The Hollywood Horses of Amenia
By Sarah Ellen Rindsberg
In Winter’s Tale, the current film based on Mark Helprin’s gripping novel, a white horse plays a prominent role. Until his recent move to the west coast, when this equine wonder was not appearing in all his equine splendor in one role or another, he was an Amenia resident.
Listo on the set of “Winter’s Tale.” Photo courtesy Cari Swanson.
Listo is one of the many horses trained by Cari Swanson and Rex Peterson of Swanson Peterson Productions at Windrock Farm on Bangall-Amenia Road. The firm is known in Hollywood for training riders and horses for films and TV. Swanson and Peterson also conduct training for private individuals and horses in Amenia as well as in clinics nationwide and around the world. But it is their work for TV and film that has made them arguably the most popular horse trainers among the star set.
The roster of horses and actors they have worked with is as impressive as the list of Oscar winners. The Horse Whisper, The Black Stallion, Hidalgo, Secretariat? Swanson Peterson provided and trained those horses. Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, Jeremy Irons, Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz, among others, have been the riders/trainees.
Winter’s Tale star Colin Farrell (Peter Lake) rode Listo in several scenes of the movie. “Listo and Colin had a great rapport,” Swanson says. Unlike many actors, Colin does have some riding experience. “He’s very comfortable on a horse and has tremendous balance.” Co-star Russell Crowe (Pearly Soames) also came equipped with some riding skills practiced on his ranch in Australia. (This expertise aside, stunt doubles usually perform the jumping and running scenes.)
Sometimes the actors come to the Amenia facility for training. Colin Farrell and Jessica Findlay Brown (Lady Sibyl of Downton Abbey) came to Windrock Farm when preparing for Winter’s Tale. Dan Stevens (aka Matthew Crawley of Downton Abbey) also came to prepare for his role in the upcoming film A Night at the Museum 3. (Herein lies one of the reasons these two beloved Downton characters had to perish during the series: other projects awaited and their presence was required in Amenia.)
The actors clearly appreciate the outing. “They love the farm and the opportunity to train in the facility without the stress and pressure of the set,” Swanson says.
Ang Lee and Swanson on the set of “Taking Woodstock.” Photo by Ken Regan.
Directors, too, have appreciated Swanson’s work. During a shoot for Taking Woodstock, shot in northern Dutchess and Columbia counties, director Ang Lee lamented, “Why can my horse hit his mark every time and you actors cannot?”
Both Swanson and Peterson have decades’ worth of experience in training. Swanson, a dressage trainer and competitor, grew up on a horse farm in Ohio, and recalls that she was “always trying to teach my horses tricks.” Peterson got his start in the movie business working with Glenn Randall Sr., who trained the famous Trigger.
Cari Swanson and Rex Peterson. Photo by Kathy Landman.
If they’re not on a set, coaching horses to feign a charging attack, play a dying horse or jump off a ferry boat, they’re back at the farm, training horses and riders in multiple disciplines: Western riding, dressage, jumping and driving.
When RI catches up with Swanson (not on horseback thank goodness!) she is enjoying the leisurely pace of St. Bart’s, having recently wrapped up participation in The Knick, a ten-part mini- series for HBO. Clive Owen and Juliet Rylance are featured in this period drama focused on the story of the Knickerbocker Hospital in New York at the beginning of the 20th century. Swanson, in costume (but not on screen), drives carriages during several scenes, taking the equines through their paces as she often does, before actors take the reins. When filming for season two begins, Swanson will return to the set.
As a child, Swanson was given free rein to bring horses into the house. It’s a practice she continues today in her effort to acclimate them to working in nontraditional equine settings that Hollywood requires. On location, they’re not in Amenia anymore.