Falling Off Horses 01

Falling Off Horses
Part One

by John D. Ferguson

A Hollywood stuntman gets his start in motion pictures. 2,030 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.


1924 – Hollywood, California

Let me tell you the story of how I got to Hollywood.

My family is wealthy and, by that, I mean my elder brother, Charles “Babe” Wyatt and our mother Ellen Dryer Wyatt. They run the Wyatt Publishing enterprise. Also, there’s the horse breeding farm and ranch just west of Saratoga, New York, the mansion in Albany and the beach house in Glen Cove, Long Island. All of these residences and the publishing empire would not have been possible without my father, John “Black Jack” Wyatt. I didn’t follow in all of his footsteps but, then again, he was killed before my thirteenth birthday.

I ran away from home when World War I broke out to join the cavalry at Fort Upton. I was only sixteen but I planned to lie about my age and show off my horsemanship to those in charge. I figured they would certainly take me in once they saw how well I could ride and handle a rifle. I was filled with dreams of adventure and gallantry, helped along by reading President Teddy Roosevelt’s exploits in his days with the Rough Riders. I was told not to be ridiculous and that I still had to finish school. Who could think of school with great world events happening all around us? Clearly, my mother and Babe had their heads in the sand. Safety and security were for cowards and men of little imagination. I wanted to ride through the charging enemy, shooting a Colt .45 and swinging a gleaming saber.

My army years were uneventful, much to my great chagrin. After basic training, I was stationed at Fort Benning and spent the latter part of the Great War teaching aspiring Calvary officers how to ride. They were mostly city boys more attached to the tailoring of their uniforms then to the drills they were required to learn. I taught them to sit a horse, trot, canter and finally gallop. Soon the great horse would be replaced with a mechanized military; armored vehicles and airplanes.

After getting mustered out of the army, I spent most of the next two years getting reacquainted with the ranch in Saratoga. where I repaired stables and fences, took care of the horses and maintained the grounds. It was generally grunt work but I loved every minute and after a hard day of work I’d go to bed happy. My brother, however, felt I was wasting my time and feared that my restlessness and lack of ambition would lead me to a life as a dilettante.

So when I turned twenty-three, Babe threw me into the Wyatt publishing world where I was a total disaster. After only four months, Babe called me up to his office in midtown Manhattan where I also found my mother. My brother looked cheerful but my mother had that look of pity and sympathy planted on her face. Babe leaned back in his chair and said, “Maybe I jumped the gun, Caleb. Maybe this is my fault. And maybe you’re not born to this business the way I am.”

Babe picked up a folded slip of paper and handed it to me. “That’s a telephone number I want you to call. I spoke to Joe Kennedy. He’s producing Western motion pictures out in Hollywood and I told him that I had a younger brother who was just about the best handler of horses I ever saw. It turns out they can use a few hands on this new film they’re starting. Interested?”

What could I say? It seemed they were both pretty eager to get rid of me; well, at least out of the offices of Wyatt Publishing. And I was just as eager to get out of the stifling corporate atmosphere. I nodded and said, “Why not?”

“Good! Take the next train out to California. They’ll be expecting you in a week’s time.” Babe stood up and came around the desk and shook my hand. “You always wanted to go out West. You can take some time there and figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life.”

My mother and I embraced. She looked up at me — was she crying? — and held me by my shoulders. “It’s for the best, dear. Send us a telegram once you get there.”

I walked out of the office and onto the elevator. I loosened my collar and tie. I just got reprieved!

In ten days I was in the arid landscape of eastern California and on the set of a picture called Ridin’ The Wind, starring Fred Thomson and his horse Silver King. I was one of a half dozen wranglers on the set and our boss was a full-blooded Kiowa named Laughing Dog. He just told me to call him Pete. And Pete knew horses! I’de been around horses all my life and I felt sure that there wasn’t anything that I didn’t know about handling them. Pete showed me I was dead wrong.

He took me under his wing but I think that may have been as a special favor to Mr. Kennedy more than anything else. Pete had the map of the West stamped on his face; he could’ve been forty-five or seventy-five, I had no idea how old he really was. He was short, wiry and strong and taught me a whole new way to become a horseman.

Wranglers generally just made sure that all the horses were taken care of; fed, watered, groomed and ready for the next take on the picture. Occasionally we got to ride into a scene or hold the reins of Silver King himself, a handsome gray stallion who was hauled around in a custom built Packard van that probably cost more than most people’s houses. I heard that Fred Thomson bought Silver King in Ireland when he was on his honeymoon. His wife was a screenwriter, Frances Marion, and she saw potential in Thomson and his new horse. She wrote some scripts and made them movie stars.

These were still the pioneer days in the movie business and wranglers were responsible for taming any number of horses that could be corralled in the wild. On the Ridin’ The Wind set there were cowboys who came from as far as Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado herding dozens of horses, and it was Pete’s job to choose the best ones for the picture. He’d cut out a few stallions and one or two mares and a few of us wranglers got to put them through their paces and see if they had the right temperament to be on location. Pete would pay up to fifty or sixty dollars a head for the ones that passed muster. The cowboys made a fairly good livelihood hawking wild horses to motion picture people.

Pete’s own horse was an Appaloosa, a breed known for its multi-colored spotted coats and one of the rarest as they almost faced extinction at the end of the century. He was totally black from the muzzle to the mid-section and then spotted black and white to the tail. It was on this horse that Pete first showed me how to ride bareback; after several humiliating attempts I finally got the knack of balance and riding with the horse, keeping my body in the same rhythm and holding on to the mane for dear life.

Pictures were made with speed in those days; it took only a couple of weeks at the most to crank out a two-reel silent picture. Still there was a lot of waiting around on the set; directors and cameramen waited for the light to be at a certain angle if they were shooting outdoors. The set-up for each scene took time as actors and actresses were being dressed and had make-up applied. Pete used this time to show us how to hitch a team of horses to a stage coach or one horse to a buckboard.

On one lazy afternoon the director, Del Andrews, who would spit out tobacco juice in disgust or approval after each take, had us hitch a black mare to a wagon for a scene he needed for Fred Thomson’s character to have a romantic interlude with his leading lady. This actress was clearly not enjoying the outdoor moviemaking process. She was constantly in her tent when not on the set and complained about the heat, the food, the script and the smell of the horses.

This one scene had no action to it at all; just the two romantic leads sitting in the buckboard making up nonsense dialogue as they looked deeply into each other’s eyes. In the silent days every gesture had to be exaggerated so the audience could understand what the hell was going on. After the mare was hitched, I had one of the teen wranglers just stand there and hold the bridle while the actress took her place inside the buckboard. Fred was taking his time with lunch and after several minutes the young guy decided to go flirt with one of the younger bit players. The Leading Lady was sweating and dabbing her face with her handkerchief and didn’t even notice that her wrangler had wandered from his post.

It was at this moment that two bit players decided to have a mock showdown. The first one drew his Colt .45 and shot off a blank and spooked the mare hitched to the actress’ wagon. The mare reared back and then took off through the main street of the fake Western town.

Most of the cast and crew were just making their way back from the chuck wagon after finishing lunch when they saw the screaming leading lady getting bounced around the wagon as it headed out of town in a cloud of dust. I was leaning back in a chair on the sheriff’s fake front porch with my hat tipped over my eyes, trying to grab a quick nap before they called “Action!,” when I heard the screams.

Jumping up I saw the wagon hurtle pass me and extras scatter from the street as the mare took off for open spaces. I didn’t see Pete but I saw his horse-saddled so I made running leap off the porch onto the startled Appaloosa. I whacked its rump and we lit out after the runaway buckboard. Pete’s horse was well-trained and fast; as we came upon the wagon, rattling and swaying, kicking up dirt and gravel, the actress was trying to reach out to me, screaming her head off. I motioned to her to get back down inside the buckboard.

Now the smart thing to do would be to get to the head of the horse, grab the bridle and gently slow her down. I decided to go another way; whether it was instinct or just plain showing off. I got the Appaloosa even with the wagon and once the horse kept up a steady pace, I slipped my left foot under me, grabbed the horn of the saddle and leapt into the buckboard. I came in so hard I nearly knocked the leading lady off the other side! I grabbed her arm with one hand and pulled on the reins with the other. It took the mare another quarter mile before she slowed to a stop. I looked over and the actress’ eyes were wild with fear and anger; she called me a crazy bastard, slapped my face and then fainted. I slowly turned the wagon around and headed back to town, the Appaloosa patiently trotting by my side.

That afternoon I was promoted. But when I brought the Appaloosa back to Pete and waited for my reprimand, he just looked at me and, for the first time since I’d known him, Laughing Dog laughed. As we came up to the street a crowd had gathered, and cheers and sporadic applause hailed us as heroes.

Del Andrews, the director, came up to the wagon, spat on the ground, looked at me and said, “Can you do that again?”

Part Two

About The Author:
John D. Ferguson
John D. Ferguson is Director of Broadcast Operations at Starz Entertainment LLC overseeing the quality and origination of 46 nationally televised channels via cable and DBS transmission. He began his broadcast career at AMC Networks as a tape runner and worked his way up to Manager of Channel Scheduling. In 1995 he joined the Starz and Encore Networks as Traffic Manager to create a feature movie database and content library.

About John D. Ferguson

John D. Ferguson is Director of Broadcast Operations at Starz Entertainment LLC overseeing the quality and origination of 46 nationally televised channels via cable and DBS transmission. He began his broadcast career at AMC Networks as a tape runner and worked his way up to Manager of Channel Scheduling. In 1995 he joined the Starz and Encore Networks as Traffic Manager to create a feature movie database and content library.

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