By Frankie-Robin Cooper
It doesn’t take an expert Witcher fan to know that horses are a somewhat iconic part of the series. Who could forget Roach, Geralt’s beloved chestnut mare and unpaid therapist (two phrases I never thought I’d use in the same sentence; chestnut mares are the reason a lot of equestrians are in therapy)?
When it comes to the question of how horses are treated on the sets of films, it’s never too long until all of the horse-girls are up in arms and before you know it, buildings are burning all around us. That’s not to poke fun at animal abuse of course, as an equestrian myself I’m against any abuse of any kind. But the equestrian community certainly isn’t winning any awards for the most calm or objective stance on anything anytime soon.
The treatment of horses on the set of The Witcher specifically has come under scrutiny in the past, specifically by PETA in February of 2022. So here I am, The Path’s own resident horse-girl, doing a report on it.
Equestrian abuse on the sets of shows and movies is certainly not an impossibility. All one needs to do is google “horse fatalities on film sets” to find movies such as “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” where the stunt horses died of neglect on set, or “Ben Hur” where an estimated 100 horses were killed in production. In the 1940s, a film by the name of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” treated the set horses so terribly that it triggered a massive public response, at the end of which The American Humane Society got involved, working with the company that is now the Motion Picture Association of America to produce a set of guidelines which were put in place in order to protect horses on the sets of films. Unfortunately, these guidelines became more like recommendations, as they were made voluntary in 1966.
Fast forward to The Witcher. In February of 2022 Peta released a statement against the treatment of animals on The Witcher, calling for a boycott of season two. Their main concern was the treatment of lemurs and other animals (which I won’t touch on as this particular article is dedicated to stunt horses) but they also called for CGI horses to be used rather than live ones.
Much of the horses on the set of The Witcher are the responsibility of a trainer by the name of Steve Dent, who holds a full animal trainer’s license in the UK. Steve Dent has probably worked on the sets of a lot of your favorite movies that involve horses, as he’s been doing what he does for 60 years and has worked on over 350 professional projects. It’s also worth noting that he was not responsible for the three films mentioned by Peta in their statement where horses died on set. From what I can gather, these stunt horses are treated well, with precautions such as testing the costumes to make sure they are comfortable for the horses being set in place.
As for Henry Cavil, who played the role of Geralt in season two, he’s publicized much of the work he’s done with horses on the set of the Witcher. Zeus, who plays the role of Roach up until season two, is not a mare as Roach the character is, because Henry Cavil doesn’t meet the height and weight standards for riding a mare (or maybe because mares are known to be homicidal. Anyone’s guess!). This is a good example of responsible horsemanship being taken into consideration on the set of the witcher.
Henry Cavil had also been undergoing horseback riding lessons for years in order to improve his horsemanship for the role of Geralt. Of course, we know that Henry Cavil won’t be playing Geralt moving forward. Rather, that role will be going to Liam Hemsworth, who has had experience both owning his own personal horses and riding horses on set, but the extent of that experience is a bit hard to know for sure.
So, why does any of this matter? I think that in the discussion around the ethics of domesticated animals, it’s easy to get frustrated, and rightly so. Equestrians, who work closely with animals both recreationally and professionally naturally don’t like to see disrespect in the relationships between humans and animals that we take so seriously. However, I don’t think that calling for a complete ban of the use of domesticated animals, say, on movie sets, is the next logical step in solving this problem. Rather, I think that transparency concerning the use of animals on film sets is the best weapon against abuse. The set of The Witcher doesn’t communicate the nature of its use of horses perfectly, but I think it’s a good example of a good start. If the equestrian community can work together to not only keep each other in check but also to critique and give recommendations, then maybe we can all go back to enjoying great films with great horsemanship.