Scheduled for release this fall, the family film “Albion: The Enchanted Stallion” tells the story of 12-year-old Evie Flynn (Avery Rath) and Dag Dia, a kind, beautiful and powerful stallion who changes her life. Producer Dori Rath and writer/director/actress Castille Landon, both life-long horsewomen, knew they wanted to cast a Friesian for the role of Dag Dia. Landon explains, “Growing up in the horse world, everyone wanted a Friesian. They were universally admired.”
An Internet search led Rath and Landon to breeder Lori Brock of Majestic Friesians in Big Rapids, Michigan. Brock, whose four Friesian stallions are trained in dressage and trick performance, recalls the day Rath phoned her. “It was just an ordinary day on the farm when Dori Rath called and introduced herself as a film producer and said, ‘I was just on your website and your stallions are magnificent. Is there any way you’d consider allowing them to be in a movie?’ I could only say ‘YES!’” Brock exclaimed.
While Brock has been importing, breeding and training Friesians for trick performance for more than 15 years, a Hollywood casting call was definitely a first. “I was just blown away,” she says. “To have our horses star in a movie was so exciting for us! We’re just a small family farm. We have 30 horses, but compared with many breeding operations that’s small. Our Friesians are very personable and very willing to please. Therefore, even after we began breeding, I didn’t want to sell any of them. I had to find a use for them here at the farm, so I started with trick training and realized how quickly they caught on to tricks and how really trainable they are.”
Soon after the initial phone call, Rath and her production team visited Majestic Friesians. Rath and Brock agreed that Nitrous, Brock’s 12-year-old Friesian stallion, would star in the film as Dag Dia. Brock explains, “Nitrous is really not our best-looking stallion. But he is so gentle, you can put anyone on him. He’ll perform tricks for anyone.” A second stallion, Hans, would be Nitrous’s stand-in and back up. Hans was chosen because of his dramatic looks, even though at just 4 years old, he was not as far along in his training as Nitrous. As Hans would be featured mostly in fierce fighting scenes, he was taught to rear on command before filming began. Brock calls Hans a “movie star all the way” because of how quickly he learned the tricks and how well he performed. Both stallions are KFPS-registered and were imported from Holland. “This experience with our horses was not something we expected and it’s taken our business and lives in a whole new direction,” Brock says.
About the Film
Actress Castille Landon, who grew up showing Saddlebreds, wanted to write and direct a film about a young girl and a special horse. However, Landon was frustrated by the clichés and overused storylines often found in films about girls and horses. She set out to write a screenplay with thematic depth that portrayed both girl and horse in authentic, empowering roles. “ALBION: The Enchanted Stallion,” co-written with Ryan O’Nan and Sarah Scougal, was the result.
Partly influenced by Landon’s love for the HBO series “Game of Thrones” and partly inspired by Irish folklore, the fantasy film introduces main character Evie Flynn, a responsible young girl who cares for her disabled father. A horse lover, Evie is surprised on Christmas morning when she discovers a seemingly lost Friesian stallion, Dag Dia, wandering near her barn. Evie mounts the horse, planning to ride him back to the barn, but instead Dag Dia bolts into the woods, eventually galloping through a portal and transporting Evie to the magical land of Albion. There, Evie and Dag Dia join a young warrior girl, Eriu (Landon), the handsome Lir (Daniel Sharman) and the eccentric Gally (O’Nan). The group sets out on a quest to help save the Danann—a loving and peaceful people who have come under the rule of evil tyrants. Evie must face her worst fears, find her greatest strengths and ultimately make a decision that will change the course of her life. Through it all, the majestic stallion Dag Dia is Evie’s guide, protector and friend. In addition to equine stars Nitrous and Hans, the film features well-known Hollywood actors, including Debra Messing as The Queen and John Cleese as General Eeder.
Friesians on Set
Rath had originally intended to employ different Friesians in each of three filming locations: Michigan, Florida and Bulgaria. However, a fast-formed friendship with Brock and the trainability of her horses convinced Rath to utilize Nitrous and Hans in all locations. Therefore, in May 2015, the two stallions were shipped to Bulgaria for filming. There, the filming location included dramatic landscapes such as steep hills, heavily wooded forests and even caves. In every way, the Friesian stallions proved trainable, adaptable and eager to please.
Melissa Ashcraft, owner and head instructor at Transitions Equestrian Center in La Porte, Indiana, trains Nitrous and Hans as well as Brock’s other horses. A USDF bronze and silver medalist, Ashcraft spent five years as a featured rider traveling with the World Famous Lipizzaner Stallions Show across the U.S., Canada and Europe. As part of the show, Ashcraft trained Lipizzans for large audience performances featuring both haute-école movementsand tricks. Ashcraft believes that a properly trained trick-performance horse must be trusting and calm, attributes that both complement dressage training and are enhanced by it. She says, “I base all of my training on a combination of dressage and natural horsemanship. We want horses to have really good ground control before starting with tricks. If not, when you teach a horse a trick such as rearing, they can turn into a monster about it. All of our stallions have this amazing rear, will strike on command and do Spanish Walk, but you can get in front of them and they also understand clearly not to do these things. We’re training refined trick horses. They have to have manners.
“The dressage is what ties it all together,” continues Ashcraft. “Performing in front of a large crowd, that’s how you make a four-or five-minute demonstration enjoyable to watch. Instead of my horse knowing a couple of tricks with nothing in between, dressage movements unify and drive the performance.” Ashcraft adds that in haute-école work, the training of certain movements is done to improve the horse’s overall way of going. She cites the example of utilizing the Spanish Walk to train the dressage horse to have more lift through his shoulder, which will encourage the same lift at the extended trot and later carry over to work in piaffe or passage. This can greatly improve the expressiveness of a horse’s gaits and in turn elevate performance, whether in the dressage arena or on a movie set.
Preparing Nitrous and Hans for their role in “Albion” involved dressage work for fitness and obedience as well as training them new tricks. “We were given a list of tricks that the horses would have to perform for the film,” continued Ashcraft. “This was really fun—a list of new challenges!” One of the most challenging aspects of preparing Nitrous for his starring role was that many of the tricks needed to be performed back to back in a sequence to create the overall effect of any given scene.
“In one scene, Evie had to approach Dag Dia, who was immobilized,” explained Ashcraft. The horse needed to move his head to call her over to him. Then, Evie is supposed to try to move the horse but he can’t move. He had to smile (curl his upper lip) and then point in the direction she needed to go. Nitrous had to learn individual cues for each small piece of the sequence. According to Ashcraft, the cues for a sequence like this may be such that the actress can incorporate them naturally into the scene. For example, the actress leaning back against the horse was a cue for him to stand immobilized, while turning around and throwing her hands in the air cued the horse to hug her with his neck and pull her back toward him. In other cases during filming, the handler is positioned behind the actors and must cue the horse from up to 10 feet away.
Ashcraft mentions her affinity for Friesians and all baroque breeds. “Like any breed, each Friesian will have his or her own individual personality. Having said that, baroque breeders in general do a really, really good job at keeping the lineage and the genes clean. Baroque horses just tend to be very honest. In general, they really give you their heart and will really put themselves out there for you. Friesians in particular have very gentle souls. They tend to be horses who make good decisions. And, of course, they’re especially suited to movies because they are so majestic.”
While audiences eagerly await the release of the movie, Nitrous and Hans have already touched many lives by starring in the film. “Having horses on set makes people more patient,” Landon says. “There are difficult moments. Horses may not stand still immediately just because you tell them to stand. You have to be patient with them or think of inventive ways to ground-tie them so the audience can’t see. Because of that, everyone just kind of has to be a little more malleable and understanding, which I think is a great way to operate on a set in general.” Even members of the cast and crew who were not familiar with horses enjoyed Nitrous and Hans. “There’s a reason horses are used as therapy animals,” Landon said. “You can connect with them and they do calm you.”
Recently, the film team got the exciting news that Breyer Horses will release a Dag Dia model horse, which will be available at BreyerFest 2016, which is held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington in July. Nitrous and his team will perform at the festival.
For her part, Brock is thrilled for the exposure that the film will bring to the Friesian breed as well as for the exceptional experience of having her stallions star in the film. When Brock and her two daughters traveled to Europe to watch the filming, “Dori put my young teenage daughters into the film, which was, of course, really exciting and motivating for them. While in Europe, we got to meet the family from the Netherlands who bred Nitrous. He was the only horse they exported to the U.S. and they were filled with emotion to know he’d gone on to star in a film. Their family has been breeding Friesians for generations.”
Leave it to Friesians—gorgeous and powerful, proud and kind, flamboyant yet patient—to make such a bold impression on the lives of so many and soon on audiences everywhere.