Somedays I feel like flipping through one of my favorite coffee table books, HOLLYWOOD HOOFBEATS (compiled and authored by Robert Michum’s daughter Petrine Day Mitchum).
I don’t keep the book on my coffee table. I keep it near my bed on a huge wooden box that holds all of my special stuff.
Anyway, today was one of those days… I wanted to look at horse pictures.
As I opened the book, it flopped to a photo of actress Julia Roberts atop a chestnut horse, rearing.
“Cool! That’s really her!” I said to myself, “Who is that horse?”
(Great name, huh?! I might have to steal that for some dignified animal that comes to live here…)
Hightower was one of the most successful Hollywood equine actors, ever.
There were a few other things that caught my eye on this particular photo as well…
First, his hooves are P-E-R-F-E-C-T.
Secondly, his tack is really pretty and he’s wearing beautiful flouncy white fabric things as earpieces that match her off-the-shoulder sleeves.
Anyway, let’s learn about Hightower.
HIGHTOWER THE FOAL
Hightower the foal was a mistake.
Yup. His dam, a very well bred and special TB mare got into a tryst with some QH stud. No one saw it. No one sanctioned it. No one took responsibility.
Out came Hightower.
No one wanted him. So, the sheepish TB trainer who was stuck with this hybrid colt offloaded him (free) to Rex Peterson, the famous horse trainer. Rex had a large ranch and figured the soon-to-be gelding could be used as a ranch horse. And there Hightower languished for several years. He didn’t do much until…
HIGHTOWER THE TEENAGER
One day, Rex took Hightower out to work cattle. Rex roped a bull. But, the bull had other ideas. He charged the pair and ended up tangled between Hightower’s front legs. The bull pushed Hightower for 60 feet. Once the bull stopped, the wranglers were able to instruct Hightower in order to untangle the two.
Hightower was calm throughout the ordeal.
All the other cowboys who were present on that day said that Hightower would never, ever, ever rope again.
But they were wrong. Hightower roped another bull a few hours later.
Thus was born an unflappable horse.
Rex knew he had a very, very special gelding.
HIGHTOWER CONTINUES TRAINING
Rex had already taught Hightower the basics using his whip as a cue: Come, Back, Lie Down, Rear.
But, his real test was his first film audition for the movie WINTER PEOPLE. The task was HUGE. Drag a person.
Yikes. Most horses take a very long time to feel comfortable dragging a dead weight. It makes them very skittish…
Not Hightower. He got it immediately and beat out all the other, more seasoned horses for the role.
The stunt men grew to love Hightower because if a horse can drag you without becoming anxious (hence without potential injury to the stuntman), he was a good horse!
Hightower’s career took off and this gentleman, tractable gelding was in high demand! In fact, they even used him as a mare in BLACK BEAUTY because he was that good. They shot around him so he could appear as “Ginger”. The director of that film, Caroline Thompson, said that Hightower had “an attitude of gratitude”. Nice.
In 1999, HIghtower played Pilgrim in THE HORSE WHISPERER. Now, lots of horses played Pilgrim… but Hightower did something no other horse had done at that time. He was trained to charge.
As legend has it, Robert Redford came to Rex’s ranch to meet Hightower. Rex had his chestnut gelding charge Redford, teeth bared, and back him against the rails before quitting on cue.
Hightower got the job…
Another fan of Hightower was Julia Roberts. She was atop Hightower in the beginning scenes of RUNAWAY BRIDE where he reared and ran off with her. Julia loved him and wished to purchase him (not for sale).
At the end of the movie, the director decided to add scenes. One required Hightower to reappear. Unfortunately, Hightower was already on set in Los Angeles (across the country). No worries. The Studio arranged for Hightower to be Fed Ex’d to the location so Julia could ride him in the closing scenes.
Good Ol’ Fed Ex, eh?
At 21, Hightower was hired to play in PRINCESS DIARIES 2 with Anne Hathaway.
Rex said that in the morning, Hightower would walk to set showing the signs of arthritis. But, as soon as he was working, the gelding would perform as if nothing was hurting. But, Rex knew. So, for Rex, that was it. Time to retire the gentleman.
And so it was.
Hightower spent the rest of his days on the tremendous acreage of Rex’s Tehachapi (CA) ranch. And, in 2008, Hightower passed peacefully from natural causes in the comfort of his home.
Rex was quite upset… in his words, “He worked very, very hard for me,” he said. “He was a great, great horse. He had a work ethic. He was a professional. He knew why he was there.”
Taken from an interview with Peterson after Hightower’s passing:
“If you have one great horse in a lifetime, consider yourself lucky.”
“When the going got tough, he just got better and better,” the 54-year-old trainer said. “Hightower had a presence. When the camera rolled, he knew it was there.”
Peterson plans on writing a book about his best horse ever: Hightower, One in a Million
HORSE AND MAN is a blog in growth… if you like this, please pass it around!
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