From Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to the Electric Horseman to The Horse Whisperer, Robert Redford has become a name synonymous with horses and Hollywood.
Redford grew up in Los Angeles, far removed from horses and the cowboy way of life. He tells the authors of People We Know, Horses They Love, “My first time on a real horse was when I was five or six. I admit it was just a guy dragging me around the ring at a pony ride, but it was instant love.”
That instant love would develop into utter fascination by the time he was 15-years-old and landed his first stable job during a family vacation in Colorado. He loved working with the horses so much, in fact, he stayed at the horse stable when his family returned to California! “My independent streak was deeply rooted at that point, and I decided to stay. I did any odd jobs that I could find, including grooming and caring for the horses. I developed a connection with horses and appreciation that went beyond the satisfaction of riding horseback.”
It was a horseback ride in 1961 that would lead Redford to his lifelong home in Utah. He tells Men’s Journal, “My father-in-law took me on a mountain lion hunt here. We came up and over this rise on horseback … I saw this beautiful view of Timpanogos, and said, ‘This is the place.’”
Redford purchased the original 2-acre plot for $500. “I learned the land by riding horseback with the sheepherders. So I bought my first horse and rode along with them. The deeper we went into the country, the more I appreciated that a horse is the best way, other than on your own two feet, to explore your environment.”
Redford landed his first horseback role in 1969, playing the titular Sundance Kid of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. “I had to spend more and more time with horses and get really good on their backs. It’s one thing to ride casually, but to do some of the stunts that are required and to come across on camera as being in control, you have to be more comfortable in the saddle.”
He became so comfortable in the saddle that in 1976, Redford undertook a grand journey, winding down the Montana border, crossing Wyoming, and then passing through Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas on the “Outlaw Trail” for an article originally published in National Geographic. The article later became a book.
The actor is proud that he did all his own riding in 1979’s The Electric Horseman. “I was on this incredible horse called Rising Star, who was so fast and fired up. I got on him and we both hooked in. With the helicopter pulling away, I had to go so fast that my nose and the horse’s nose were almost equal.”
After filming, Redford bought Rising Star and kept him for eighteen years. The horse is buried on his Utah property.
But it was the 1998 movie The Horse Whisperer that really portrayed Redford’s affinity for equines. “For me it was a chance to demonstrate my own particular affinity for horses, but the film is also about a way of life out West whose disappearance is sad but inevitable. Still, at the heart of the story is a man whose sensitivity towards a horse, Pilgrim, could not only heal him but also heal the people around him.” Redford trained with Buck Brannaman for months prior to and during filming.
In real life, Redford’s love for horses has only grown. The actor is well-known for being a staunch environmentalist and opposed to horse slaughter. He has been most recently publicized as working with Return to Freedom, a horse sanctuary and preservation group. During a 1980 People interview, he revealed he had devoted 40 acres of his Utah ranch to breeding quarter horses, but by 2004 he owned just six horses, including a lovely mare named Charm. He said, “I’m partial to Palominos,” which he claimed was due to a fascination with Roy Rogers and Trigger as a kid.