates!
Not surprisingly, the makers of "The Lord of the Rings" are keeping the details of the production secret until nearer release time, but from what I hear, I am confident that Tolkien fans aren't going to be disappointed in Peter Jackson's interpretation of their favourite stories.
Film-making is all about the suspension of reality and the creation of fantasy and illusion and I, for one, am looking forward to the adventures from Tolkien’s pages coming vividly alive on the silver screen.