The Horses of “1883”
By Julie Bryant
As horses and riders plunge into the shallow depths of a pond located on a ranch outside of Weatherford, Texas, what’s taking place is more than just a dip to cool off. It’s part of some crucial lessons the cast of the much-anticipated “1883” is just beginning to learn.
This is Taylor Sheridan’s Cowboy Camp, an annual event he first started with his hit show “Yellowstone.” He’s doing the same as he prepares an entirely new cast for the much-anticipated prequel about “Yellowstone’s” Dutton family and their move westward to Montana.
A stickler for authenticity, Taylor says Cowboy Camp give actors a chance to develop a rapport with the horses who will literally be the supporting cast in the show. He wants to make sure that what viewers see, especially those who understand horses, is as real and authentic as it can be. That includes the horses on “1883,” set to stream on Paramount+ December 19, as to him, it is as much about the story of the American Quarter Horse as it is the Dutton family’s journey across a burgeoning America. The show stars Sam Elliott, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
“The pioneers were the desperate, they were the poor, they were the forgotten,” he says. “Many of them were from central and Eastern Europe, did not speak English and had never seen a horse, had never held a gun. They were leaving extremely politically oppressive nations and seeking a place that was better. They were looking for a place to start over.
“The horses were such an integral figure in the settling of the West, and to make a movie about it, really has to be a celebration,” he says. “Remember, the Quarter Horse came from a blend of other breeds to make what some saw as the perfect horse. This is really the story of that, and I scoured the nation looking for the finest horses I could find.”
Telling that story will take an interesting twist from Taylor’s past inclusion of high-profile competitors and horses in “Yellowstone” to an entirely new set of horses. The time period for the show is long before the official Quarter Horse registry was formed, yet there is no doubt that the show’s horses represent the role of those earlier mounts making their way across the nation and ultimately contributing to the breed.
A colorful array of horses make up the herd and are a very rare inclusion in film of bloodlines familiar to Quarter Horse aficionados, including Metallic Cat, High Brow Cat, CD Lights and Dual Rey, among others. Having those bloodlines in the equine cast, along with the right look is important, as while Taylor writes the show, he’s focusing on a storyline that will ring true with the horsemen watching.
“Look, I’ve gone to programs where I know the horses and I know the way they were started,” says Taylor (above). “I’ve gotten horses from Kory Pounds, from Geoffrey "Spud" Sheehan, from Craig Schmersal . . . some of these horses are 3- and 4-year-olds, but they are so broke and they have such a handle on them, I can trust them.”
Pairing horses with cast members, most of whom he had not met before the camp, meant putting them in similar conditions or scenarios they will face as filming begins, such as crossing water, moving cattle and escaping from the dangers they will face on the trail.
“None of these actors had ever been on a horse until I put them on a horse,” Taylor says. “You need a special kind of animal to put somebody on that makes them feel comfortable enough and is a horse forgiving enough to take all the miscues that are coming.”
“I’ve got one of the actors, Eric Nelsen (at left), who I put on four or five horses until I finally found one for him. He’s playing a cowboy named Ennis who has done a lot of drives on the Chisholm Trail, and he needs to be on a cowboy-looking horse.”
Eric, a multiple Emmy award winner, was eventually paired for the camp with a horse named Purrmattic, a gelded son of Purrfect Timing by High Brow Cat. “This has been an amazing experience,” Eric says of the 8-year-old dun known as “Dan.” “To get the chance to meet everyone like this and spend this kind of time with these horses ... it’s incredible.”
Isabel May (below right), who will take on the role of Elsa Dutton, is just as thrilled with Winin Chex, a 6-year-old palomino mare called “Darby,” who traces to Nu Chex To Cash. “She’s a good girl,” says Isabel, who recently starred in the action thriller “Run, Hide, Fight.” “It has been great to get to know her and know that she may be the horse I ride on the show.”
Given that the storyline focuses on the long trek across the northern plains into Montana, Cowboy Camp wasn’t full of s’mores around the fire. Actors started their training in an outdoor arena where they were taught basic horsemanship, including how to sit the saddle, handle the reins and maneuver the horses. They also swung a rope or two and worked a mechanical cow. It’s a crash course. After a week of hours in the saddle, Taylor then led the group to a 600-acre pasture to gather a small herd of cattle for a drive of about 5 miles. Other skills will be added, including shooting and roping from horseback.
Taylor is also taking extra measures, just as he has with “Yellowstone,” to ensure that the tack and equipment used on the show is true to the period.
“I’ve got saddle makers, one out of Utah and another out of Wyoming, making us tack that is a perfect replica of the tack that was from the 1860s and ’70s. I’ve learned a lot about that, about the headgear and, obviously, the bits were different and a lot more simple. There was a lot of debate about grazing bits, and you’ll see us ride a lot in bosals and hackamores. My whole thing is I like to make things authentic. I’m really a documentary filmmaker who just happened to have written a script, trying to capture the real world and make it look right. So, we’re having the saddles made, we’re having the guns made, and now we’re making the actors. It’s ambitious, but I want it to be as authentic as I can.”
In some ways, Taylor is the student turned teacher, having spent many hours in the saddle with famed horseman Buster Welch and Four Sixes Ranch Manager Joe Leathers. What Taylor has learned from these undisputed masters has become valuable lessons to share with the cast.
“Buster Welch told me one time that the faster a horse goes, the more you need to be like Jell-O and slow your mind down,” Taylor says. “He said when you can go really, really fast and can slow your mind down, that’s when you’re going to start excelling as a horseman. It’s the same thing with acting. Slow the world down, be patient, be introspective.”