Posted by: Jerry Garrett | January 11, 2019

TEN GREATEST Western Movie Horses: Part 1 Trigger, Buttermilk, Champion & More

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If you watch enough old cowboy and western movies, you might find yourself asking, “Haven’t I seen that horse somewhere before?”

Your eyes are not deceiving you. A few notable horses became bona fide movie stars, with fan clubs, merchandise lines, and long, illustrious careers.

Providing horses for the entertainment industry was a big business, back in the day; hundreds of horses might be needed for a single film, and there were often dozens of cowboy movies made a year – not to mention scores more when television came along later.

Film buffs have counted as many as 50 stars who identified with specific horses, and with whom they appeared in multiple films. A few owned their horses; most others worked with a specific stable, trainer or ranch to have ongoing access to their favorite mounts.

I’d say 99 percent of the horses used would be almost impossible to pick out, one from another, as most were relatively indistinguishable bays. But here are the standouts:

screen shot 2019-01-10 at 4.32.29 pmTRIGGER

There is little argument that Trigger was the greatest movie horse of all time, even if the 81 films and 101 television shows that the palomino stallion appeared in were not the greatest.

Trigger achieved the zenith of his fame as Roy Rogers‘ faithful mount, from 1943 when Rogers bought him to 1965 when the horse finally died. Trigger was already nine years old when Rogers entered the picture; he had been born on the Fourth of July in 1934, in San Diego on a ranch partially owned by Bing Crosby. He was originally named Golden Cloud, and it was Rogers who renamed him – reputedly because of his quickness, in both body and mind.

His movie debut came in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, when he was ridden by Maid Marian, played by Olivia de Havilland. Old movie posters occasionally billed Trigger as the “world’s fastest horse”, which wasn’t true, but there was no doubt Trigger was the smartest; he could perform more than 150 tricks, walk only on his back legs for long distances, sit in a chair, crawl into a regular bed and cover himself with a blanket, and even “sign” his name with an X. Most notably, Rogers claimed Trigger was potty-trained.

Although there was a well-known horse Rogers owned named Trigger Jr., Trigger was never bred.

Even after his death, Trigger lived on in popular culture; Rogers had him stuffed and preserved in his museum. And the Denver pro Football team used Trigger’s likeness for the bucking Bronco statue at its stadium. Trigger’s hoof prints, as well as Rogers’ hand and boot prints, are preserved in cement in front of old Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

screen shot 2019-01-10 at 3.52.50 pmBUTTERMILK

Less well known, but in perhaps more movies was the distinctive buckskin quarter horse known as Buttermilk, the preferred ride of Dale Evans, Roy Rogers’ third wife and longtime on-screen sweetheart.

Buttermilk, born as Taffy in 1941 in Wyoming, was abused as a young colt, developed a surly disposition as a result, and was consigned to a slaughterhouse – from which he was barely rescued. Another little known fact about Buttermilk was that he was faster out of the gate than Trigger, which put the lie to the “world’s fastest horse” moniker; in fact, Rogers became annoyed that Buttermilk caused so many re-takes because Trigger was slower to respond.

Ms. Evans, ironically, chose Buttermilk to ride because she felt he had a gentler demeanor than a horse originally designated for her to ride.

Buttermilk, who died in 1972 was, like Trigger stuffed and preserved at the Roy Rogers Museum in Apple Valley, California. (The museum has closed; it was moved to Branson, Missouri for a time before closing again; a collector who plans to open another museum in Apple Valley now owns them.)

Anybody out there have a Roy Rogers/Dale Evans lunch box, featuring Trigger and Buttermilk? I know I did. (Wish I still did, mom!)

screen shot 2019-01-10 at 5.44.49 pmTONY

Before there was Trigger, there was Tony. Or, more popularly, Tony the Wonder Horse.

Tony, a big bay with a white blaze face, was the constant on-screen companion of the original King of the Cowboys, Tom Mix. They appeared in 34 films together, from 1922 to 1932. In three of those films, Tony got his name in the title. He was listed as a co-star. And when Mix was asked to leave his hand and boot prints in the cement out front of Grauman’s, he took Tony along to leave his hoof prints. Mix even rode Tony at Wyatt Earp‘s funeral in 1929 in Los Angeles.

Like Trigger, who came along a decade later, Tony was known for his intelligence: he could un-tie Mix’s hands, open gates, and even follow complex voice commands and hand signals. But he was also known for his bravery. Mix jumped him over the highest fences, rode him through fiery buildings, urged him to leap between two cliffs, and chased down moving trains.

Although Tony was retired in 1932, at age 22, after suffering an injury during filming, his career continued in new directions with public appearances, marketing exhibitions (he had his own souvenir lines), the circus, and even rodeo events. He out-lived Mix, who died in a 1940 car crash, by two years – to the day.

screen shot 2019-01-11 at 11.42.48 amCHAMPION

Gene Autry, the “Singing Cowboy”, would not be out-done by another singing cowboy like Roy Rogers. So it’s probably not too surprising that Autry had his own talented horse – or more correctly a line of horses – named Champion. There were three “official” Champions, four specialized Champions, and an untold number of stand-ins, stunt doubles and personal appearance Champions.

The original Champion was born as Lindy, a big sorrel with a blaze face, three white “stocking” legs and distinctive blond mane and tail, in 1927 in California. Autry acquired the horse from Tom Mix in 1934 for work on The Phantom Empire western series that helped burnish his fame as a singing cowboy.

Champion had been trained for rodeo work and western shows, but adapted well to movies. He was a star in his own right, spawning a comic book series of his own, advertising and endorsements. But while Autry was away flying cargo planes in World War II, Champion died (about age 17). So when Autry returned and wanted to revive his western movie career, he debuted another sorrel, a bit lighter called Champion Jr., the “Wonder Horse of the West”. There was also Little Champ, Television Champion, and Touring Champion, who joined Autry for cement prints at Grauman’s. The last Champion to appear on screen with Autry – Champion Three – reportedly died in 1990 at his Melody Ranch near Newhall, California.

The collection of Champions were said to have been capable of the greatest array of tricks of any movie horse (or horses) in history – including dancing the Charleston, jitterbug and the hula. Lindy Champion was the first horse to fly cross-country; Touring Champion even took high tea at the Savoy Hotel in London.

screen shot 2019-01-11 at 1.23.30 pmFRITZ

William S. Hart, a native New Yorker and Shakespearean-trained actor, was one of the fledgling movie industry’s first stars. When he began his film career in 1914, the cowboys that he preferred to play were not nostalgic characters from a distant past, but contemporary characters in a Wild West still alive. He was friends with western legends Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, a devotee of authentic western dress, and he rode a quintessential Indian-style brown-and-white pinto pony, named Fritz.

Fritz, born in 1907 at movie producer Thomas Ince’s ranch in southern California, was the silver screen’s first true equine star. Though he could be spirited and surly, Fritz starred with Hart in 74 films, 1914-1924, when Hart’s brand of dark, brooding tales of a now-fading West began to fall out of favor.

Hart once claimed he and the horse were so close, he was sure Fritz had actually spoken to him. Together, performing perilous stunts like trying to escape from a whirlpool, they nearly died – on an off screen. Hart said Fritz could “do anything and everything asked of him.” Hart, who never used a stunt double and was often hurt more than his mount, once rode Fritz some 100 feet across a fallen log above a canyon. Another time he coaxed him out of a dark, water-filled cave. He even jumped Fritz off a precipitous cliff – a stunt that earned him a summons from censors, who were sure the horse had been killed in the scene.

Hart retired the horse after 1924, because he said his “friend” was too valuable to do any more risky movie work. Fritz lived out the rest of his life peacefully with his beloved pals (who sometimes appeared on screen with him) – Lizabeth, a large pack mule, and  a bucking mare called Cactus Kate – at Hart’s ranch in Newhall, where he died in 1938.

Next – Part 2 of the TEN GREATEST Western Movie Horses

Jerry Garrett

January 11, 2019





  1. […] (TEN GREATEST Western Movie Horses – Continued from Part 1) […]

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