Billed as the "incredible true story of the greatest long-distance horse race ever run", Hidalgo is based on the legend of Frank T. Hopkins (Mortensen), a Pony Express rider invited to participate in the 3,000-mile "Ocean of Fire" endurance race across the Arabian Desert in 1890. For the first time in the race's history, a cowboy and his mustang matched wits and endurance against the world's greatest Arabian horses.

  • Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif and Zuleikha Robinson
  • Director(s): Joe Johnston
  • Producer(s): Hidalgo Productions
  • Screenwriter(s): John Fusco
  • Distributor: Buena Vista Pictures, Touchstone Pictures
  • Animal Coordinator: Birds and Animals Unlimited
  • Release Date: Friday, March 05, 2004

Featured Animal Action

This film contains intense action involving horses, leopards and a falcon.

Search for Hidalgo

By the time the cameras rolled, head animal trainer Rex Peterson had selected five paint horses to play the role of the plucky mustang Hidalgo. TJ, RJ, Oscar, Doc and DC each had their special talents and enough of a resemblance that makeup and hair specialists could create one seamless character. Peterson found TJ first and started with the eight best matches, auditioning all of them until he whittled the group down to five. TJ demonstrated the greatest bond with his co-star Viggo Mortensen, and the actor actually purchased this horse and brought him home when filming ended. RJ proved to be the most agile trick horse; Oscar the best ride for actors; Doc took the lead as the main chase horse; and DC was the ultimate endurance racer.

The Wild West Show

Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show begins with mounted Indians chasing and shooting at a stage coach pulled by four horses. The cavalry enters and shoots at the Indians, knocking one off his horse. Well-prepped stuntmen and stunt horses were used for this sequence, and to muffle the noise, all horses had cotton in their ears and the guns fired 1/4 loads of ammunition.

For the next act, a drunken Frank rides Hidalgo around the ring. As he approaches the audience, he falls off the horse and Hidalgo pulls on his shirt, dragging him across the ring. For this part of the scene, a stunt man wearing a cable doubled as the actor. He wore padding under his clothes as well as a harness attached to the saddle, which two vets checked out and approved. On the trainer's cue, Hidalgo backs up gently and pulls on the actor, the weight of whom was supported by the horse's saddle—not his mouth.

Travelin' Blues

In one scene that takes place on a train outfitted with horse stalls, Frank opens Hidalgo's stall and rides the horse through the open door and out of the slow moving locomotive. Lots of prep time went into this scene. The train car and stalls were specially built by the production and featured rubber matted floors which provided good traction for the horse. A slow moving truck towed the train car at approximately two miles per hour, and a stunt rider actually rode the horse off the train. The camera angle made the jump look higher than it really was, and pick up riders as well as trainers on foot surrounded the train car.

Frank rides Hidalgo inside a station and they go up a ramp onto the ship. Once in his stall, a man menaces Hidalgo with a pitch fork. Frank enters and the two men fight outside the stall. This whole scene takes place on a set built by the production and inspected by trainers and one of American Humane's Animal Safety Representatives. To capture the horse's attention, a trainer stood behind the actor holding a pole with a cloth attached to the end of it. Hidalgo focused on the cloth and began to try and nip at it, creating the illusion that the horse was annoyed. The prop pitch fork used by the actor had no sharp edges, and the men rehearsed the fight many times to accustom the animals to the noise and commotion when it was finally filmed.

The Race is On

Kurd and his horse fall over on a sand dune and his horse's leg is severely injured. In order to put the animal out of its misery, Kurd takes out a knife and reluctantly stabs the horse to death. This scene was filmed in separate shots and pieced together in post production. The first part of this sequence was the controlled fall where a stunt rider doubled as the actor. Because the fall was on a 45-degree incline of naturally soft sand, the horse fell down, rolled over the stunt man, and got right back up on its feet. The close up of the fake wound on the horse's leg was taken as a separate shot. To simulate Kurd killing his horse, a trainer first verbally cued the animal to lie down on the sand. The actor knelt over the horse's shoulder and held up a prop sword while an off-camera trainer petted and talked to the horse so it would continue lying calmly. After filming that image, the actor held just the handle of the sword so it looked like the weapon had been plunged into the animal. The last part of the scene shows the actor pulling out a bloody prop sword covered in non-toxic paint. No unnecessary crew members or actors were present for the filming of this scene so that the horse had no distractions.


Hidalgo and Frank fall into a trap camouflaged by a cover of bamboo stalks, one of which impales the horse. Frank pulls out the stalk and Hidalgo lies on the ground while his owner heats up a knife to cauterize the wound. The horse begins to sit up but does not to have the strength and lies back down. Frank tries to help by pushing the injured horse out of the pit. This scene was done in a number of separate shots edited together seamlessly in post production. Crew members made one three-foot deep pit filled with soft sand to use for as much of this sequence as possible, with cameras placed at strategic angles to make the pit appear deeper. A second pit measuring 15 feet by 24 feet by 10 feet deep was used for other shots, and production built a special ramp for this pit so that the horse could enter and exit with ease.

Computer generated special effects produced the actual fall into the pit. After leading Hidalgo inside, his trainer cued him to lie down; for comfort, the stirrup on the horse's reclining side was removed, and the ground was dry on top but wet underneath to provide a natural cushion for the animal. The bamboo spear Frank removes from Hidalgo's flank actually pierced a prosthetic piece that looked like horse hide. Mortensen used a prop knife that glowed and smoked to make it look like he had heated the knife in the campfire. The actor learned how to hold the reins properly to keep the horse lying down, and the trainer stood off camera calling to the horse so it would appear to struggle to stand up. A rope attached to the horse's saddle was controlled by a trainer at the top of the pit, and when Hidalgo regains his strength, he slowly walks up the sand bank with the actor pushing his rear. A trainer stayed in the pit at all times with the horse and actor.

Loose Herd Stampede

The final stampede scene is absolutely breathtaking. In a corral full of horses, a few bump up against the railing and break it, allowing the herd to run free across the Montana plains. Frank releases Hidalgo to join them, and his faithful companion rears up to say good-bye then joins the massive group of roaming horses. This complicated sequence required exhaustive preparation from the production, trainers and wranglers to create a magnificent visual effect while maintaining the safety and orderly management of the animals.

Approximately 500 native Montana horses accustomed to the terrain and climate were used in the herd sequence. While it looks like the horses crush up against the corral and break it open, in reality, the wooden fence railing was controlled by an air pressured cable inserted inside the rail and controlled by a crew member from off screen. When the horses neared the fence, the railing opened up and set the animals free. To get the horses to exit the corral, four trainers stood inside and herded the animals toward the opening, where they then ran about one and a half miles at their own pace.

All 26 wranglers on set had radios to communicate with each other as well as with select crew members, the director, and the helicopter pilot at all times throughout the shoot. During rehearsals of this scene, the helicopter initially flew 1,000 feet in the air and gradually came down closer to the action after acclimating the animals to the noise. As a safety precaution, a veterinarian and trailer waited at the half-way point to attend to any injuries or horses that may have needed medical attention. The horses were counted and examined after each practice run and after filming the sequence, and various trainers made sure the animals were watered, fed and rested for a few hours before transporting them back to their corral.

One of the greatest concerns during preparation of this sequence was the native wildlife in the area, since gophers and badgers live in ground holes directly below the horses' planned path out of the corral. The Black Feet Indians, local live trappers approved by both the game warden and the tribal counsel, were brought in to trap these animals and transport them about a mile or so away from the set. Then production crew members formed a "hole patrol", filling in any burrows created by these animals with dirt and rocks. That way, if any of the little critters were still under ground, they could dig their way out! This also provided safe footing for the running horses.

Running Mounts

Lady Anne (Louise Lombard) mounts a trotting Hidalgo and Frank quickly joins her on the moving horse. When they come upon a brick wall adorned with vases being shot off by their pursuers, the horse jumps the wall with both riders still aboard. It appears as though the woman mounts Hidalgo while he's moving, but really that scene was done in two different shots. Lombard ran alongside the horse in take one and a stunt double put a leg in the stirrup and mounted the horse in the next shot. Then the actor and his stunt double completed the action in exactly the same way. Stunt riders were mounted on Hidalgo as an off-screen trainer cued it to jump over the wall. The horse was well trained for jumping and did so right on cue.

In another scene, Hidalgo runs loose through the marketplace and Jazira (Robinson) runs alongside him. It appears as though the woman mounts the horse by grabbing onto its mane and then Frank jumps onto Hidalgo from where he stands on a wall. This scene was done in four separate shots, and the horse had extra padding under the saddle for comfort during this stunt. A trainer released the horse in the marketplace and he ran past the extras toward another trainer waiting with a feed bucket. The actress ran alongside the animal, grabbed its mane and pretended to begin to mount. Then a stunt woman stepped in and mounted the animal as it began to move. A special platform was built for the stuntman to stand on, and the woman rode the horse near the wall at a slow pace so that the stuntman could easily jump onto the horse's saddle. In the final shot of this sequence, the two actors ride away together.

Looming Leopards

From a balcony vantage point, two leopards are seen wandering around a courtyard below. For this establishing scene, the two leopards arrived on the courtyard set in a van and were removed from the vehicle by their trainers one at a time. Each wore a collar and safety cable with an "O" ring secured to the ground, similar to a dog stake, and received food rewards for staying on mark. The camera crew filmed the action from the balcony so that only the trainers were near the animals. The woman opening her door to take a gander at the cats was filmed separately and added in later during post production.

In a later scene, a horse drawn wagon transports the leopards. When the back door opens, one leopard snarls. This was filmed in front of a green screen, and the leopard actually stood on a platform specially built by the production. When a trainer standing off screen verbally cued the cat to "smile", the snarling began. A horse wrangler drove the empty wagon.

The leopards then jump out of the wagon and race over to attack Sakr and another rider. Hidalgo steps in and begins to fight the two big cats. In reality, the horse, leopards and men never acted together for this scene. Trainers brought the animals to the closed set on leashes. The cats were placed on their marks and cued both verbally and with bait sticks to achieve the action. A trainer brought Hidalgo to the set and had him rear, strike and attack a stuffed leopard target. This was added into the fight sequence along with CGI special effects to make the scene look realistic. To get Sakr's horse to run in circles as the leopards attack, a line was tied from the bridle to the horse's tail. When the trainer cracked a whip in the air to cue the horse to move, the line caused the animal to turn its head and walk in circles. Takes were limited to avoid stress on the animal.

Cloud of Locusts

A huge locust crawls on Frank's chest as he sleeps, and more appear on Hidalgo's tail as it swishes. Suddenly, a freakish swarm of locusts appears and Frank and Hidalgo take cover under a blanket as the screen goes black. The next image is of a pile of dead locusts and Hidalgo lying on the sand. The horse gets up and Frank eats a dead grasshopper, offering one to Hidalgo who decides to give it a try. To accomplish this scene, a wrangler gently dropped the insect from directly above the actor's body. Mortensen pretends to awake and gently flicks the locust off his body and onto the ground. Trainers filmed the locusts in Hidalgo's tail in two different ways. For one take, this scene was filmed with a trainer holding a fake horse tail with the locust crawling on it; a second version filmed the horse's real tail dabbed with honey so the locusts could crawl with better traction.

A combination of real and rubber locusts were used when Frank and Hidalgo take cover under a blanket, and the horde of insects that eventually blackens the entire screen was computer generated. When the swarm abated, a combination of rubber and specially-made edible locusts were placed around the set, and both actor and horse knew which ones to eat. As soon as filming ended, wranglers returned the real locusts to their special moisture containers. Although not all of them "acted" in this sequence, 120 locusts came to the set and all of them left alive and well at the end of the day

Avian Action

Three Saker Falcons – each accompanied by two handlers – were on call for this part. The actor who played Al Hullel was introduced to the birds early on and had lots of prep time with the trainers to learn how to handle them. There are some shots of the falcon in flight shot separately and inserted into the film during post production. To get the falcon to fly, a trainer placed the bird on a perch about 8 feet high. Another trainer stood on a cherry picker approximately 25 feet high and held out a gloved hand while calling to the bird with a whistle. The bird flew to the gloved hand and received a food reward.

In one scene, the falcon swoops down into a man's face. This action was filmed on a sound stage in front of a blue screen. Trainers placed a helmet on the ground in a spot where the actor's head will eventually appear. Some food is set on the helmet to entice the bird, and a trainer releases the falcon while standing on top of a ladder. The bird flies to the helmet, grabs the food and flies to another awaiting trainer who holds out a padded arm for the falcon to sit on. In the magic of post production, the helmet became a man.

A vulture flies on a dead body lying in the desert. This body was a prop coated with food to attract the bird's attention. To control the action, a trainer off-screen held on to a monofilament line placed on the vulture's leg.


A rabbit runs across a field and Sakr's falcon swoops down to get it just as Frank shoots the bunny with his gun. This sequence was done in separate shots and the rabbit and falcon never appeared on set together. One trainer released the rabbit and it ran to another trainer sounding a buzzer. A trainer standing on a ladder released the falcon, which picked up a stuffy rabbit positioned on the ground below. When Frank, Hidalgo and the falcon later sit around the campfire, the rabbit cooking on the spit was a food product purchased by production.

Safety on the Set

The horse selection process for this film was very thorough. Veterinarians examined each and every equine and the horses' hoofs were number-branded for identification purposes. Interestingly, this causes no pain to the animal since the hoof is much like a human finger nail and the branded number grows out in 6-8 weeks.

All horses were kept in a 50-acre pasture with ample water and hay. Each day, some of them would move to the "picture corral", which served as a staging area for the scene. This corral covered approximately two acres of land and allowed ample room for all horses. Once inside the corral, the horses were checked for any lameness or injury that may have occurred during the night. Trainers removed any horse showing signs of illness or injury and placed it in a separate holding pen so that a veterinarian could immediately examine it. If the vet decided the animal should not work, it was removed from the set and sent back to its origin. Trainers and crewmembers checked all of the grounds to insure that they were clear of anything that could injure the horses as they performed.

As previously mentioned, guns were loaded with 1/4 loads of ammunition to reduce the noise. Horses were always gradually conditioned to the sound, and for additional comfort, trainers often put cotton in the horse's ears to make it even quieter. Stunt riders stepped in whenever possible for the racing sequences, as well as in scenes with gunfire since those usually required fast riding. All of the actors received instructions on handling the horses as well as riding lessons. Trainers carefully matched the horse with the rider's skill and any scene or actor that required more prep time got it. In fact, there were months of prep time for the racing sequence to ensure that very few problems would occur.

Dust storms occurred almost daily while the production worked in the Sahara Desert near Quarzazate, Morocco, and the crew worked diligently to protect the horses from suffering respiratory problems because of it. Although some minor injuries did occur on set, none of them were due to negligence on the part of the production and arose principally from the extraordinarily large number of animals used in this production over the lengthy nine month shooting schedule and challenging locations. Tragically one horse died before production ever began when it accidentally broke its leg while being housed in a corral. The horse ran across the corral and stepped into a gopher hole that had been previously filled in but gave way unexpectedly. The on-set veterinarian and trainer acted quickly, but because the break was so severe they decided that it was most humane to euthanize the horse. One of the falcons contracted a common respiratory ailment and was treated by a veterinarian and not used for production while the treatment was in progress. Sadly, the bird died, however it was not contagious and did not endanger the other falcons. Everyone involved in the production took the welfare of the animals seriously and was deeply saddened by the tragic incidents.

Production actually took extraordinary care to provide safe working conditions for the many animals that appeared in the film. Production made upgrades in stabling conditions while on set in Morocco, provided vet care for some local animals that were not even part of production and improved the general care of the horses on location. Veterinarians were on set during all of the extreme scenes and no animals were allowed to work if they exhibited any signs of fatigue or soreness. American Humane granted the production a disclaimer that reads, American Humane monitored the animal action.ds