Published September 17, 2023

Hollywood Horses 

Written by
Kim Fundingsland
| The Dakotan
(Photo: submitted)
(Photo: submitted)

A Slice of Life

Old photographs have a way of bringing back to life events of years past. 

Recently I was looking through some photographs taken on the set of the movie “Dances with Wolves,” a 1990 big screen blockbuster in which I played an insignificant part as a Union soldier in the Civil War. I was one of several North Dakota reenactors on the set at a huge buffalo ranch near Pierre, South Dakota. 

Several of the North Dakota boys brought horses with them to play the part of Union cavalry, which they did very well. Their appearance was well received by the cast and crew, that is, with the exception of one hot afternoon when the Dakota cavalry embarrassed Hollywood. 

On this memorable day the directors called a halt to filming of the opening battle scene sometime before noon. Word quickly spread that the next shoot would involve lead actor Kevin Costner and a special jumping horse flown in from California. This, of course, was something we all wanted to see. 

I watched closely as the movie crew removed a section of split rail fence surrounding the battlefield, the very fence that was to be jumped by Lieutenant John J. Dunbar. They replaced the section of fence with a much lower fence made of the same lumber. Instead of more than waist high it was now about knee high. The crew was also digging a hole underneath the fence in which they placed a camera to film the spectacular jump. I can tell you the North Dakota guys I was with, along with a few from Minnesota, were impressed with the lengthy preparation. 

Then, with great fanfare, a handler entered the “hot” area, leading a special jumping horse and making final calculations for the stunt. It was decided that Costner’s double would be in the saddle for the scene. The horsemen among us had begun to quietly voice their doubts, saying anyone’s pet dachshund could jump that low fence. 

But hey, this was Hollywood stuff, and we were about to witness a scene that took several hours to set up. Action! Cameras rolling, and the special jumping horse with a stunt double aboard began a run toward the fence and buried camera. Oops! 

The horse stopped at the fence and the rider fell off, much to the displeasure of the movie crew but to the quiet delight of those of us watching this whole affair. I don’t recall how many attempts it took to shoot that scene, but it was most of the afternoon. 

I do remember when a director said, “We got it! That’s a wrap!” and the entire Hollywood crew erupted in cheers, hugs, and high fives for a job well done. We were happy for them too, especially since we had been sitting around for several hours in wool uniforms on a hot afternoon and more than eager for a refreshing shower and change of clothes. Then we spoiled the show. 

You see, the cavalry horses were tethered inside the very fence that was used in the jumping horse scene that took hours to film. When the cavalry boys mounted up to take their horses back to the staging area, they didn’t use a gate but instead jumped the fence, every single horse with no trouble or hesitation. Not the special low fence either, but the much higher section. 

This simple act of leaving the set drew the immediate ire of the movie crew. A couple of on-set directors who had been very friendly and courteous previously were enraged at what they considered a deliberate act designed to embarrass all of Hollywood. They stopped the cavalry, all whose horses had jumped the taller fence with ease, and sternly reprimanded them for what the reenactors believed was completely innocent behavior. 

The directors went so far as telling the mounted soldiers to get back inside the fence and leave the grounds properly, that is, through the gate so as not to show up the professional movie crew that spent an entire afternoon on the fence jumping scene. 

Very North Dakota-like, the cavalry offered their apologies, and agreed to turn the column around and leave in a manner that would be more favorable to the sensitive movie crew. Of course, to return to the battlefield they jumped the fence with ease a second time, each and every horse. 

As you might expect, this simple act had the Hollywood folks enraged a second time. Most of us were fighting back laughter. A few Confederate reenactors were removed from the set. The cause of all the trouble, a cavalry reenactors unit from North Dakota, dismounted and led their horses off the set. 

Dances with Wolves was nominated for a record 12 academy awards, with the fence jumping scene being one of the most spectacular moments at the beginning of the film. Every time I watch that movie, I smile and think about what happened behind the scenes on that day in South Dakota. 

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