A new season of the hit series Heartland premiers in Canada on Sunday. Amanda Ronan talks to the show's lead actress Amber Marshall about horsing around on and off the set.
Last year I reviewed the first two seasons of the Canadian hit TV series, Heartland, and I fell in love. I fell in love with the characters, the stories, the horses, and the Alberta countryside. So like every obsessed adoring fan I ordered the DVD sets for seasons 3 and 4, and proceeded to stalk research the show's actors and actresses. I happened across the Facebook page of Amber Marshall, who plays lead character Amy Fleming, and asked for a quick Horse Nation Q&A. She said yes!
The Heartland horse we are most familiar with is Spartan. What can you tell us about the horse that plays him? Any cute quirks? Favorite treats? Favorite spots he likes scratched?
I feel like the Heartland fans and audience can relate with Spartan the most, as he has been such a core character throughout the entire series. After all, Spartan was the first horse Amy connected with after the death of her mother and started her journey of helping troubled horses. The horse that plays the role of Spartan is a 10-year-old Quarter Horse by the name of Stormy. At only five years of age when the series began, Heartland was Stormy’s first “acting job”. He immediately fit right in and has learned so much about being a movie horse over the course of the show. He even knows where his mark is (in other words, where to stand when the camera is on him). We usually put a cone or pylon down in the grass and when I ride up to it he knows to stop on that spot. He loves attention, and being scratched right under his cheeks between his jowls. He is a very intelligent horse, and his favourite scenes are the ones where he just gets to stand in his stall and watch a scene going on. I think he enjoys the “Amy and Ty” scenes as he is usually watching intently in the background while we film. Most of the other horses on set get bored quickly in the barn, and we have a hard time keeping their attention towards camera. Not Stormy–he soaks up every minute of fame.
Let's talk Sugarfoot. He is a superstar deluxe and the camera just loves him. What can you tell us about him?
Lil’ Chief, as he is known in real life, is just a treat to work with! He loves attention and food and will do almost anything to get one or the other. My favourite sequence of Sugarfoot is in Season 1, Episode 9 when he escapes from the barn to find Lou in the shower. I just find it amazing how well he did each task, like breaking out of his stall and walking up the porch steps and into the house. Such a wonderful little pony!!
Who are the main horse trainers for the show?
John Scott owns all of the main horses in the show. He handles more of the business side of things and leaves the training up to his wranglers that work for him. There are many great trainers involved with the show depending on what the horses need to do. Niki Flundra added her two black horses “Sonny and Zee” to season five for all the liberty work Amy did with Spartan and Zepher. We have also seen her horses before when we needed Spartan to lie down in a scene. Ray Breckenridge is our main wrangler on set each day and he was the one who taught Sugarfoot all the tricks he knows, including everything for the montage I mentioned. In conclusion, there are many people who are involved in the show to help the horses be the best they can be.
What do the horses do during the off-season? Do they go back to day jobs on a ranch or are they pampered in celebrity luxury?
Spartan and the other main horses live on John’s Ranch in Long View, Alberta. They have hundreds of acres to roam and graze and they typically spend their days off work hanging out with their horse friends in green pastures.
Now let's talk about your personal horses… I believe you have three: Tango, Cash and Hawk. Tell us about who they are, what they do, and what your plans are for them in the future.
I love my own horses so much, and only wish I could bring them to work with me. They continue to surprise me with their willingness to learn and their gentle nature. My three-year-old buckskin Quarter Horse, Cash is my favourite. I have had him since he was only a few months old as I had his mom board on my farm so I could play with him. When it was time for him to be weaned, I sent his mom back to her owner and kept little Cash. He is now coming along nicely under saddle and nothing seems to bother him. He is the only horse I allow free run of the barn and all paddocks because he has never once “done his business” in my barn. He eats and sleeps in there and then politely walks outside to relieve himself. Now that is something I appreciate!
My other two horses Tango and Hawk are both black Quarter Horses. Tango is ten this year and Hawk is five. They spend their time grazing together and going on trail rides with my friends and I. I have started to teach Hawk how to team rope, and Tango is quite happy to just sit back and watch.
How have the Heartland training techniques affected your personal riding?
I have learned a lot of new things from being on Heartland and surrounded by amazing horse-people. I think having my own horses living with me, and being their sole caretaker has also taught me a lot. Prior to moving out west I had always boarded my horses at a stable with everything looked after other than the riding. They now rely on me completely for their care, feeding program and upkeep, so I had lots to learn to keep them happy and healthy.
Who are your role models in the horse world and why?
I really look up to Niki Flundra whom I have already mentioned. She is an amazing horsewoman and is very respected by her horses. I think earning the respect of a horse is very important. There is a strong line between respect and fear. People who hurt or frighten their horses in order to obtain dominance are only causing them to be fearful and act out of submission. Those who gain the respect of their horses with love, consistency and a clear vision, have a friend for life who wants to please.
And just because I'm the HN movie critic I have to ask…What is your favorite horse movie?
1979’s The Black Stallion and 1998’s The Horse Whisperer. The beach scene in The Black Stallion makes me cry happy tears every time! It is so magical and full of emotion. I also cried a thousand tears throughout the newer release, War Horse.
Big thanks to Amber from all of us here at Horse Nation!
You can find more information about Amber Marshall, her animals, her clothing line and magazine on her website at ambermarshall.com.
Amanda’s experience with horses is just as eclectic as her taste in movies. She has dabbled in almost every discipline from eventing to team penning to fox hunting. She started riding when she was 8 with her local 4-H club in Western performance events. She moved on to the AQHA circuit with her Quarter Horse, “Aggie,” when she was 12 and he was a green 2 year old. Through college she held a working student position at Seahorse Sporthorses, owned by Terri Adams, where she was introduced to the wonderful world of show jumping and eventing. Along with Aggie, who just turned 20 years old, she has two OTTBs in her herd named “Gump” and “Lizard.” Amanda continues her jumping training with Ms. Adams and works on that necessary evil also known as dressage with Mimi Burch of Blue Moon Farm.
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