Features & Stories

Story by Trudy Frisk
Photos courtesy of Larry Foss

Larry Foss settled back into the armchair at Cowboy Coffee, and looked off into the distance recalling the years he’s spent preparing horses for parts in movies and TV shows.  He’s trained them, trucked them, positioned them and their riders or drivers just right for directors of photography. He’s scouted locations.  He and his crews have done live historical re-enactments notably the Billy Miner train robbery outside Kamloops.

Larry ,who has a ranching background, is also a performer and producer.  As one of the few working cowboys who’s also a member of ACTRA he knows what a director is looking for.

It begins with questions.  What do you need the horses for?  Will they be in a movie, a music video, will they be inside or outside?  What do you want the horses to do?  Do you need a cutting horse or a rodeo horse?  What’s on the call?  One horse or fourteen horses?  How many in each shot?  If it’s a team of horses that you’re trying to get a film part for, what action’s required?  Will it be in a parade?  Maybe there’s a special start, a distance
 shot of a rider on a horse.

Gordon Tootoosis and Larry Foss (on horseback) and
Dave Longworth (in front) getting ready for Legends Of The Fall
There’s more. “ What colour is the director of photography looking for? Do all the horses have to match?  Do you want people on these horses or do you want to be chasing them? If they’re going to be ridden, then you have to find people to ride them.  That means you have to verify the qualifications of the people.  Are they good riders?  Are they stunt riders, good handlers of horses?  Are they ground people only or they actually going to be on the critters?”

“You audition the riders like you audition the horses.  Any riders who had a good reputation wouldn’t have to audition.”

Now Larry will go try the horses or pick horses out of a herd.  Then he auditions the horses being picked.  Ït’s not for every horse” Larry pointed out when asked about the 2002 Billy Miner re-enactment.  Of the seventy horses which tried out, only fifteen were able to do the job.  Horses which got the parts had to be both agile and calm.  They couldn’t be frightened by the blanks being fired nor by the noisy, hissing monster they rode beside.  During auditions the train was run back and forth past the horses to see how they reacted.  These are multi-talented horses, Larry emphasized.  They have to put on speed during the robbery then gentle down enough for children to pat them a few minutes later.  The train robbery horses were being groomed for TV and movie parts so they were rotated. 

When Larry’s working with horses he doesn’t know, the first step in auditioning them is to put a saddle on them.  Ïf you’ve got a saddle on it and it isn’t bucking, obviously it’s trained.  The trouble is, you don’t know how it was trained. Now I get someone to lead the horse and I stand in front of it and clap my hands and study the horse. How startled is it?  Is it jumping and pulling back?  If it’s ok, then I go behind it and clap my hands to see how fast it turns around. “

“”It’s the same thing with gun shots. Try them from behind and see how the horse reacts. If it’s ok, I get on the horse and try the gun again, with not too loud a sound. If it doesn’t buck you off, that horse trusts you.”

“If it’s doing outstanding, then put it by a moving steam train, stage coach, or car.  All have different sounds and are different sizes.  There’s a big difference between a moving motor bike and a moving semi. If you can take something like that close to them, the horses trust you not to let the machine run over them.”

Sometimes you need more than one horse for the same role. “ If it’s a star horse, a main character horse, now we need a double.  That’s a horse of the same colour, either born or dyed that colour.  If the star horse falls on its nose, can it continue?  Did the horse get really scuffed?  If so, it needs the double to come in. You keep it close to you in case it’s needed in a hurry.  How well trained does the main star have to be?  That’s also a factor in choosing its double.” 


“The number of horses needed is a big thing.  Do they all need riders on them?  Do they need stunt riders?  Stunt is worth more money to the producers.  If it’s an elaborate stunt, the horse goes up a notch because now it’s a stunt horse.  That goes on its resume.”

“ There’s no such breed as ‘best film star horse’”” says Larry.  “ The question is, do you need a good jumping horse, cutting horse, or running horse?”
When it comes to gender, geldings are the most popular, for obvious reasons.  Mares out of season are also used.  There are exceptions.  The Moscow Circus, for which Larry worked during its 1975-1976 North American tour, used stallions exclusively.

Larry as the Headless Horseman at the 2141 Kamloops Heritage Railway
Calmness can’t be over-emphasized.  As the ‘Headless Horseman’ performing with the Kamloops Heritage Railway, Larry carried a torch with a live flame. A horse’s instinct is to flee from fire. Not only did his horse have to get used to a headless, black-caped rider, it had to accept the fire. It took persistent training to get the horse accustomed to fire.

Sometimes Nature interferes.  When Larry and his crew worked on Eaters Of The Dead, a movie about ancient times one thousand years ago, the horses carried torches.  Filming took place on Vancouver Island.  It rained every day.  The torches were gas torches so they could be controlled a bit, but it was not ideal. “You can’t hand every rider a torch for another shot.”

For his Headless Horseman routine Larry cut up a broomstick, covered it in mesh wire, put some old socks in heating oil, tightened them onto the broomstick and set the combination on fire.

Having carefully chosen calm, reliable horses, it seems paradoxical to spook them, but how else would you get a run-away stage coach?  “When there are four up on the stage-coach and it’s going around the corner, the horses have to be spooked.” There are several ways.  If the team is pulling something and the back of the stage coach goes up, as a guy jumps out of the stage, it will frighten them.  If three bandana-wearing outlaws are chasing the stage, two of them shooting at it, you set up the shot by the turn and wave something to spook them.  Trouble is, after several takes, the horses get used to it and you have to find another way of scaring them; maybe jingle something.  The driver can do that, and the horses can’t see it.”

Larry and his crew working on Eyes Of A Cowboy
”Production companies make sure the camera is in the right location.  There’s supposed to be one shot and one shot only.  If they didn’t get it and the crew has to bring back the stage coach, the horses and five wranglers, then, either they pay, or the production company doesn’t need it that bad.”

Larry hired ninety percent of the horses he supplied.  “Most horses you audition are horses you don’t own.  If you’re putting a lot of time in retraining the horses, you’re going to want to get the money for it. “ Depending on the contract, he will rent horses for thirty days, so much per day.  There may be bonuses, like bales of hay or new shoes.  Acting horses can wear out their shoes fast.

Do horses enjoy acting?  “Some do. It can be a problem if the horse starts anticipating, when it get so used to hearing “Action” that it starts moving before the director says to.  It’s easy for human actors to hold back; not so with a horse if it’s hearing ‘Action’ forty times a day.  It thinks it knows what’s coming and decides,” I might as well get going.” The director has to change to “Go!” to outwit the horse.

“Horses get to like the attention.  If they’re picked for another part, they at least know a lot about what they did before and remember it. “

In training the horse’s rewards are grain, sugar lumps or sweet feed. What reward works for people? Larry doesn’t hesitate: “Cash!”

Some problems can’t be anticipated; like the tough Western star who was allergic to horses.  Since it’s just about impossible to find a non-allergenic horse, the answer is to thoroughly wash the horse, keep it clean, try to take the smell of horse away. 

Most of Larry’s professional work has been with horses. He did have that time with the Moscow Circus.  Plus he set up a Kodak commercial with reindeer, and from 1994-1996, performed at the T.R. Reindeer Ranch north of Clinton, B.C.

Larry/Santa choosing his reindeer
“Reindeer are not as easy to train as horses.  They’re more temperamental.  First you have to get their respect.  They’ll remember and work with you as long as there’s not a lot of standing around. They don’t really care for standing around.  Their attitude is, ‘’Get the shot so we can go home and eat!”  Also, reindeer have those antlers.  You can be three or four feet away from the animal but still get clipped with its antlers any time it turns its head.” 

For the Kodak commercial, to be used during an American football game, the director first wanted four reindeer hooked to a sleigh, then changed his mind and wanted them running loose in four feet of snow at the location east of Revelstoke. Question was , what would they be running after?  Larry rubbed their noses with grain and sent them out to follow his friend, Holly, a fast runner, who was carrying a can of grain. The film-makers got the shot they wanted.  Now the problem was catching the reindeer.  They caught three.  The fourth wouldn’t come. “It probably thought this was its last chance for freedom. ‘Look at those mountains! What a view!’”  Finally it rejoined the others.
Another success.

In April 2007, while auditioning a new horse, Larry was badly injured.  “It was the wrong horse.  I was trying it out to see if it could be used for the show train. I didn’t know it had been a race horse.  It reared up and fell back on me.”  It’s taken time and therapy but Larry’s ready to begin doing a little riding this May. He’s anxious to get back working as an entertainer, and animal co-ordinator.   He can be reached at Box 1132, kamloops.

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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