Horses were an integral part of hundreds of early moving pictures. The very first Australian film was of the 1896 Melbourne Cup, recorded on a clumsy, hand-cranked camera by Maurice Sestier.
Sestier couldn’t cover the actual race because the horses were too fast; instead he filmed them in the saddling paddock and then captured them crossing the finishing line. Newhaven won the Cup by six lengths. In between are many jerky shots of prominent ladies and gentlemen staring suspiciously at his curious contraption.
In America, The Great Train Robbery was released in 1903 about the exploits of a bunch of horsemen overtaking and robbing a train. Running for 12 minutes, it is considered one of the earliest silent motion pictures to tell a story.
Back in Australia, the world’s first full-length feature film was the hour-long The Story of the Kelly Gang, made in Melbourne, in 1906. Naturally, it featured horses. A stream of westerns and bushranging sagas was to follow.
So, without the horse those film industry pioneers would have faded into a celluloid sunset. Let’s look at some of the great moments in equine cinema.
‘RIDE LIKE A GIRL’
“I wasn’t sure if I’d like this film, but I’m glad I gave it a chance. This is just the type of film we need right now and I loved it. Watched it twice already! Amazing cast telling the inspiring story of Michelle Payne, the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup despite facing odds of a 100 to 1. It shows just what it takes to get to the top, despite all the highs and lows behind the scenes. Worth a watch for sure.” — Charlotte Dujardin
Released at the end of September, 2019, Ride Like a Girl was a winner with moviegoers. After less than two weeks in cinemas it became the highest grossing Australian film of 2019. Directed by Rachel Griffiths, it stars Teresa Palmer as Michelle Payne and Sam Neill as her father, Paddy. (Michelle’s brother Stevie Payne, who played himself, received critical acclaim for his performance).
According to producer Richard Keddie, making this film was very, very scary. “It nearly killed us. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as much anxiety on anything I’ve ever done as when filming the horses because I didn’t want any of them hurt, nor any jockeys nor crew. We had 60 people just on our horse-racing unit. I’d say we took a lot of extremely careful, calculated risks — we got right in there amongst it. We smashed six cameras with horses’ hooves, so that’s an example of how ‘in there’ we got! But we didn’t hurt a horse, which was amazing.”
The horse master was Chris Symons, a Melbourne jockey and Channel Seven’s race day host. “It was my first time working on a movie; very exciting,” says Symons, whose support team included his wife, Sam, and Peter Patterson, clerk of the course at Flemington. They were kept busy managing 36 horses, recreating races and ensuring scripts contained accurate horse terminology.
“Lord Oberon was one of four used to play Prince of Penzance,” explains Symons, who owns an animal farm on the Mornington Peninsula. “He’s remained with me and joins in my race day interviews on TV — he’s now known as Kevin from Seven!”
It was his friend, Peter Patterson, who trained the film’s female lead Teresa Palmer, who had been instantly attracted to the achievements of the Payne family in signing up for the role of Michelle. “Only later did it hit me that I would have to learn how to ride like a jockey,” she laughs. (Aged nine she had trotted ponies around the Templewood Riding Centre in the Adelaide Hills, which was not quite as challenging!).
“Peter Patterson’s father, ‘Patto’, actually trained Michelle when she was an apprentice,” explains Teresa. “So, having his son as my trainer was quite special. Peter worked with the horses for six months before the shoot. I only had three weeks of racing training prior to filming, first on an Equicizer and then on to the real thing, beginning with a pony and then to a proper racehorse. One exercise was to make me let go of the reins, hold my arms up in a T-shape so I just had to use my legs to hold on, and try to be one with the horse.”
All this concentrated, intense training paid off when Lord Oberon bolted between takes — and Teresa didn’t get hurt. “We were shooting the scene at Flemington and Peter was riding the safety horse telling me to ‘hold the —- on’. I was in the jockey position and becoming so fatigued my legs were shaking. But I was able to stay on, and when Lord finally slowed, I jumped off. I’d say this was the most physically demanding role I’ve ever had.
“The movie’s feedback has been really positive and encouraging, and I’m really pleased to have put out that feminist message to the world. This is a pivotal film for women to see. Despite facing adversity, she just pushed through and continued to chase dreams.”