12/20/2010 05:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Movie Stars and Horses Show the Coen's True Grit

On December 22, Paramount Pictures will release True Grit, and those hankering to see Academy Award winners Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, plus the talented Josh Brolin, will, undoubtedly stampede to the nearest theater. Need I mention it is a Western?

We love men in chaps, the gentle jingle of spurs, the scuffling sounds boots make on wooden floors, but this list can go no farther without nailing the one thing integral to a true Western: the horses. Rusty Hendrickson, Head Wrangler for the movie, worked with directors Joel and Ethan Coen to get the perfect fit between actors and their mounts. Critics analyze acting, directing, scripts, cinematography, sets, and costumes, but usually overlook the importance of the horses to the visual appeal, the action and the realism of a movie.

Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) rides Apollo, a big, sorrel, five year old gelding in True Grit. Bridges needed a big horse to fit his 6'2" height and solid build. Apollo weighed in around 1350 pounds and had the height to give Bridges a balanced look. The Coens wanted an "unusual looking horse" for La Boeuf (Damon) according to Hendrickson. Paints were considered, as well as Gypsy horses since the original novel by Charles Portis described the character's horse as shaggy. While on location in New Mexico, a local Appaloosa named Cowboy became available. Cowboy's lack of reaction to gunfire secured his role. Estimated to be about 20, Cowboy's flashy color added interest to the muted hues of the landscape and costumes.

Hailee Stienfeld plays Mattie Ross, the 14 year old protagonist, and her horse, Little Blackie, had to be, well, black. Cimarron, named for his New Mexico hometown, portrays Little Blackie. Cimarron's role requires him to swim a river carrying Stienfeld, and although only six, performs perfectly. Cimarron is of Driftwood breeding, and horses from this line are often said to have "kind eyes" which can be seen in movie stills from the production as he interacts with the young actress.

Hendrickson has over thirty years experience wrangling for the movie industry. He is quick to dispel any impression that he is a one-man operation. His son, Scout, worked as a stunt man on True Grit and Hendrickson credits Scout with much of the Apollo's training. Hendrickson's wife, Lisa Brown is a working partner, feeding and caring for the horses seven days a week, both on the set and at home. Many of the True Grit horses belong to the Hendrickson family.
In addition to the Hendrickson family, the wrangling crew includes two of Hendrickson's close friends, Monty Stuart and Mark Warrack.

With past work on successful films like Dances with Wolves, Flicka, Seabiscuit, and more recently Secretariat, several of Hendrickson's horses have played multiple roles. The horse (now named Biscuit) used for close-ups in Seabiscuit appears in True Grit pulling a buggy in town and is also ridden by a "bad guy" during another scene. "They need to be versatile," noted the wrangler, an observation that could apply to anyone trying to find work today. Ribbon, another Hendrickson horse, carried Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma, played the equine lead in Flicka, and worked as a double for Little Blackie in True Grit.

These horses and their wranglers do work. We see the finished product, not the hours of shooting and re-takes that comprise movie making. They are well trained professionals but seldom recognized or acknowledged. However, there is more than work involved. "Handling horses is not an exact science," Hendrickson observes. "It is about feel." The same could be said of most aspects of movie making.

Filming the classic scene where Rooster Cogburn holds both reins in his teeth as he fires two guns, mounted on a charging Apollo, showcases hours of training, planning, and conditioning by both horses and actors. The scene had elements of science and planning, but also of "feel." Movie making and wrangling share a blend of business and art. "My horses are business like, and so am I," said Hendrickson. But working with horses is more organic than filming with mere cars or planes, or special effects.

"The Coens were good to work with," said Hendrickson. "They were always willing to realign their expectations with what was realistic and natural for the horses. They would ask me, 'How's the horse? Is everything good with the horse?'" Perhaps this good working relationship between a veteran horseman and such talented American filmmakers bodes well for the future of the Western.

When the credits roll following True Grit, eventually Hendrickson's name will float upwards and disappear. He noted the credits appear alphabetically by task, and his decades in the trade have accustomed him to seeing his name as Wrangler appear near the end of the scroll. But at least his name is recorded for posterity, unlike the names of the stars that carry the stars of True Grit, names like Biscuit, Cowboy, Cimarron, and Apollo.