Bringing War Horses to Life

By: Horse Deals

Bringing War Horses to Life
Bringing War Horses to Life

War Horse, the smash hit West End play, is a wonderful piece of theatre and a moving tribute to the sacrifice the horse has made for man throughout history. But that’s not the only reason all horse-lovers should see it.

The puppeteers who bring the show’s stars to life offer a compelling insight into equine body language — something few of us truly understand, even after a lifetime with horses.  Followers of Monty Roberts have evangelised it for decades, yet to many, horse behaviour is still a fringe interest compared with the latest training aids or high-tech feed — even though both those are often quick fixes for our failures to understand the horse in the first place.

So what can we learn from "Joey" and "Topthorne" — and how have puppeteers with no equine heritage got right to the heart of the horse?

The puppets for the stage play were developed in South Africa by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of the renowned Handspring Puppet Company. Over an intense 18-month period, they overcame many operational problems to get the horse’s muscle groups, co-ordination and locomotion right. The more subtle nuances are, though, down to the puppeteers — and even animal experts are impressed. Vet and psychologist Dr Roger Mugford reviewed War Horse for a national paper when it first opened at the National Theatre.

"We see the star Joey accurately represent most of the important equine behavioural repertoire," he said. "I was impressed by important details that are too often missed, even by experienced horseowners. "In real life, animals are never still. They breathe, quiver, sway and shift weight between legs, even at rest — and so did the War Horses."

Horse behaviourist Justine Harrison says horseowners often fall into the trap of likening the physical gestures of horses to those of humans. "Understanding precisely what the horse is communicating can be difficult if we don’t know what to look for," she says. "Horses have evolved to communicate using subtle body language signals and slight postural changes that are often difficult for us to notice. But one of the biggest problems is that many horseowners make anthropomorphic assumptions about their horse’s behaviour based on their experience of people rather than on an understanding of the horse’s instinctive reactions."

So for puppeteer Toby Olie it was an advantage to have no horse knowledge at all.

"Puppetry holds up a magnifying glass," he explains. "With human puppets you’re seeing all your mannerisms anew, consciously trying to show breath or to investigate the sort of effort involved in standing up and down. Because we’ve all been around humans a long time, you know when it’s not working for you."

For War Horse, the puppeteers embarked on a steep learning curve about how horses move and what triggers every response. They visited (and still visit) working horses on a farm in Kent, racehorses in Sussex and the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery, where latter-day gunners were put through their paces for them at Wormwood Scrubs. They weren’t there to learn to ride or handle horses and so unlike most aspiring horsemen, applied forensic concentration to horse interaction on the ground.

Two people operate the horses from inside the body, with an external puppeteer at the head. Toby, who has worked his way up from the tail, says: "The head is the emotional indicator, the heart is the breath and the hind controls the tail, though we all have the means to be expressive.

"I’m constantly aware of the ears. Although some movements were originally choreographed, I’m always watching what the horse is looking at and trying to express his comfort levels." The human cast also improvises and over the four-year run, Toby has virtually become Joey, responding spontaneously and often to the unexpected.  "Once, a light exploded in the show. We, the puppeteers, didn’t flinch but the horse did! His chest rose and his tail went tense. I was very proud of that — it was a really cool thing to happen," explains Toby. "And when someone’s mobile goes off in the audience, you’d normally pretend not to have heard it, but now we let Joey react. It’s also an acknowledgement to turn off the phone!"

Early in the play, Joey is sold as a yearling. He becomes rooted to the spot, his chest heaving, from fear of the strange noise, smells and confined space of the auction ring. He then goes to Farmer Narracott, whose son Albert tries to train him. Both these scenes especially impressed Roger Mugford. "For instance, ears back and one foreleg lifted are stress indicators," he says.  "Then the avoidance of direct eye contact was used to facilitate the bonding processes of Albert with Joey. It was a very good Monty Roberts-style demonstration of how to make friends with any frightened animal: walk away and don’t stare."

Toby has always been especially pleased with the auction scene. Yearling Joey has rigid legs, not because it’s harder to operate the limbs of a small puppet, but because it makes the gawkiness of a young horse more effective.

Toby explains: "For our first workshop in 2006, we made a foal out of cardboard and garden cane, with broom handles for the legs. This gave a gangly naivety to his construction and helped convey the movement and temperament, especially when he was under stress. So there was never a question of giving him jointed legs later, though he did get an upgrade from the broom handles.

"We use Joey as a foal to set up the audience, as we want people to be engaged on the horse-language level. We plant ideas and educate them that the horse has a blind spot and suggest reasons why he bucks.

"The brilliant thing about puppets is to show the bare minimum, so that the public can apply imagination. With the baby horse, you’re warming up the audience for this and helping to suspend their disbelief. By the time you meet grown-up Joey, the puppeteers are, I hope, no longer intrusive."

The cast is constantly rehearsing and revisiting horse-speak, and Monty Roberts and his British star pupil Kelly Marks have given valuable advice.  "They came to watch the final night of first version and thought they could be of help, especially in the scene where horses fight," says Toby. "We originally had only the front legs kicking but Monty told us a lot about horse language: that the back kick is the punch and the front finishes the job off."

Not surprisingly, several puppeteers have developed an interest in the real thing. "But if someone wanted to take up riding as a hobby it could be awkward — our contracts are eight months a year and we mustn’t get hurt," says Toby. "I did ride at the King’s Troop on one of the gun carriage teams. My horse knew I was a novice, so got too close to the next one, squashing my leg really hard."

As in real life, actors have now become complacent around horses they "know".

"You can get used to what a puppet can do and there must be some discipline with a real horse," says Toby. "On stage, the comfort levels mean we tend to walk too close to them, and both in the play and in real life you need to remember how intimidating and powerful horses can be. There is always a potential for danger!"

Steven Speilberg’s film may be out next year, but it seems we can’t get enough of the play. More than 875,000 people have already seen War Horse, and 130,000 more tickets were released when the run — now at the New London Theatre, Drury Lane —was extended to February 2012. Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book also goes to Broadway next spring.

What’s the story about? Joey, a hunter foal, is sold to Farmer Narracott and bonds closely with his teenage son Albert, who teaches him to plough to justify his existence on the farm. At the outbreak of World War I, Narracott betrays his son by selling Joey as an officer’s charger and he is shipped to France. He is soon caught up in enemy fire and during an extraordinary odyssey with his companion Topthorne, serves on both sides before finding himself trapped in No Man’s Land. Meanwhile, Albert cannot forget Joey and, though not old enough to enlist, runs away and embarks on a treacherous mission to find him.

Tickets range from £15-£49.50. Phone 0844 412 4654 or visit

Misreading the signs

Justine Harrison says everyday misinterpretations of horse body language will lead to problems in handling and training.

  • A droopy bottom lip suggests the horse is relaxed or dozing.  But says Justine: "In fact, a horse in severe pain may have its ears turned slightly backwards and down and have a droopy bottom lip, plus tension in the jaw as a result of tightly-clenched teeth. Noticing that tension could make all the difference in a horse getting the prompt treatment it requires."

  • A "frozen" stance suggests the horse is difficult or lazy: "In a frightening situation a horse’s first choice would be flight; however, if there’s no apparent escape route or the horse is restricted, we may see them ‘freeze’. This is particularly true of native breeds and draft horses; cobs have a reputation for being stubborn, but their unwillingness to move in a specific situation may actually be a very natural fear response. Such misunderstandings may lead a rider to punish their horse, which will in turn make the horse more anxious and can lead to serious behavioural problems."

  • Chewing a rope suggests a form of play: "It’s more likely chewing will be a form of stress behaviour or ‘displacement’ as a result of being frustrated or fearful of being tied-up."

  • Yawning suggests the horse is tired: "But a horse that yawns repeatedly when a new farrier picks up his feet may be fearful or nervous of the situation, rather than simply tired."

  • Pointing a toe suggests the horse is resting: "It’s quite common for a horse to rest alternate hindlegs, but if it isn’t bearing its full weight on a foreleg or is ‘pointing’, there’s most likely a pain issue requiring veterinary investigation." 

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