A crazy year for the world's not so humble horses

December 19, 2011

by Laurie Dixon

Gone are the days when horses used to hang out in paddocks, eat grass and enter an occasional competition. These days they take lead roles in Steven Spielberg movies and can even make millions prancing around the stage as life-size puppets.

A scene from the stage show War Horse.

Entertainment moguls, deciding punters just can't get enough when it comes to horses, have even announced that "Mister Ed" is headed for the big screen.

Even donkeys have grabbed more than their share of headlines this year. One completely stuffed a local body election, another ran for mayor of a Bulgarian town and one received a bravery award for saving a sheep.

The year is drawing to a close just as a new movie celebrity is about to be launched on an eager public. His name is Joey and he is the lead character - truly - in Spielberg's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's book, "War Horse".

Just remember, when you're seated in a theatre with tears rolling down your cheeks, that Joey isn't a real horse. But he is a real celebrity. In fact, 10 horses played Joey in the movie, from his birth right through to the end.

One of them was Finder, owned and trained by Bobby Lovgren. Finder travelled to England from California by plane, trailer and ferry to play Joey.

Finder is already a movie veteran, having starred in Seabiscuit in 2003. I wonder if I can "Friend" him on Facebook?

"War Horse" is already a stage sensation, and 2011 was the year when it all became clear that the London stage hit would make it globally. It is on the march around the world. Do life-size horse puppets need passports?

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Allan Jacobs riding Blowtorch III in the Swift Current parade in 1968.
Horsetalk began the year with the tale of Blowtorch.

Twelve months later, we're not entirely sure why, but it's a great tale.

Blowtorch was billed by his inventor as the only horse in the world you had to choke to start. He was a mechanical horse, the work of W.K. McIntyre, a Canadian inventor.

The eccentric McIntyre was described as having a creative mind, but rather eccentric. The Saskatchewan man came up with his first engine-driven horse in 1947. His third prototype was named Blowtorch III.

Blowtorch III was a supreme triumph, the pinnacle of mechanical horse evolution - and it proved a hit with the public.

Blowtorch III is now in the proud possession of the Saskatchewan Western Development Museum.

He had a body made from sheet-metal that concealed a nine-horsepower petrol engine to give Blowtorch his get up and go. The hooves had a small adaptation on a conventional horse - wheels.

That said, they still moved backwards and forwards, giving Blowtorch a familiar, if somewhat stilted, gait.

Like any good horse, Blowtorch had a foot throttle and brakes. He was painted black and white, and even came with a mane and tail.

McIntyre rode his mechanical steed at local fairs, much to the delight of crowds.

Blowtorch might not have gained the fame of Roy Rogers' Trigger, but word certainly spread far and wide.

Newspapers wrote of his exploits and even Walt Disney made some inquiries.

After McIntyre's death in 1965 Blowtorch was put out to pasture and deteriorated badly.

Fortunately for Blowtorch - and the museum - Allan Jacobs, a welder at McIntyre's workshop, decided to resurrect Blowtorch. He and McIntyre's son Jim, set about restoring him.

Allan could not resist a $C20 dare by Jim to head for the local fairgrounds astride Blowtorch in the 1968 Swift Current parade.

A tangle with an overpass expansion joint jolted Blowtorch's head off. Allan made running repairs but a little further along the horse broke a leg bolt and, in the best traditions of horse and rider, Allan was unseated.

In the late 1970s Jim McIntyre donated Blowtorch to the museum, where the mechanical warrior got another tune-up and makeover.

Blowtorch is now stabled at the Western Development Museum at Moose Jaw.

Blowtorch is surely a must-see attraction the next time any Horsetalk reader is passing through the town!

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Earlier in the year, "The Big Bang Theory" star Kaley Cuoco showed us the war wounds from her serious horse accident the year before, when her lower right leg got mashed.

One of the scars on Kaley Cuoco's leg, shown in the video below.
Cuoco appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, explaining the circumstances of her riding accident.

Cuoco had gone into emergency surgery following the accident in October last year, knowing there was a chance she might lose her lower leg.

Cuoco described how she fell off her horse and it walked over her. The sound of her bones breaking sounded like crunching leaves, she said.

She showed off two scars - one just above the ankle bone on the outside of her leg, where she said the bone had protruded, and another, much longer surgical scar, running up the front of her leg from just above the foot.

Surgeons inserted two steel bars in her leg to stabilise the shattered bone.

"The good thing about that is I know when it's going to rain," she says.

"I literally feel like I'm 110 years old ... 'the storms are coming'," she says.


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Another well-known face was cooking up a little gossip in January. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay said his recent puffy face and nightmarish hair were not as a result of cosmetic surgery, but a horse allergy and a dousing with petrol.

Ramsay had been photographed with a puffy face and tousled hair while holidaying in California, which the tabloid media suggested may have been the result of hair treatments and cosmetic surgery.

However, Ramsay, in a conference call with reporters, explained that his puffy face resulted from a bad allergic reaction to horses when he went horseback riding with his kids over Christmas.

The "hair nightmare" resulted from being doused in petrol while chasing crooks in Costa Rica while doing a documentary on the illegal trade in shark fins.

The dousing resulted in a scalp reaction and an infection, he said.

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Ramsay is not the only culinary delight we're able to offer you.

It was revealed in February that the Hokitika Wild Foods Festival in New Zealand would have shots of horse semen on the menu.

If you think that's just plain silly, you probably would have gone for the ram's testicles, grubs or sea kelp instead.

The studly offering garnered international attention.

The keenest festival-goers were able to drink it straight, but it could also be taken with cherry, licorice or banoffee pie flavouring.

Lindsay Kerslake, a Christchurch racehorse owner, got the idea after hearing about people who drank bull semen.

"You'll have as much zizz as a stallion for a week afterwards," he told Fairfax Media.

The shots were $NZ10 each.

The semen was collected in the same way it would be gathered for artificial insemination.

The March festival offers an adventurous - some would say outrageous - menu that has earned it a place in Frommers Travel Guides list of the top 300 unmissable festivals in the world.

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No year would be complete without someone thinking it's a good idea to slap a police horse.

A woman in St Petersberg, Florida, was arrested for allegedly slapping a police horse on the nose.

Reports indicate the mounted officer was on crowd control duties around 3am on a Saturday in January when a hotel patron, 29, slapped the horse.

Police alleged she also pushed against the horse with her other hand.

The woman contacted local media after her release to explain she had left a bar with friends on the instructions of a police officer.

She was waiting for one of her friends when, "a horse was literally right in my face, all of a sudden, so I put my hand up into his face as a reaction".

She denied slapping the horse. "I was basically getting it out of my face."

Her arrest was on a misdemeanor charge of battery on a police horse.

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Analysis of a French study has revealed that dressage horses appear to be the stress bunnies of the horse world. © Kit Houghton/FEI
February delivered evidence, in the form of a French study, that dressage horses appear to be the stress bunnies of the horse world.

The researchers took more than 100 adult horses from different careers and put them through standardised behavourial tests.

They found that dressage and high-school horses showed higher levels of anxiousness than those taking part in other disciplines.

The findings have implications for people. It suggests that the type of work people do may be an important factor in the development of their personalities.

The horse study was able to eliminate many of the environmental factors that could cloud research into humans.

The horses used for the study lived at the Ecole Nationale d'Equitation, at Saumur, in France.

Which all goes to show you really have to pick the right horse for the right job.

A case in point unfolded in March.

It's rare for an erection to get in the way of a production of Jane Eyre, but it seems the latest movie adaptation of the classic novel struck just that problem.

The horse ridden by German-born Irish actor Michael Fassbender, who plays Edward Rochester, kept getting an erection when he went to ride it.

Staff ran the animal around the block to reduce its ardour, but when Fassbender hopped on again, the erections made their grand return.

Michael Fassbender in a scene from Jane Eyre. © Focus Features
The rude interlude was described by 21-year-old Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, who played the title character, in an interview with Movieline.com.

"There was a horse on the third day of filming when we were shooting the scene where Jane and Rochester meet," Wasikowska explained, "and every time Michael hopped on the horse it got a huge erection.

"He'd get off and they'd run the poor thing around the block to try to make it go away, and he'd hop on it again and it would happen all over again, and they'd have to get him off and run it around."

Moveline referred to it as the "Fassbender Effect".

"Michael had a very ... huge effect on any horse he got on," Wasikowska recalled.

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No equine year is complete without a tale or two about donkeys, and few can stand prouder in 2011 than Dotty the donkey from Scarborough, in England.

Dotty received a bravery award for intervening to save her sheep mate, Stanley, from a dog attack.

Dotty received a coveted bravery award from the charity PDSA (People's Dispensary for Sick Animals) after galloping in to save Stanley, who was being savaged by a dog on the farm where they live.

Dotty's brave deed occurred when a dog entered the animals' shared paddock and launched a frenzied attack on defenceless Stanley.

Seeing the sheep's plight, Dotty intervened and pinned the dog to the ground until it let go of Stanley.

As a result of the attack, a terrified Stanley lost two teeth and suffered facial paralysis.

Nearly two years on, Stanley is now fully recovered and never far from his rescuer - even sharing the same stable at night.

PDSA is a charity that provides more than 2.2 million free treatments to sick and injured pets and more than 360,000 preventive treatments through its PetAid hospitals.

"Dotty was so brave that day," said her 63-year-old owner, Ann Rogers.

"She saw her friend Stanley in distress and charged down the field to rescue him from the dog's jaws."

PDSA senior veterinary surgeon Elaine Pendlebury says Dotty's behaviour was outstanding. "Donkeys are very stoical and protective animals. Often when faced with a threat, they will rise up to face their enemy, in this case an aggressive dog.

"Dotty showed herself to be a true protector of the animals she sees as her family, and her bravery saved Stanley from further harm, and possibly death."

Ann Rogers rescued Dotty three years ago when she saw the skinny and frail donkey tethered on the roadside. She is stablemate to five-year-old Stanley, who was orphaned as a newborn lamb.

They share the fields around Row Brow Farm with a menagerie of pets and rescued animals, including rabbits, goats, peacocks and llamas.

The PDSA Certificate for Animal Bravery was instituted in 2001 and Dotty is the 10th recipient, alongside nine dogs.

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Another donkey failed to reach such heights, but made headlines nonetheless.

It ate its way through voter registration forms in a town in Colombia.

Pampanillo Mayor Felipe Turizo Lobo confirmed the donkey munched through several filled-out forms before being caught by the local registrar of electors.

The donkey left the office voluntarily without a police escort.

He took his chance for a quick snack when the registrar stepped out for a few minutes to go to the bathroom.

The destruction of the forms was immediately reported to the Registrar of San Fernando, and new ones were sent.

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One donkey took it to the next level, and entered a mayoral race in Bulgaria.

Yes, voters in the Black Sea city of Varna had the opportunity to say neigh to human politicians and instead vote for Marko.

Incumbent mayor Kiril Yordanov reportedly refused to share a platform with Marko.

Marko was nominated by a marginal Bulgarian political party called Society for New Bulgaria.

A "positive" campaign was promised from the donkey.

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Some of us like to keep an eye on equestrian properties. Those with some loose change may have been tempted by a slice of Wyoming paradise that came on the market in July.

Jackson Land and Cattle went on the market for $US175 million.

With a huge 52-stall equestrian centre, it was considered possibly the most expensive piece of real estate for sale in the United States at the time.

The 1750-acre cutting horse and cattle ranch is known as Jackson Land and Cattle, and is located in a valley next to the town of Jackson. It went on the market for $US175 million.

It comprises rolling timbered hills with aspens and evergreens, large productive hay meadows, fishing ponds, a spring creek, tremendous views of the Tetons and one of the pre-eminent equestrian facilities in the west.

Ranch real estate specialist Hall and Hall, which is marketing the property, describe the ranch as the finest offering available in arguably the nicest resort community in the country.

The 52-stall equestrian centre was designed by Jonathan Foote.

However, those expecting a mansion to match the price will be disappointed. There is a three-bedroom home, a four-bedroom guest/bunkhouse and two employee apartments on the property.

Landscaping and improvements are immaculate, Hall and Hall says.

The property came with the right to be subdivided into 35 house lots.

Now, where did I leave my chequebook?

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We suspect that Joey the War Horse will be the strong, silent type. Not so Mister Ed!

Mister Ed and Wilbur.
We reported in October that the popular 1960s television series "Mister Ed", about a talking horse, is to be made into a movie.

Fox 2000 picked up the film rights to make a movie based on the series, in which the trouble-making Mister Ed provided no end of problems for his hapless owner, Wilbur Post, played by Alan Young.

The film is to be produced by David Friendly and Jim Mahoney.

Elizabeth Gabler's Fox 2000 studio was also behind the 2006 production of "Flicka".

"Mister Ed" screened in the US in the early to mid 1960s.

The show screened for six seasons and 144 episodes. The famous theme song was sung by Jay Livingston and the music written by Jack Cookerly and Dave Kahn.

The star of the show was a palomino gelding named Bamboo Harvester and his English voice was that of Allan Lane. Mister Ed would talk only to Wilbur and he was a notorious trouble-maker.

Bamboo Harvester was a saddlebred-arabian cross, and was a show and parade horse before starring on TV. He was euthanised in 1968 at the age of 19 because of several health problems, including arthritis. His TV double was a horse named Pumpkin.

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Finally, the news all horse owners have been waiting for.

In November, it was revealed that riding-related activities - even mucking out - give people enough of a workout to please state authorities in Britain.

'Riding-related activities' - including mucking out - make for a good workout, a British study has declared.
Research commissioned by the British Horse Society has proved that regular participation in horse riding is good for people's health on several levels.

The research, carried out by the University of Brighton in partnership with Plumpton College, looked into the health and wellbeing benefits of horse-based sport and leisure.

The findings proved that horse riding and activities associated with horse riding, such as mucking out, expend sufficient energy to be classed as moderate intensity exercise - the level of activity recommended by the Government/National Health Service that, when done for 150 minutes a week, will help to keep people healthy.

So, there you are. Can that gym membership, sell that tennis racket and put away those running shoes. Jump on your horse instead - but be sure to clean up after it for a complete workout.