FROM SPARTAN TO SUGARFOOT
By Carol Hansson
Beautiful, majestic, calm, inquisitive… and a star.” That is how Amber Marshall, star of CBC’s Heartland, describes Spartan, one of her equine co-stars. Heartland is a family show set in the foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, which is currently filming its sixth season. The show features many horses, as Amy Fleming, Amber’s character, is a “horse whisperer.” Many of the episodes include guest horses, as different clients bring their troubled horses to Amy for rehabilitation.
Working with horses is not a new experience for Leila Basen, one of the writers for Heartland. She has had horses her whole life, as her father purchased her first horse at the age of five. “I get to use all my years of knowledge and personal experience… for my writing,” she commented. “A lot of the stories are loosely based on things that happened to me or things that happened to people I know.”
Most of the horses used in the show are owned by John Scott, head wrangler and well known in the movie industry. With 160 horses used exclusively for film, John’s herd includes “cast horses” (bombproof horses for actors to ride) and trained stunt horses, when bucking, rearing or falling are called for. Rocky and Stormy, both Quarter horses, play Spartan, Amber’s main mount on the show. Season five’s finale, with Amber’s performance on Spartan and Zephyr, actually includes two horses that double Spartan; Zyada, a six-year-old Quarter horse, and Sunny, a 10-year-old registered Paint, both owned by Niki Flundra, stunt rider for Heartland.
Training horses for Heartland is more involved than other shows. As Amy deals with many problem horses, these horses have to react the way the script calls for (such as spooking when being loaded into a trailer). “It’s always adverse horse training,” says John. “You have somebody inside the trailer with an umbrella or an air hose underneath the trailer to make the horse spook back. It’s tougher to make them not do what’s right and then you’ve got to correct them later on.”
Of all the horses in the show, it seems Graham Wardle, who plays Ty Borden, has chosen Sugarfoot, the white mini, as his favourite. Sugarfoot (Little Chief, owned by Leo Coss and Margaret Thiessen) is an inspiration to Graham.
“He thinks he’s a big horse…” says Graham. “When he pulls Mrs. Bell’s cart and when he runs, he doesn’t think of himself as a little horse, he’s like, ‘I am a horse!’”
As Graham did not have very much in the way of horsemanship skills when he started Heartland (“I was about two weeks ahead of my character,” he says, when he first began), he finds that after five seasons with the show, “I definitely have a good understanding and enough experience to feel comfortable and enjoy hanging out with them.”
Amber Marshall has plenty of horse experience to draw on for her character. She has been riding since a very young age and during the off-season, she team ropes and works with Cash, her buckskin Quarter horse, who she has had since he was a weanling
When asked about who gives the horses training cues on set, Amber says: “Horses are very instinctual, they’ll feed off body language… they’re going to want to follow the wrangler [if the wrangler was giving the cues], and then you’d have to have someone right in the shot with you. I usually like to learn the techniques and then do it myself.”
Working with horses certainly makes things interesting on set. “Horses are unpredictable; you never know what they’re going to do,” says Amber. “There’s been times when we’ll be in an emotional intimate scene and the horse will start trying to chew on the boom above us or flip off my cowboy hat or something that’s not expected.”
Leila says that in this upcoming season, “Amy begins to use her equine skills and her insights into horses to have insight into people around her.”
Look for season six of Heartland, premiering on CBC Television on Sunday, Sept. 23, at 7 p.m. (7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland).
Carol Hansson lives in Prince George, B.C., with her husband, two horses and two rabbits. When not writing for her business Blossom Editing, she enjoys reading sci-fi/fantasy and watching Heartland.