In Walt Disney Pictures' latest adventure movie, Hidalgo, a special relationship develops between a rider and his horse. The story unfolds with a colorful horse, once considered to be unworthy of competition against other breeds, who defies the odds and proves his worth to the world. In the process, he forever endears himself to his owner, who never doubted the horse's spirit, loyalty or determination.
It's a story based on the life of Frank Hopkins and his horse, Hidalgo. Likewise, it is an accurate representation of the bond established between actor Viggo Mortensen, who portrayed Hopkins, and his new sorrel overo Paint Horse stallion, RH Tecontender, who played Hidalgo. Similarly, it depicts Hidalgo screenplay writer John Fusco's relationship with his new American Paint Horse gelding, Impressivelybetter, who also played the legendary horse in the movie. Mortensen and Fusco make no secret of the fact that they established strong connections with the Paint Horses during the Hidalgo film- making experience.
Viggo Mortensen and his remarkable Paint Horse "TJ" For Mortensen, the admiration for RH Tecontender, "TJ," started on the movie set, which moved from California to Montana to South Dakota, and then on to the deserts of Morocco.
"His ability, his intelligence were just so much in keeping with the story," Mortensen said. "He would just learn things so fast. I don't know what it is. His intense concentration and his ability to just relax were incredible, especially when we had people who didn't know much about horses running around and making noise. He didn't care. He would just stay calm."
Mortensen related two scenes in particular, where TJ's talents proved to be exceptional. In one part of the story, Mortensen is seen running from a swarming mass of locusts that blacken the sky. He lies down with Hidalgo and throws a blanket over the top of both of them as a shield from the infestation.
"To get a horse to lie down like that 30 times in a row is not easy. To get him to hit the same spot over and over again, then to throw a blanket over him and blind him that way, well, most horses, especially stallions, are not going to put up with that. But TJ did." In an equally remarkable example of natural acting ability, TJ showed his intuitive ability to do what was expected of him by Mortensen and the directors.
"There's the scene where I'm at the camp before the start of the race in Arabia and I get up in the morning, crack my neck and go over to put my hat on a peg and I'm washing my face."
In that scene, Mortensen explained, Hidalgo is supposed to pick up the hat with his mouth and bring it over to Hopkins. "It's as if he's supposed to be saying, 'Let's get out of here,' " Mortensen said. A Paint named RJ Masterbug was trained to perform the task. He actually learned to pick up the hat, shake it and hand it to Mortensen. During the shoot, however, the directors wanted a close-up of the horse. Since TJ was the horse used for tight shots, it looked like another long round of training exercises for head wrangler Rex Peterson.
"TJ had been standing there the whole time, quietly, just watching Rex work with RJ. So, when they wanted this close-up, I said, 'Well, let's just try it,' and we brought TJ in. The first time, TJ picks up the hat, gently holds it, and looks me right in the eye. Every take! I mean that was amazing."
Mortensen said he enjoyed riding all five American Paint Horses in the film. "I rode as much as I could, and I rode all of them." Each of the horses, he said, displayed special talents.
Impressivelybetter, "Oscar," was fast and agile, Mortensen said. "He's an incredible jumper. The part where I'm racing the guy in the beginning of the movie and we're jumping those fences. That was Oscar. He could sail over them."
Honky Tonkin Tuff, "DC," was another fast horse, the actor said. "Oscar and DC, they were the kind of horses that were great when you were doing a long shot and you had to ride fast, but it was really scary sometimes, especially bareback before the take would start, because they were so moody and jumpy. You know, they were basically willing to please you, but they were all over the place spinning around and you're just trying to stay on. Once they're running full out, you're fine."
RJ Masterbug, "RJ," was an unbroken stud when he came to the set, but quickly learned to perform, thanks to the talents of Peterson, the actor said. Mortensen described the horse as bold, strong, intelligent and a quick learner.
Ima Stage Mount Two, "Doc," was built for speed, Mortensen said. "I liked Doc a lot because he was very fast and he could turn on a dime and do all kinds of things. He was very, very fast."
All of the American Paint Horses had remarkable talents, Mortensen said, and were perfect fits for the various depictions of Hidalgo. "We were lucky. I mean you don't know that going in. Rex has a good eye and he picked well."
While Mortensen said he respects all breeds of horses, he added, "I happen to like the way Paints look. It's a beautiful breed and I'm certainly proud to be friends with one and own one. A Paint can make you look pretty good sometimes."
Mortensen keeps TJ close by his work in Hollywood so he can ride him
as often as possible. The Paint Horse is presently stabled by Mortensen's
friend just outside Los Angeles. Eventually, Mortensen said he will
bring TJ to his ranch in Idaho to live with the horses he purchased
from the sets of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
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