Last updated on April 22nd, 2021 at 12:34 amActor William Shatner shares his seven decades with horses.
William Shatner is an award-winning actor, director, producer, musician, and celebrity pitchman and a New York Times bestselling author. After a successful Broadway and international stage career, Mr. Shatner is best known for the film role of James T. Kirk in the Star Trek movie series, as Kirk in the original Star Trek television series, as T.J. Hooker on Hooker, and as Denny Crane on Boston Legal.
A lifelong love affair of horses and his amazing charity work may surprise many of his fans. For those unaware of this aspect of Mr. Shatner’s life and work with horses, his new book Spirit of the Horse: A Celebration in Fact and Fable with Jeff Rovin, will be both an eye-opening experience and even more so, a heartwarming one.
Mr. Shatner approached the book from a unique perspective. He combined the horse-related writings of legendary literary figures with his own tales and experiences throughout the decades, both as a rider and as someone who has seen the great restorative effects of horses. Mr. Shatner first rode on horseback more than seven decades ago. There was an instant connection. Riding came naturally to him, and a passion and fascination for these magnificent creatures was born. To this day, he remains heavily involved in horses and their ability to change people’s lives; hence, he continues to spearhead the annual Hollywood Charity Horse Show.
INTRODUCTION: THE ZEN OF RISK
Most of us take some kind of risk or other. A new relationship; changing jobs; not studying as hard as we should for an exam; skydiving.
Of course, some of us are a little crazier than others. If my life were a movie or a TV series, what I’m about to tell you would be the precipitating event that caused me to look back at how I got here. Sort of like Sunset Boulevard, only without the swimming pool… and I’m also still alive!
Since you’re reading this book, you’ve already gathered that horses are a huge part of my life. They have been for more than thirty years. Without a doubt, horses are magnificent animals. Since almost everyone has seen one on-screen, or in a stable, or being ridden through city streets by a police officer, or even performing in a rodeo or a circus, you know that already. Perhaps you’ve ridden one. But, as with most sports, there is also an inherent danger when riding.
I want to talk about that for a moment, the appeal of danger to me personally. It comes with the pro forma “Don’t try this at home, kids.”
When I do road races like the celebrity Grand Prix in which everybody is riding a powerful, souped-up vehicle and trying to kill each other—figuratively speaking, of course; it’s more like bumper cars for thrill-seeking adults—I think, at 150 miles an hour, when I’m going into a right-hand turn, “Man, I’m going to lose it here.” In that moment, I am euphoric. I took flying lessons where my opening class was conducted by this military adviser who put the plane in a tail-over-nose, wing-over-wing maneuver. You are, quite literally, tumbling in the air, and I thought, “I’m gonna die.” In 2015, I partnered with American Wrench on TV for a cross-country motorcycle ride to benefit the American Legion. A 2,400-mile journey on a wonderful, custom-built but untested machine. Like a horse, there was a lot of power under my butt. A lot of that employed at high speeds on sharp turns that I wasn’t always sure I could hold. But you never know until you try.
The bottom line is, I’ve been “going to die” at a variety of sports, from riding horses to racing cars. In fact, you drive high-performance cars with your ass, the way you drive a horse. Movement is felt in your butt and communicated to the rest of the body; it tells your arms, legs, and spine what to do and how to move. Which is a roundabout way of saying a good horseman will make a good driver. And vice versa…though, unlike cars, horses have a mind and will of their own and the musculature to enforce both.
We are, after all, talking about animals that can stand up to 17 hands high—which is over five and a half feet and weigh on average slightly more than half a ton. Animals who are spirited by nature. That’s a lot of strength and temperament to try to overcome. I try—I try hard, try diligently—to do that and am mostly successful. But not always.
The natural reaction of non–horse people, when I talk about some of the horse-riding accidents I’ve had, is, “Bill, why would any sane, reasonable person want to pursue this?” And they have a point. If I’m injured, acting is not something I can easily do from a hospital bed. But when you love something— anything—sanity and practicality are not always your guiding principles.
And I love horses. As the poet says—let me count the ways!
This book was inspired by my desire not only to give my perspective on the excitement of the race and my love of horses, but to share the thoughts and experiences of others. I have selected some of my favorite equine nonfiction and fiction, myth and folktale, prose and verse. While all of these selections stand on their own as entertaining, informative, and/or quaint narratives, I have also written extensively about my own expe- riences to provide context for them. Together, I hope, these works will illuminate the experiences and joys, setbacks and triumphs of those who spend time in the company of horses.
THE FOUR-LEGGED OLYMPIAN
Horses are Olympic athletes. It’s up to the rider to try to govern that power, that elegance, that perfection, that will. Failing that, failing to merge with and control that power, you’re just a passenger. And a very vulnerable one at that.
I was on a beloved Saddlebred. Saddlebreds are descended from proud, spirited riding stock whose line dates back to the American Revolution. Hence the epithet “the Horse America Made.”
The Saddlebred’s nature is to be highly emotional, highly evolved, with lots of high-energy motion, a high neck—hell, everything about them is high. And it is the job of the rider and the trainer to channel all that energy into whatever performance the horse is supposed to give.
Now, some of these horses have all of those distinctive characteristics, only they are less highly charged. Or maybe they are a little slower for some other reason. As a result, they are sometimes made into Western pleasure horses, animals known for their generally relaxed demeanor.
This particular horse I was riding was a really good example of that. I had purchased him because he had vital Saddlebred energy, but he didn’t have enough motion in his legs. So I decided to make him into a Western pleasure horse, because his beauty, and the motion of the legs that he did possess, could have made him a champion of that type, because a Western pleasure horse has to walk, jog, and lope.
This particular horse was trained for two years by the Kentucky trainers whose job it is to handle these American Saddlebreds, to develop them to their full potential according to their breeding—which is to be show horses.
An essential part of this training is desensitization. This is an ongoing process. The trainer, the rider, both have to be extremely alert to new stimuli, to new and diferent things every day, at home or on the road. It might be a kind of bird or dog, it might be a crowd.
Think, for just a moment about police horses and what they have to endure. Their trainers make noises, blow whistles, fire shots, break bottles, bang garbage cans, have people crowding around to make sure the horse is accustomed to these distractions. I saw some footage recently of the O. J. Simpson trial, when the crowd reacted to the jury’s verdict outside the court house and the police horses were all lined up in case of trouble. Even with all their training, even with highly experienced police officers on their backs, as soon as the crowd erupted with this elemental shout, all the police horses shied. And several police officers almost came off their horses. For riders, this fundamental desensitization training is essential and very, very serious work.
After that basic desensitizing and training, this one horse eventually came to my Western trainer, Danny Gerardi, who trains all the Quarter Horses I own for reining—which is a sport that we’ll get to later in the book. But the big difference is that reiners don’t need to walk, jog, and lope: they need to gallop hard, slide to a stop, and do 180-degree turns. Fast turns and fast circles—the old, classic cowboy discipline, if you will.
One of the first things that needs to happen in this phase is that they have to be acclimatized in particular to horse shows, because stadiums and arenas, even a simple, ordinary stable, are filled with noise and strange things and beings. So we were at this one particular horse show where—in addition to all of the above—a parade on its way to the stadium goes right past the very stalls that our horses are in. With a little bit of preparation, not a problem. We have to close the stalls up and not let the horses see or hear the marching and floats and bands and the rest of the hubbub on its way to the venue. Understandably, if they get a glimpse of that parade it gets them excited and they start jumping around in their stalls.
So I’m on the back of this magnificent animal, comforting it, refamiliarizing it with me—and my hat blows off. When it comes to horses, you can factor in many things, you can control a bunch of them, but the wind doesn’t fall into either category. Somebody went to pick up the hat and hand it to me. Well, as that is happening my Western pleasure horse shies and I fall to the ground. I come off the horse. And it’s all right because I wasn’t hurt, just startled. I get back up, I get back on the horse, thinking, “Okay, that hat thing was unexpected.”
If this had happened in a play, that would have been called “foreshadowing.” If this had been a Greek play, Poseidon, the god of horses—more on him, later—would have been stroking his beard and chuckling behind the chorus.
The parade’s done, the coast is clear, I go out, and now I’m riding this horse—walk, jog, and lope. And it’s a very hot day. That’s something you can’t avoid. You react to that, instinctively: I went to wipe the perspiration from my forehead, not even thinking that it would disturb my hat. That inspired my Western pleasure horse to whirl around so quickly that when I came off the horse—hard, this time—I was driven into the ground so roughly that I broke my leg. I felt it go, knew it at once, and I had to be rushed to the hospital. The only good thing was I’d fallen enough by then to know how to do it, even though I was older. For example:
I was in competition in Louisville, Kentucky, and a young horse reared on me. Keep in mind, it’s nothing like you see in the movies, where Zorro’s horse Tornado goes back on his rear legs and stays there as Zorro waves at the camera while lightning flashes behind them. Uh-uh. This horse I was on reared and I began to fall over backward. Instinctively, I grabbed the reins to try to recover my seat. Instead, I succeeded in pulling the horse backward with me. Very un-Zorro-like. My initial thought—and you do have time to think, because the seconds slow to a surprising crawl—was that he was going to crush me. That’s almost like having a Volkswagen Beetle roll over on you. (There’s a scene in the film How the West Was Won, during the Cheyenne attack, where a horse and rider fall on an incline and the horse slowly rolls over the stuntman. Some things you just cannot anticipate.)
Anyway, everything is relative, right? I landed very, very hard, but “lucky” for me, in the last instant the horse went down to the side, and all he did was crush my leg. And then he got up, and he was fine, and I went to get up, and I wasn’t fine. I got up, and I fell right back down.
As I’m lying there, kind of catching my breath and figuring out what to do next, a guy I didn’t even know jumped on me, arms out like he was smothering a fire, and said, “Stay down, we’re calling an ambulance.” And I said, “Don’t call an ambulance, I’ll be okay.” And he said, “You could be bleeding inside.” And I lay back down and said, “Call an ambulance!”
Three good things came out of that accident. This isn’t just a matter of me looking on the bright side of life, which I always try to do; they really were very, very positive.
The first benefit was that I learned how not to fall.
The second benefit was a visit with some wonderfully professional people at the Humana hospital in Louisville. They were very reassuring, in the best tradition of the medical profession, and it wasn’t just because they were treating Captain Kirk. I had the time to watch them interact compassionately with everyone they cared for. I was grateful to hear that while I had some nerve damage it would be all right. And so it was.
The third benefit—speaking of Captain Kirk—is that the lesson of getting up and falling down, getting up and falling down, gave me the insight on how to play the death scene in Star Trek Generations. When the script called for me—him—to be shot in the back and he falls to the ground, I thought, “I’ll just do what I did with the horse. I’ll get up, I’ll fall down, I’ll get up, I’ll fall down.” So that’s what I did. It was very effective. Art imitated life.
That’s a recurring theme in this book. You’re going to hear from some wonderful authors writing about our favorite animals, each of these authors having had different ideas, different experiences with horse
Excerpted from SPIRIT OF THE HORSE, A Celebration in Fact and Fable, by William Shatner with Jeff Rovin. Thomas Dunne Books, published on May 23rd, 2017.