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Deep in the “Heartland”

January 2, 2012

This Canadian TV series features wholesome drama and lots of Quarter Horses.

Editor’s Note: As the January-February issue of America’s Horse hits mailboxes, we thought we’d give our online readers a peek between the pages as we feature American Quarter Horses who are taking a prominent place on the small screen in the family drama “Heartland.” If you’re not an AQHA member, join now so you won’t miss future issues of America’s Horse, which goes exclusively to AQHA members. Each issue is packed full of Quarter Horses who are stars in entertainment, rodeos, shows, trail rides — or just their owners’ hearts. The magazine is just one of the great benefits of belonging to the world’s largest equine breed registry!

By Tom Moates in America’s Horse

Actress Amber Marshall and Top Moon Cuttabar share top billing with the expansive scenery of the Canadian Rockies. Photo by Andrew Bako.

Ever wish you could turn on network television and enjoy a family drama set in the ranchlands? That instead of a full menu of urban crime dramas and silly suburban comedies, you could find a show where the characters ride horses, move cattle, rodeo and live where vast open land unfurls against the Rockies?

It exists.

“Heartland” is a contemporary family drama produced for Canadian television (CBC) now in its fifth season that offers all of that and more. Even better, the series is chock full of registered American Quarter Horses.

The show is a family drama that centers on the Heartland Ranch, owned by the Bartlett family in fictitious Hudson, located in the Alberta Rockies. The series is based on the popular book series of the same name by British writer Lauren Brooke, who set the books in Virginia. The first “Heartland” book appeared in 2000, and more than 20 have been published since.

The series gets going when “Grandpa” Jack Bartlett loses his daughter in a car accident and is left to run the ranch alone with his two granddaughters, Amy and Lou.

Several other regular characters frequent the ranch, and the result is a multi-generational saga set in the present day. You’ll see cell phones and home-schooled high-schoolers doing class work on their laptops. The series’ fitting tag line is: “Even on the open range, life can be complicated.”

The lead character, Amy Fleming (played by AQHA member Amber Marshall), is in her late teens, and it is her special touch with troubled or sick horses that produces the central story line for many episodes.

The horse-heavy script calls for a seasoned wrangler with capable horses, and “Heartland” boasts them both. The livestock coordinator is celebrated Hollywood horseman John Scott (featured in America’s Horse in 2003). And the horses are nearly all registered American Quarter Horses from his outfit.

“The show is unique in the fact that it is a touch of ‘Bonanza,’ a touch of ‘Big Valley,’ and things like that,” John says. “It is set in a ranch location and shows a lot of good scenery and some action and a lot of work with horses. My job is to get all those horses in front of the camera and then make them all work. Every episode is different; there’s always a new challenge.”

John runs John Scott Productions and John Scott Motion Picture Animals and is based in Alberta, about an hour’s drive from the “Heartland” set. He has been in business since 1969, when he worked on his first picture, “Little Big Man.” Television work quickly followed, and he learned that end of the business working on the TV Westerns “Alias Smith and Jones” and “The Big Valley.”

“I’d clean out the trucks and brush the horses just to get on the sets to learn the business,” John says. “Then I came back home because my grandfather farmed with horses right ’til 1959, so I had a lot of his harness and his wagons, and that’s what gave me a start. And then I’ve just been collecting wagons and horses ever since. I’ve got one of the bigger outfits in Canada to supply to the motion picture industry. We have over a hundred wagons and buggies, and we keep around 160 head of horses (mostly registered Quarter Horses) to service the film industry. We’ve done five Academy Award-winning pictures: ‘Days of Heaven,’ ‘Unforgiven,’ ‘Legends of the Fall,’ ‘Jesse James,’ and I went to New Zealand on ‘Lord of the Rings.’

“I still enjoy the business,” he says. “I enjoy the animals. There’s a bay Quarter Horse (called ‘Harley’ on the show but registered as EJ Doc Tivio Frost) that goes with the love interest of Amy, Ty, played by Graham Wardle. And then the father, Tim, he’s on a palomino Quarter Horse (Als Dun Driftin) that appears in the show fairly often.

“It’s always a new challenge pretty well every day, especially on this ‘Heartland’ show because you’ve got four or five different writers that write a lot of different things. Some are hard for horses to do that are not trained horses – sometimes, they’ll see a horse doing something, but that horse has been trained for two years … and they want to duplicate that kind of situation, and we really only have about a week to get that horse tuned to do that.

“We had the birthing of a colt in one show. (It was September), so I had to find a mare that was pregnant. Then once she had her foal, we had to be ready to film two days later. That was a major challenge.”

Amber Marshall and "Stormy." Photo by Andrew Bako

Amber’s horse in the show is called “Spartan.” Like his human counterparts, that stage name isn’t his real name. The main horse that plays the role is a Quarter Horse known as “Stormy” (registered as Top Moon Cuttabar). Also as with the humans, Stormy has doubles and stunt doubles.

“He has got about two doubles that are registered Quarter Horses,” John says. “Sometimes we’re up to five horses to do what that black horse has to do. His (main) double is ‘Rocky’ (registered as Black Sapphire San).

“We’re very fortunate that Amy – or Amber Marshall – had some horse experience before she came to the show. She was a very good rider, and that helped a lot. What kills us is when they cast actors that can’t ride. They come in one day before they’re going to shoot, and they expect us to make riders out of them. There again, it’s the horse that carries them through the scene.

“So you have to have the right horse that’s going to keep them safe and get them from Point A to Point B to get the shot. That’s the reason I have so many Quarter Horses, because of the disposition. They’ve got to have the right attitude that things like smoke and gunfire and big white screens around them and lights are not going to bother them that much.

“We try them out on the ranch, and if they do good there, we give them to a wrangler to ride on a movie set, and if they do good there, then we move them up to the act situation. Our horses are very well tuned and screened before they really get to a movie set with an actor.”

Amber, like John, came to “Heartland” already with a strong appreciation for Quarter Horses. Working on the show for the past five years has only increased their esteem for the breed.

“I own two Quarter Horses,” Amber says. “I’ve always had Quarter Horses. I love them. I love their minds. I’ve just always been drawn toward them. I love working on set with all the horses. You’ve got some fantastic actors – I guess you can call them actors – because they do know their roles, and they do become very familiar with the on-set procedures.

“Our lead horse, Stormy, he knows his job inside and out, to the point now that if we put a big red mark down where he’s supposed to land, I can ride in and not even look, and he’ll stop on that red mark. He’ll just wait there quietly until I get off. And if we’re in the barn doing a scene where he’s just supposed to be tied to his stall, he’ll be standing there, and he’ll have his head down, and as soon as ‘Action’ is called, he puts his head up, he perks his ears up, he looks alive … he knows his job. It’s incredible. We take it for granted how good they are.

“We can have three cameras right around him and 50 people standing in a semi-circle around his back end while he’s up on a close-up, and he doesn’t care. He says, ‘Yep, this is my job, I’m supposed to do this.’ And he knows as soon as they call ‘Cut,’ he can go back to sleep or whatever else he was doing. He’s quite incredible.

“He is one of the faces of the show. We did a signing a couple weeks back at a very elite jumping show. He was there, and he was in his own little stall beside our signing booth, and the amount of people that gathered around him to have their picture taken with him probably outnumbered the people that gathered around us. He’s definitely a hit. He’s just as much a part of the show as any of us.”

The show is in production from around April to late December each year, John says. A typical day of filming requires about 10 horses, although there are times where the wranglers haul in as many as two trailer loads of horses and the occasional load of cattle.

“The show is moving so fast,” John says of its production, “that you’re shooting two episodes at once. And the day you start shooting them, the next episodes are starting up. So you’ve got one crew going and shooting with a set of horses, and then you try to prepare horses for the next episode almost immediately. So it’s kind of like a machine. There’s not a lot of time for training. You have to do different things, and a lot of it is what I call ‘adverse horse work.’

“We train horses to jump in a trailer and load real quick. Well, people will bring a horse to Amy (the character) to fix because it doesn’t load in a trailer. Then you have to figure a way to cheat this horse and make him spook back from not loading in the trailer. We use everything from air hoses to a guy in a trailer with an umbrella, things like that, to do it. So that’s why I say that’s ‘adverse’ horse training, because you’re kind of screwing the horse up, and then you’ve got to spend time to rectify him out of it. It’s very painful, because we work so hard to get these horses foolproof to do the job around a movie set, and then the whole premise of this story is that Amy’s a horse whisperer, and people are always bringing her these horses that are screwed up for her to fix. So it might be a bucking horse or it might be a rearing horse or it might be a horse with an attitude, all different things like that.”

Each Sunday evening, Canadians enjoy a new episode of “Heartland,” the top-watched drama north of the U.S. border. There’s little doubt some of the credit for that success goes to the sprawling landscape of Alberta and majestic American Quarter Horses that share the screen with the human actors. They both clearly count as full-fledged cast members in this show.

The first two seasons of “Heartland” are now available in the United States through syndication over network television and over the GMC cable and satellite channel, and as a Netflix and Amazon “watch instantly” option. The series DVDs are available through the Heartland USA website,, which also provides a listing of local stations and times where the show is broadcast each week.