The World of Living with Horses

War Horse- From Human to Horse By Ariel Heller

War Horse Behind the Scenes

War Horse Joey & Ariel Heller


It is not my job to train a horse, but rather to be trained as a horse. I am an actor, and for the past two years I have been playing the main characters in New York’s Lincoln Center production of “War Horse.”

The backbone of this epic production is the incredible horse puppets created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. It takes a team of three people to bring one of these puppets to the stage. Four teams rotate through the week’s grueling eight-show schedule to help prevent injuries.

Acknowledging the many jokes one encounters playing a horse (trust me, I’ve heard them all), let there be no mistake: Being these horses is a dream come true. Each puppet is larger than life (about 10 percent larger than an actual horse) and rather unwieldy at first. It comprises three parts: the head, which I play; the heart or front legs, and the hind or back legs. Each part is specifically cast and the actors selected for a particular part play the same position for the entirety of the run.

It takes a long time to develop the skills and muscle groups specific to each position and, perhaps more important, the chemistry among the three puppeteers working together to create one character. No effort is made to hide the puppeteers. Indeed, the opposite is true: We are in plain sight. If we do our job well, you won’t see us.

After the initial wave of awe the puppet inspires, we get down to the truly interesting part – how a horse thinks and behaves. How can we use this craft to bring a horse to the stage not as an anthropomorphized character, as found in a Disney film or play, but as an unpredictable, majestic beast?

We spent countless hours in rehearsals studying the behavioral science of horses, something you readers here know a great deal about. The two horses in the play, Joey and Topthorn, are a hunter and a thoroughbred, respectively. We had to become horse enthusiasts, understanding the different breeds, the different moods, the different styles of training. We studied farm horses, racehorses and cavalry horses. We visited stables and watched videos; we read books and listened to horse noises. That’s right; we make all the sounds, too.

The foundation of puppetry, as is the foundation of life, is the breath. The puppet can’t live without breath. From this spark, we learn how to communicate as actors without dialogue. From this building block we are able to create spontaneous movement that is improvised in the moment.

There are specific cues and beats that we must execute; this is after all a play. But our primary focus is to be alive – not as humans, but as a horse: To let go of human traits, such as reason, and get inside the instincts of a fight-or-flight prey animal. Then it’s up to the actors who are playing human characters to harness our power as a horse. You’ll have to come see the show to discover if they succeed.