In Walt Disney Pictures' latest adventure movie, Hidalgo, a special relationship develops between a rider and his horse. The story unfolds with a colourful horse, once considered to be unworthy of competition against other breeds, which defies the odds and proves his worth to the world. In the process, he forever endears himself to his owner, who never doubted the horse's spirit, loyalty or determination.
It's a story based on the life of Frank Hopkins and his horse, Hidalgo. Likewise, it is an accurate representation of the bond established between actor Viggo Mortensen, who portrayed Hopkins, and his new sorrel overo Paint Horse stallion, RH Tecontender, who played Hidalgo.
For Mortensen, the admiration for RH Tecontender, "TJ', started on the movie set, which moved from California to Montana to South Dakota, and then on to the deserts of Morocco.
'His ability, his intelligence were just so much in keeping with the story,' Mortensen said. 'He would just learn things so fast. I don't know what it is. His intense concentration and his ability to just relax were incredible, especially when we had people who didn't know much about horses running around and making noise. He didn't care. He would just stay calm.'
Mortensen related two scenes in particular, where TJ's talents proved to be exceptional. In one part of the story, Mortensen is seen running from a swarming mass of locusts that blacken the sky. He lies down with Hidalgo and throws a blanket over the top of both of them as a shield from the infestation.
'To get a horse to lie down like that 30 times in a row is not easy. To get him to hit the same spot over and over again, then to throw a blanket over him and blind him that way, well, most horses, especially stallions, are not going to put up with that. But TJ did.'
In an equally remarkable example of natural acting ability, TJ showed his intuitive ability to do what was expected of him by Mortensen and the directors.
'There's a scene where I'm at the camp before the start of the race in Arabia and I get up in the morning, crack my neck and go over to put my hat on a peg and I'm washing my face.'
In that scene, Mortensen explained, Hidalgo is supposed to pick up the hat with his mouth and bring it over to Hopkins. 'It's as if he's supposed to be saying, "Let's get out of here,'' Mortensen said.
A Paint named RJ Masterbug was trained to perform the task. He actually learned to pick up the hat, shake it and hand it to Mortensen. During the shoot, however, the directors wanted a close-up of the horse. Since TJ was the horse used for tight shots, it looked like another long round of training exercises for head wrangler Rex Peterson.
'TJ had been standing there the whole time, quietly, just watching Rex work with RJ. So, when they wanted this close-up, I said, "Well, let's just try it,' and we brought TJ in. The first time, TJ picks up the hat, gently holds it, and looks me right in the eye. Every take! I mean that was amazing.'
Mortensen said he enjoyed riding all five American Paint Horses in the film. 'I rode as much as I could, and I rode all of them.' Each of the horses, he said, displayed special talents.
Mortensen keeps TJ close by his work in Hollywood so he can ride him as often as possible. The Paint horse is currently stabled by Mortensen's friend just outside Los Angeles. Eventually, Mortensen said he will bring TJ to his ranch in Idaho to live with the horses he purchased from the sets of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.