Jacob Martin works in the Horse Department at Film Horses Scotland, a company that supplies trained animals for film, TV and photoshoot projects. The animals have featured in works including Outlander, Cloud Atlas, Game of Thrones, A Castle for Christmas, and Vikings, and otherwise reside in Jedburgh on a 75-acre hill farm. Film Horses Scotland also works in collaboration with Les Amis, a stunt team providing horse and dog stunts and live shows. Here Jacob speaks with SNACK to discuss which horses work well in films, and why the saying ‘never work with children or animals’ an unfair assessment.
How would you describe the service that Film Horses Scotland provides?
Film Horses Scotland provide highly trained horses, dogs, cats, goats and other animals for film and TV work, and photoshoots. We also provide animal wranglers, horse masters, animal trainers and grooms. We supply animals to perform a sliding scale of abilities, from basic tasks such as background work, all the way up to tricks and stunt work.
Can you give a brief history of the company?
Film Horses Scotland started out as a live show team based in France, where we performed equestrian theatre performances. On moving the team back to Scotland we upped the skills to stunt jousting and other equestrian stunt shows. We now provide a combination of live equestrian stunt shows, trained animals and crew for filming, which are either subcontracted to larger film horse teams or we run the jobs ourselves.
What animals are on your books at present?
We obviously have a large selection of horses: Andalusians, Friesians, Quarter Horses, Norwegian Fjords, and Hungarians. We also have a variety of dogs, cats and farm animals, such as goats and sheep.
Which animals are particularly popular with productions?
Of course horses are popular, as there are so many productions which include either a main character’s horse or simply one in a field in the background. German Shepherds are very popular as security and police dogs. Dogs particularly enjoy film work, especially when asked to perform a well-taught trick!
Are all the animals owned by yourselves, and how does Film Horses Scotland come by the animals they use?
We own the majority of the animals, but we do have a few owned by other people. However their owners are all members of our team, so we already have a good relationship with the animals before any job comes up.
We tend to come by animals via word of mouth. For a long time we have taken on ‘problem horses’ and using a variety of training techniques, and addressing how the horse lives when not working, turned them from being extremely anxious to living and working happily. So we often find that animals find us rather than us searching for them.
Do you look for any specific behavioural tendencies in the animals before they get trained?
The breed of a horse is of some importance: we prefer Andalusian, Lusitano and Friesian horses, but also Hungarian and Quarter Horses. The main thing is a willingness to connect, both with our herd and our trainers. But every animal is an individual and deserves to be treated as one, so as trainers, it is our job to always be learning. Being a flexible animal trainer is key, because every animal brings something new, and what one animal may find easy another may not.
What are the logistics involved if production is happening far from your base, and how do you look after the animals on set, especially during periods of inactivity?
Animals can only work and travel for set hours per day, so on the run-up to a job work is done to ensure we have an appropriate overnight stay for them, and to check the distance travelled each day. We also ensure we have the correct amount of people to look after the animals and suitable rest areas must be sorted for when they are not working. The team are always ready to go, as film work can be sporadic, but it is always important to ensure the animals’ needs are met.
What types of actions do productions generally want the animals to do? And remembering the W.C. Fields quote ‘never work with children or animals’, what happens if an animal can’t or won’t do what a director wants?
Whether an animal can work well in an on-set environment starts well before the animal makes it to the set; training, lifestyle, and travel conditions, all contribute. Whether the production has clearly explained what is expected of the horse master also makes a huge difference, because the animals cannot just be told what to do; they have to have it explained in a way that someone who never works with animals will struggle to understand.
Generally, the work itself can be straightforward, such as animals in the background of a scene. Other times you are asked to perform a particular trick or stunt, such as laying a horse down, rearing up, or a rider falling off. Horses find it challenging to perform a high-energy scene before being expected to stand still for a long period of time, but this is why you check what the animal is being asked to do and the scene order. If we deem the project unsuitable for the animal or the request unreasonable, we try to offer as many alternative options as possible, because often people who don’t work with animals don’t know what’s reasonable or not.
Obviously, animal welfare is a concern and requirement on sets. How is this ensured?
Welfare of the animals is of the highest importance. We hold a performing animals licence and a licence to transport animals, and these licences are important to ensure that jobs are taken seriously. Ensuring we have the correct amount of crew within the team is also important. Quality performance comes with quality care.
Keeping a stable of animals must be expensive, and the arts sector has had financial struggles recently. Does animal wrangling receive any financial assistance from arts funds?
We have no type of funding to keep us going. We work hard to maintain a stream of film work and live show work.
How has the animal training industry changed since Film Horses Scotland was established?
Productions in Scotland have started to use Scottish-based teams which is a huge positive for us! We have also noticed that travelling to Ireland and Europe is a lot more expensive, although it has not decreased the number of times teams are taken overseas.
Finally, is animal wrangling a rewarding sector to work in, and how would a person go about getting involved in animal training?
The early starts are tough – we usually have to start a few hours before production to get the animals ready – and jobs are unpredictable. But it is extremely rewarding to see an animal perform well and to be part of creating an amazing production. To get involved, get to know a team first. Be prepared to start at the bottom and work your way up. Volunteering can help, but make sure the team is being fair. Basically, work hard and be flexible!