Last November, California experienced some of its deadliest fires — but this is not a story about devastation and loss, rather it is a story with a happy ending. This is also a story about how Steve Rother and Francesca Carsen of Rother’s Horsemanship in Hunters, a small town along the Columbia River in Eastern Washington, found themselves in the middle of California’s movie making country — and its deadliest fire.
As a young man, Rother had a passion for horses. This led to him traveling the country to work and study under some the greatest horsemen of the time. He eventually started perfecting his own method of training he calls “Excel With Horses,” which he has been using for the last 20 years to help thousands of horses and riders.
Carsen and her trick performing duo, Dally (a Jack Russell) and Spanky (a mini horse), are well known in the equestrian community. Using Rother’s methods of training, Carsen was able to give the little bit naughty Spanky a job and in the process created a couple of national and international celebrities.
Dally and Spanky have been featured on National Geographic Wild TV (2016) and appeared on Late Night with David Letterman (2014); they have been featured on TV shows around the globe, and graced the cover of National Geographic’s 2018 kids book, Amazing Animals; last month the duo was featured on a United Kingdom TV show called “Britain’s Favorite Dog Breeds” and also on Animal Planet.
Aside from performances, Breyer Model Horses released the “Dally and Spanky” model in 2017, and they have their own book, “The Great Adventures of Dally and Spanky”— illustrated with photos of their true story.
With all this exposure it is no surprise that the Dally and Spanky story eventually reached the ear of a Hollywood movie producer.
“When I received an email from a Hollywood producer asking to do lunch, I really didn’t think that much about it,” said Carsen. “I didn’t think he was serious. However, we agreed to meet since we were in Delmar anyway for the Night of the Horse Show.”
Meeting in a manicured park near Los Angeles with the producer, Dally and Spanky were out of their element. There were no fences, no arena, just lots of gorgeous green grass, a challenge for Spanky, who lives to eat. “They nailed it,” said Carsen. “The entire time the producer just kept saying, they’re so calm. I can’t believe it. They’re so calm.”
Not daring to get their hopes up, Rother and Carsen came home to Washington and it was back to business as usual, training horses and helping people.
Then a script landed at their front door.
“Dally and Spanky: The Movie,” was a reality. Family oriented and starring two young Disney actresses, Brenna D’Amico and Reylynn Caster, the movie also features Trace Adkins and Denise Richards. It will be released by Sony Pictures in 2019.
According to Carsen, they immediately got to work with Dally and Spanky trying to anticipate as many things as possible before shooting started.
“For example, knowing we weren’t going to be on arena footing, we worked on stall mats to get Spanky used to different footings. One of our other big concerns was teaching both Dally and Spanky to take their cues from a distance since we could not be seen in the shots,” Carsen said.
Early last fall Rother and Carsen trailered down to the shooting location near Thousand Oaks, California, with Dally, Spanky, Jet (another mini horse that is being incorporated into the act), Boots (a young and upcoming Jack Russell) and Steve’s horse Maverick. They set up a temporary home for the horses at a nearby Ranch.
“I don’t think they realize just how amazing that little pony did,” Carsen said. “Each setup required 6 to 8 takes to get all the shot angles. He just did it.” According to Carsen, Spanky did everything he was asked to over and over to perfection despite the totally new environment he was in. Nothing seemed to faze him, “not cameras, lights, 50 or more crew around him,” not even the fact he was turned loose with no barriers and asked to perform.
“He was nothing short of amazing,” she said.
Both Rother and Carsen attribute much of Spanky’s success to the Rother Horsemanship training method. A method that includes teaching a horse how to understand and react to pressure so your training will hold in potentially dangerous situations.
It paid off on the movie set.
“We were told over and over again by the crew that Dally and Spanky were the best animals they had ever worked with on set,” Carsen said, adding that they started calling them the “one take wonders.”
According to Carsen, they could not be more proud of their animals and to know that Steve’s training methods works at this high level.
Dally and Spanky were two superstars, but they weren’t the only ones; even Carsen got her chance to be on camera as she stood in as a body double in one scene that required a particularly difficult trick they felt would be too difficult for the actress to perform.
It was with a little more than a week of shooting left that this story took a sudden turn. Fires started raging across California, including in the small horse community in Agoura Hills where Rother and Carsen were boarding their horses at a local ranch. Seeing the smoke and hearing the news, Rother asked the ranch foreman if the ranch was in the path of the Woolsey Fire. The answer was no, the experts were predicting a zero percent chance of the fire heading their way. But the fire turned and the ranch owner decided to make the call to evacuate ahead of the official evacuation order.
The word went out and soon volunteers were pouring in with trailers to help move the 50 or so horses who lived at the ranch. “It was night, super dark except for the red glow in the sky and the lights of the emergency vehicles,” Rother said. “We quickly rounded up our horses and tied them to the outside of the trailer for a quick load and get away, then started helping load horses who were too panicked to get in their trailers.”
Rother and Carsen used a two-person loading method they had practiced. Using this method, they were able to load each horse in less than two minutes or in many cases less than a minute. An Animal Control Officer in charge on scene saw how well Rother and Carsen’s loading method was working and ordered other people to stop trying to load their panicked horses and let the duo load their horses for them.
Working together, Rother and Carsen quickly loaded up all the horses — they even took a few minutes to toss in a little trailer training while they were at it.
“It freaked some people, but we didn’t just put each horse in once, but 4 or 5 times for each horse,” Rother said. “It really just added a couple of minutes to each horse and I wanted to give them the best shot possible of getting the horse back in the trailer if the winds turned and they had to do another emergency load.”
According to Rother, one of the reasons he teaches his horses to understand pressure is for exact situations like this one. While they were helping other people with their panic-stricken horses, Spanky fell asleep where he was tied to the trailer while awaiting his turn to load.
Rother and Carsen took a few minutes to help load the donkeys, goats and chickens that also made the ranch their home. Then they loaded their patiently waiting crew and made their own way to safety. They learned the next day that more than half of the Ranch facilities had burned to the ground and in barns that hadn’t burned, the stall mats had melted.
In retrospect, Rother said he has two takeaways from the trip. The first takeaway was proof his method works as demonstrated both by a superstar performance from Spanky on the movie set under very difficult conditions and how well their practiced emergency two-person loading method worked to save horses lives. His second takeaway was how impressed he was with the horse community and how quickly they came together and helped each other.
“The horse community is comprised of some of the best people I know,” he said. “It was humbling to see how quickly strangers answered the call to help and to see them work as one.”