Never let it be said that actor Viggo Mortensen is a one-trick pony. An author, musician, poet and photographer as well as acclaimed actor, he can speak several languages and, in 2002, formed Perceval Press which published The Horse is Good, his pictorial homage to the creatures he loves.
Danish American Viggo is a fierce advocate for horse welfare, most notably wild mustangs and, as moviegoers would know, he can really ride, often taking home the horses at the completion of filming. “I bought the one in Lord of the Rings ’cause I’d developed a really good friendship with him,” says Viggo. “His name was Uraeus, a Dutch warmblood who played Brego in the film.” This top-level dressage horse, and sire of successful sporting horses, was in semi-retirement before NZ owner and trainer, the late Lockie Richards, agreed to lease him to the LotR production.
“And then there was Kenny – I rode him at the beginning of The Two Towers; he was very easy and relaxed and I just wanted Uraeus to have a buddy.” (The horses were kept on a veterinarian’s property in New Zealand and would receive regular visits from their famous owner).
After playing Aragorn in the Tolkien trilogy, Viggo made Hidalgo in 2004, loosely based on the legend of American endurance rider, Frank T. Hopkins, who takes his paint horse, Hidalgo (“nobleman” in Spanish), to run the famed (if not mythical) 3,000-mile Ocean of Fire race across the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula for a $100,000 purse – against Bedouins on purebred Arabians. He wins… of course.
All this is alleged to have taken place in the late 1800s, although some researchers and long rider historians claim that Hopkins, an ex-Pony Express rider and sometime member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, made up the whole story. But never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn.
The movie required Viggo to spend many hours on horseback. “A large part of the preparation – beyond trying to get historically into what that period was about, was to ride as much as I could, get back my balance and become comfortable with the particular horse I’d be riding in the picture,” he says.
“I think you have a physical memory of things you learn when you’re a child. Sometimes, just by refreshing it, you can regain most of what you knew, although as an adult I was warier. As a boy, I’d tear across fields bareback without checking for holes or anthills. You’re more brittle when you’re older and you think ahead about the consequences, so if the horse starts swirling around or not responding to you when you’re riding bareback at full speed, it’s scarier.”
Viggo had learnt to ride as a child when his family moved to Argentina, which was where he learnt to fluently speak Spanish. “Classic Argentinian riding isn’t too different from the Western-style – you’re using your legs and a loose rein. Hidalgo’s horsemaster, Rex Peterson, is a Nebraskan cowboy and he helped me a lot.”
By the time cameras rolled, Peterson had selected five sorrel and white horses – RJ, DC, Doc, Oscar and TJ. During training each displayed special individual talents. RJ was the most agile trick horse, DC the ultimate endurance racer, Doc took the lead as the main chase horse, Oscar was the best ride for supporting actors (John Fusco, the movie’s screenwriter, bought this mustang, retiring him on his American Indian horse conservancy in Vermont), and TJ demonstrated the greatest bond with the picture’s star. Viggo bought him.