Directed by and starring Robert Redford, The Horse Whisperer (Touchstone Pictures 1998) is based on Nicholas Evans’ bestseller. In 1995 Redford bought the rights to the book before it was published and turned it into a hit movie making $187 million at the box office.
Englishman Evans, who had studied law at Oxford, was a journalist, scriptwriter and TV producer. He was encouraged to try his hand at fiction by director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr Zhivago) about whom he was making a documentary. In 1993 he met a blacksmith in the far south-west of England who told him about horse whisperers – Evans went to work on his first novel.
While researching, he spent weeks in America learning from three exponents of natural horsemanship – Ray Hunt, Tom Dorrance and Buck Brannaman. He said later: “The one who truly inspired me was Buck. His skill, understanding and gentle, loving heart have parted the clouds for countless troubled creatures. He’s the Zen master of the horse world.” Redford used this inspirational horseman as his film’s equine adviser.
Buck himself would later play down being lauded as a “horse whisperer”. He said: “Because of the popularity of the book and the film, it’s hard to find someone who isn’t a horse whisperer. I’m not offended by the term, but the way I see it, if I went around telling people that’s what I was, I’d be a phony anyway. So I’ll leave the labels to everyone else. I don’t think I need that.”
The plot of the movie, which differs slightly to the book, is about gifted trainer Tom Booker, played, of course, by Redford who, through a unique process, rehabilitates a disturbed, traumatised horse. His services are enlisted by Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas) whose daughter Grace (Scarlett Johansson) has been involved in a tragic accident on “Pilgrim”, leaving both rider and her horse physically and mentally damaged.
Many of the gruesome action scenes involved a battalion of make-up artists, special effects technicians, wind machines, stunt riders and animatronic animals.
The horses that were not fake were provided by renowned trainer Rex Peterson. His chestnut quarter horse, Hightower, was the lead with four different doubles playing Pilgrim during various phases of his healing process. Peterson’s black QH stallion Doc’s Keepin’ Time (aka “Justin”) was “Gulliver”, who was killed in the accident. Brannaman supplied his thoroughbred gelding Kentucky Pet to be the gentle “Pilgrim” and his QH Rambo Ronan was Redford’s mount. (For more about this horseman have a look at Buck, a 2011 documentary where Redford describes him as “the real deal”.