Dinner with Rex Peterson and Cari Swanson

I meet a lot of interesting people in my job, but one night a couple of weeks back was especially fascinating.

I was very lucky to meet Hollywood horse trainer Rex Peterson and his beautiful wife Cari Swanson.

Think of a famous horse film, and chances are these guys trained the horses for it, and more often than not Rex is also in the films (think back to those incredible scenes on The Horse Whisperer- many were done by Rex and not Robert Redford).

Rex has trained horses for such great horsey classics as The Horse Whisperer , The Black Stallion,  Black Beauty, Secretariat, City Slickers, The Patriot, Hildalgo , Dreamer Inspired by a True Story , and the TV movie Ruffian.

Rex and Cari had been staying with friends near Siena for the past week, and they contacted me to come for a visit for a filming opportunity.

The roads around Tuscany are notoriously badly signposted, so it took longer than expected for them to arrive. In the end I drove down to try and find them, and missed them pass me on the road. Back at the reception I was sitting in my car when I noticed a guy standing outside the office wearing these amazing red cowboy boots. I thought to myself "I haven't seen that guy at the stables", and then it clicked. It was Rex!

I have to admit I was a little worried how these guys would be in person. I mean.. they have just come off set from six months working alongside Russell Crowe and Colin Farrell.
Straight off they seemed like old friends. Calm and relaxed, as many horse people are; they were friendly, warm and quietly spoken.

We went for a tour around Castellare di Tonda (Rex and Cari were interested in using it as a location for a show they were set to film).
Rex and I chatted about horses, films and training. His concepts and ideas were really interesting. Straight off he told me about his greatest inspiration, the famous Glenn Randall Sr - a master horseman who trained the Triggers for Roy Rogers and the horses for Ben-Hur. 

Rex told me with affection, how when he first met the old trainer (and at this stage Rex had already been trick riding since he was a child) Glen watched him rope his roman trick horses to catch them. Glenn was not happy. There was a better way.
Glenn showed Rex how to whip break the horses in less than an hour, and soon had them following him around the arena like puppy dogs. That was the moment that Rex decided he wanted to learn as much as possible from this guy!

Rex is renowned for training horses to do things other experts thought impossible, such as the Rock band Procol Harum video, which featured a horse bursting up from what appeared to be a sandy beach. He tells me all about how he would visit the terminally ill Glenn Randall to discuss  his methods and techniques for getting his horse completely covered in sand to do the stunt.  Right up to the end Glenn would light up when they discussed how the training was going.
“He did stuff with horses nobody ever did,” Peterson said of Randall – including teaching Roy Rogers horse Trigger to empty his bladder on command before entering a children’s hospital.

To this day Rex is adamant he knows only a fraction of the knowledge his teacher Glenn possessed.

Rex was born and raised in Ogallala, Nebraska in a family of horsemen.
 His father taught his six kids how to trick ride as soon as they could walk and his oldest brother was the World Champion trick rider of the year in 1960.  Dennis was famous for jumping a team of horses over a Chevy convertible.
Rex was the recipient of the American Humane Society’s Performing Animal Star of the Year Award. Hes not a fan of the natural horsemanship fanatics, and is adamant that it takes a lifetime to become a well rounded horseman, taking bits from each trainer and mentor but not sticking to a 'my way or the highway' approach.

Cari Swanson is also an impressively well-rounded horsewoman!
She is a USDF Silver Medalist, FEI eventing competitor at Preliminary level, and a Graduate of the USDF "L" Education Program for Judge Training.
Cari trains and sells dressage and event prospects and is involved with the Swedish Warmblood Breeding Program and the Rescue and Rehabilitation Program for injured horses. 
There is no doubt that these two complement each other immensely. Together they have a well rounded equestrian experience of two lifetimes.

On Cari's Blog there is a touching statement from Viggo Mortenson on Rex's training and horsemanship. "I have had the privilege of learning about horses and riding from Rex Peterson, and the good fortune to watch up-close the remarkable results he achieves with even the most challenging of horses and riders. He has guided me through the movies “Hidalgo” and “Appaloosa”, and I have been lucky to become his friend and ride many miles in all sorts of conditions with him. He makes his job as horse-master look effortless, but those who have trained under him over the years know it most assuredly is not. He does appear to have a gift for “reading” people and horses, always finding the most suitable teaching approach in each situation, but he works extremely hard every single day, often for many hours at a time. He has an iron will, and will not quit on any horse or rider, but is remarkably patient and leads with a steady and kind hand. One of the most helpful bits of advice he passed on to me – which can be applied to working with horses and to life in general – is “go slow to go fast”. He would never, unlike others not as gifted or patient in his line of work, rush things unnecessarily or ever ask anyone to do something he was unwilling to first try himself. He invariably has the safety and well-being of his horses as his topmost priority. "

Cari and Rex had just finished up working for 6 months on the set of "A Winters Tale" a film set in New York with Russel Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and Colin Farell. The film required shootings on the Brooklyn bridge and central station. For the film Rex and Cari used four horses, the most used was Listo, a lovely White Andalusian horse that they have held on too.
Listening to the behind the scenes stories was intriguing and surprising. These guys have such an interesting life. I inevitably had to ask what it was like working with Russel Crowe (a kiwi like me) and Colin 'hotty' Farrell. "Both were nice, good riders and hard workers," I was told.

After a trip around the estate, a nice aperitif and a fascinating dinner talking about horses, Rex gave the owner of Castellare di Tonda his own 'Lasso'. We said goodbye, and just like a scene in an old western movie - he tipped his hat and they both disappeared into the night.