The mark of Heath

December 15, 2005

Training for the fire jump stunt, Legend of Zorro Mexico 2004 (Krissy Harris in the saddle)
Krissy Harris training for the fire jump stunt, for the movie Legend of Zorro, in Mexico 2004.

We're all familiar with the mark of Zorro, but Australian Heath Harris is used to leaving his own unique mark on movie and television productions.

The Legend of Zorro, about to open in cinemas around the world, features a spectacular horse stunt which many thought would be impossible to execute.

Heath worked out the logistics of the stunt, story-boarded it, and designed the manoeuvres in the scene, that involves horses and a speeding train.

Heath had actually worked out the stunt many years earlier, before the common use of special digital effects in movie-making. Quite some time later he was asked to put it all together for The Legend of Zorro.

He and wife Krissy went to Mexico to train the animals and riders. They used bullfighting horses which they found to be both brave and bright. To train these horses they used their three-day-eventing and showjumping experience.

"We were able to get what we wanted and deliver the goods by utilising these Olympic equestrian disciplines coupled with our movie horse training techniques", he explains.

Heath Harris owned his first pony at 12, bought from Parramatta Sale Yards with money earned selling papers. At age 14, much to the Lane Cove neighbour's disgust, Heath was an accomplished horse dealer, buying and selling about four ponies a month which he kept in the back yard.

At 16, Heath went bush - jackerooing, horse breaking, and contesting rodeos. He learnt about the outback, the ways of the men and the horses; about bushcraft and saddle making. In 1968 Heath settled down on a property he literally carved out of the bush at Ingleside where he ran a boarding stable, rode and bred competition horses, and started teaching actors to ride.

Heath's abilities diversified - he became a fully qualified stunt co-ordinator, action director and second unit director, creative consultant to advertising agencies and producer/director. Above all, Heath developed a unique method of training and preparing horses and other animals for the film and television industry by utilising the animal's natural instincts to train him, he has become a world leading equine psychologist.

Young Black Stallion,  Drakensburg Ranges, South Africa, 2002
Heath Harris during training for The Young Black Stallion, Drakensburg Ranges, South Africa, 2002

Heath has horse-mastered, trained, stunt co-ordinated, and second-unit directed over 40 feature films and about 120 commercials and television series.

It is because of his knowledge of all things outback and his great love of rural history, that Heath was creative consultant to Marlboro for 12 years. His knowledge of the desert again stood him in great stead when a representative of H.H. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nayahan approached him in 1989 to train racing camels in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Heath, whom the desert people re-named Ra al Boitha (Arabic for 'shepherd of the white camel') spent 4 years living and working in the United Arab Emirates with the Bedouin.

Heath's entrepreneurial skills were soon realised, and he was appointed Director of Desert Veterinary Services for the Abu Dhabi Government. Heath implemented a number of 'world first' scientific projects including the world's first successful embryo transplant and he designed and built the embryo transplant clinic for racing camels. He also implemented the world's first serious physiological studies into racing camels. This was achieved by Heath's skill as an animal trainer, as the test camels had to be trained to run on a treadmill so the scientific data was accurate. Heath and the team published in scientific journals on the subject.

On returning to Australia in 1992, Heath got back into training horses, and stunt coordinating, whilst helping his wife Krissy put a seriously competitive showjumping team together. Krissy has been selected to represent Australia twice, at the World Cup Final in Sweden in 1997, and the World Equestrian Games in Rome in October 1998.

Heath's ability to co-ordinate people and animals abroad landed him the job as horse trainer on The Black Stallion television series in New Zealand, and the horse master and trainer on Derby produced by Jonathan Hackett, and filmed in South Africa and Kentucky in the late '90's.

After many short stints doing commercials, providing animals for local soap operas, and stunt coordinating for specialist series such as Who Dares Wins, Heath travelled to Namibia in 1998 to work on a Jean Jacques Annaud Film, produced by Lloyd Phillips. From there it was a short way to England and Spain, for some project development work with Jim Henson's Creature Shop in 1999.

Upon returning to Australia, Heath started training a new team of liberty horses to put his own live show together; "Heath Harris' Movie Magic" in which he explains to the audience how horses are trained for the movie business.

He demonstrates how they "lie down and die", how to create "wild stallion attacks", and other fascinating secrets from behind the scenes. At the same time Heath started training an all girl-stunt riding team called "Girls, Girls, Girls". The troupe of seven trick riders and horses perform their daredevil stunts, whip cracking, and song-and-dance routines, to audiences all over Australia.

Racing Stripes,  Nottingham Road, South Africa 2003
Racing Stripes, Nottingham Road, South Africa 2003
In 2001, Heath was the creative consultant and also trained the liberty horses for The Man From Snowy River live arena production at Sydney Royal and Brisbane Royal.

The following year saw Heath and Krissy back in Namibia filming the Young Black Stallion (IMAX) for Walt Disney Productions, and 2003 in South Africa for the feature Racing Stripes, a Warner Bros production.

It was another busy year in 2004, travelling to Mexico for the Legend Of Zorro production for Sony Pictures. Heath devised the train stunt, which was written into the script in 2002. In 2004, Heath and Krissy were employed to make the complex stunt sequences a reality. These stunts combined Heath's vast knowledge of the film industry with his expertise as a jumping horse trainer.

Heath is not just a "wrangler". He is one of an elite few specialising in movie horse training, live show production, and performing himself. After 30 years in the business, Heath does not lack for experience and still has enthusiasm for the job.

Heath's other passion is the HEF Foundation, set up by Dr Alex Tinson, Dr Gus McKinnon and Heath for the protection of endangered species of animals. Heath joins his animal handling and eductional skills with the veterinary and scientific reproductive knowledge of Alex and Gus to try through embryo transplant to increase the numbers of endangered species such as the Arabian Oryx, the Two Humped Bactrian Camels and Przewalski's Horse.

Heath, in conjunction with Suzy Jarratt, is working on a series of documentaries about the foundation.