More than just another mode of transport, Xena`s sleek Palomino Argo is a character in her own right. Tilly, the mare who has been with Xena since the beginning, plays Argo most of the time. However, like any other `actor`, Tilly has her stunt and body doubles too.
"There are actually three horses that make up the Argo character," explains horse wrangler Sandy Raynor. "There`s Tilly, who`s the one that Lucy rides. Lucy loves Tilly and Tilly`s really good with Lucy.
"Then there`s Barbie, who is Tilly`s stunt double; she does all the kicking and the rearing and the tricks.
"And then there`s Mac, who`s basically the body double. Mac does the riding on Second Unit." In practice this means that if the audience sees Xena riding off into the sunset at a distance, the Argo that the character is riding is probably Mac.
The three Argos are all between 10 and 14 years old - middle aged for horses. They were bought by Pacific Renaissance from different places around New Zealand and are housed at a 10-acre stable complex leased by the company.
Like any character with a distinct personality, Argo was created to be a major part of the overall concept and look of Xena, A character had to be created, then an animal found to match the look.
In Hercules, Xena first appeared in three episodes. riding a completely different horse, named Snuff. "When Xena was on Hercules she had a grey horse," Raynor says. "It was a good looking horse, but I think they just wanted to start afresh for Xena`s own show."
A new image was therefore created to reflect the change in Xena`s character. "When they started the series of Xcna, they wanted a specific look - to give her completely her own style," she explains, "and a Palomino has a specific look."
For Argo, the choice needed to be very specific, the wrangler says. "We took photos of different types of horses, and [the design team] basically went, `that one`. This selection came about from their production designs."
Obviously, horses don`t just trot in off the street and ask to be auditioned. "We keep a look out constantly," says Raynor, explaining the system used to source animals for the show. "Word of mouth, newspapers, horse trader magazines. We just look all the time. When we find something we like, that`s what we go for."
Landing a leading role is one thing, but these horses need to act, too. According to Raynor, it`s not very hard to teach a horse its cues, as long as it`s prepared to learn. When I look for a horse, I actually look for a particular type of personality" she explains.
As Raynor explains, the best candidates are "horses that interact with people really well, and horses that are quiet. There`s a lot going on, so they have to be fairly sensible." As far as she is concerned, however personality is foremost. "Looks come into it after that!"
All the animals on Xena - especially the three who share the role of Argo - have specific areas in which their talents lie. "They each have their own little forte," says Raynor, referring to Tilly, Barbie and Mac. If we need something, we`ll decide which horse is going to be better on the day. Then we work with it and train it to do what it has to do."
As the `stunt double`, Barbie the mare has already learned an impressive array of skills for her role. Teaching her new stunts will take various amounts of time depending on what the script calls for her to do. "For example," she elaborates, "Barbie had an episode where she had to kick. To get her to do it safely took about three weeks.
"Anyone can get a horse to do something in a hurry," Raynor points out. But if you want something in particular, like kicking, you don`t want her going around kicking everything!
"If you just went into it willy nilly and somebody walked past her, she would think, `oh, I`m a kicker.` So you have to train her that there`s only one type of whip - you know, to tap the ground behind her - that it`s a particular colour, and a particular word that you use, and that only when you do all of those particular things together is she being asked to kick."
"You have to get it so that they understand that [the stunt] is not something they can use when they`re not required to do it. They`ll relate to that."
Although Argo may be the star of Xena`s animal cast, horses are not the only creatures the wranglers work with. The team is also responsible for oxen, as well as donkeys, such as Tobias, the donkey rescued by Gabrielle in A Solstice Carol.
Raynor herself is the proud owner of the donkey which played Tobias, and says that these particular animals are notoriously difficult to train. "You know that saying: `stubborn as a mule`? Well, it`s a fact! If they don`t want to do something, they just stop, and the strongest man in the world can`t get them to go forward."
She laughs when talking about her own donkey, however. "He`s a kind donkey and he was young when that episode was done. He`s older now and he knows a lot more than he did then. But he is a hard case donkey!
"Donkeys have got such a neat personality," Raynor admits. "Totally different from horses."
Since her dealings with Tobias the donkey, Gabrielle has finally been given a horse of her own too, and he is played by a gelding called Flash.
Although Renee O`Connor relates well to her new horse, one problem has been the dilemma of what to name its character. "In the first few scripts that came up, they were calling it Amber," says Raynor, "because it was originally meant to be a mare. But the horse that we got, which was the best horse we could get, was male. So we had to find something a bit more suitable than Amber!"
In general, the horses and other animals have now become better acquainted with a typical day on the Xena set. "Some horses are a lot better than others," Raynor says, and all the horses we get are sensible and accepting. As long as you make them feel safe and comfortable, they`ll really do anything that you want them to. Horses are pretty good."
Tilly is a prime example, but then one would expect nothing less from such an important character. "We`ve had Tilly since the beginning, and she`s way used to it," Raynor agrees. "You can put her somewhere and just say, `wait` and she just stands there. She`s really good."
Although some horses can be more receptive to learning things than others, it sounds like the animal actors of Xena have become just as comfortable on set as their two-legged colleagues. After all, everyone has to get used to each other, as Raynor acknowledges. "It`s something that just takes time," she says with a smile.
Why not visit my Argo`s Guide to Greece Page!
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