Roy Rogers has known the joy of a good wife, a happy family, and a wonderful career as King of the Cowboys. He also owned a horse named Trigger, the most famous movie animal of all time, and Roy loved Trigger as much as any man can love a horse.
“His sire was a racehorse,” Roy told David Rothel, author of The Singing Cowboys, “and his dam was a cold blooded palomino. He took the color, white mane, and tail from his mother and the stamina, speed and conformation from the thoroughbred side.”
His original owner, the Hudkins Stables, named him Golden Cloud, and he had a small role as a youngster in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), in which Olivia de Havilland rides him sidesaddle through Sherwood Forest. Later that year, when Republic Studios decided to feature Roy Rogers in a series of Westerns, they had several horses brought around for Roy to try. When he mounted Trigger it was love at first whinny.
The magnificent California sorrel (an earlier name for palomino) was featured in Roy Roger’s first starring movie, Under Western Stars, in 1938; but before the picture was completed, Roy’s first sidekick, Smiley Burnetter, suggested the new name- Trigger- because the horse was just that quick. Two movies later, Roy decided he like the animal so much he bought him, paying twenty-five hundred dollars. Trigger became the co-star of every one of the 87 movies and 101 TV shows that Roy Rogers made.
Trigger was such a natural performer that sometimes he stole the show from Roy, who was known on occasion to curse his mount as “a ham instead of a horse.” In a story about the two of them in Life magazine in 1943, H. Allen Smith wrote that “the horse has been known to yawn or go into a little dance step at the very moment when the audience is supposed to be giving its undivided attention to Roy. After one such experience at the Earle Theater in Washington, Roy came offstage cussing and in his dressing room announced, ‘I’m gonna shoot that so-and-so horse right between the eyes.’ ”
Trigger had his own fan club with over a million human members. He traveled in an air-conditioned, cork-lined trailer and wore a fifty-thousand dollar silver saddle studded with a thousand rubies. He put his two front hoof prints in cement outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theater and once had a birthday party in the grand ballroom of New York’s Hotel Astor. The press relished printing stories that his contract called for at least three close-ups per film. (Trigger frequently did get close-ups and billing equal to Roy’s, but he actually worked without a contract.) He was publicized as “The Smartest Horse in the Movies,” and his talents included the following feats of skill:
Walking 150 feet on his hind legs
Counting to 25 by stamping his hoof
Drinking milk out of a bottle
Using a pencil in his teeth to sign the guest register (with an X) when arriving at a hotel
Kneeling to pray as Roy sang “Peace in the Valley”
Not pooping indoors
Like Elvis and the Beatles, Trigger was actually put in peril by the intense devotion of those who adored him so much that they yearned to have a part of him. David Rothel reported that so many fans yanked hairs from his luxuriant mane and tail that there were times Trigger actually had to wear a prosthetic tail wig so as to not look bald. In fact, Hollywood horse trainer Glenn Randall, who had taught Trigger most of his sixty tricks, tutored three different look-alike Triggers for personal appearances and live shows; sometimes they were used as doubles in movie long shots. But any film scene that required close-ups, was always done by the one and only Trigger, who had a lifelong love affair with the camera.
He retired in 1957 and died at age thirty-three on July 3, 1965. Rogers, who called him “the greatest horse that ever came along,” couldn’t stand to think of his cherished stallion moldering in a grace, so he had him taxidermized, rearing up and wearing a fancy silver saddle in all his glory, the way millions of fans remember him. Now Trigger is the most popular single exhibit at the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Victorville, California, where also reside the mounted remains of Bullet the Wonder Dog, Buttermilk (Dale’s TV Horse), Trigger Jr. (a good dancer who was often used for personal appearance, but a horse without much film charisma), and dozens of heads of game animals and big fish Roy caught.
Trigger was in a class by himself; no other movie cowboy horse had as many fans as he did, and none got so many good scenes and plum roles. Some of his finest performances were in The Golden Stallion (1949), in which humans play second fiddle to Trigger and Trigger Jr. who star in a melodrama about diamond smuggling (in a trick horseshoe) and murder (by the hard-hitting hoof of an evil stallion); Under California Skies (1948), in which Trigger is held for ransom by thugs; and Trigger, Jr. (1950), about a killer horse on the loose, with a special taste for palominos!
Gene Autry’s Champion-billed as “the World’s Wonder Horse”- was second only to Trigger in his game. Champion shared many of Trigger’s beguiling qualities, and he was able to kneel, march, waltz, bow, jump through a flaming hoop, and do the hula, the rhumba, and the Charleston. His hoof prints, like Trigger’s were set in cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater; and he was reported to travel in a DC-3 with all the seats removed for his comfort. A Tennessee walking horse with a white blazed face and four white socks, Champion was never quite the idolized luminary Trigger was, but he and tiny Little Champ (the comic foil, who used to scamper underneath Champion’s belly, much to the old man’s chagrin) were key players in Gene Autry’s traveling live show and in movies that took place on his Melody Ranch. A souvenir booklet from an Autry show in the late 1940s described their lifestyle: “They live in a deluxe, deodorized stable. Their menus consist of oats with carrots and apples for dessert. Their daily workouts are performed to the din of recorded applause so that when they appear before an audience they will not be frightened by the thunderous cheers which invariably greet their entrances.”
Celebrity Western horses are nearly as old as cowboy movies. William S. Hart, the first cowboy movie star, frequently made his mount, Fritz, a key player in the story, and it was Fritz, not a pretty girl, who usually accompanied him when he rode off at the final fade-out. In the prologue he filmed for the rerelease of his great movie Tumbleweeds in 1939, Hart, who had been absent from the screen for fourteen years, recalled his dear departed equine pal as he spoke to the audience of looking up toward the Western sky and seeing the old cowboys who had gone to their glory. Loping with the men alongside the ghost herd in the clouds was a rider less pinto pony- Fritz, beckoning Bill with a low whinny to join him for the last roundup.
Fritz was known by name to audiences, but it was Tom Mix’s Tony who became the first horse superstar. Tony not only got screen billing along with human actors, in 1922 he starred in his own movie (accompanied by Mix in a supporting role) titled Just Tony, in which he leaped over canyons, galloped through fire, swam raging rivers, and in one key scene sauntered over to a table and fetched Mix’s six-gun for him. In their book Box-Office Buckaroos Robert Heide and John Gilman write that the only thing Tony feared was a scummy horse used by the studio as a stand-in: the fact that it wouldn’t whinny back spooked him. After Tony, it became de rigueur for any star of Western serials to have a horse with a good personality.
Tarzan (Ken Maynard). Tarzan was a real entertainer; in addition to great trick-riding feats with Maynard aboard, he knew how to play dead and dance, and with the arrival of talking pictures, there were even some musical Westerns in which he seemed to swing and sway during musical interludes. He also frequently nudged Maynard into a clinch with a pretty girl.
Mutt (Hoot Gibson)
Silver (Buck Jones, who also had a horse named White Eagle)
Silver (The Lone Ranger) Silver was so named because when Tonto discovered him in Wild Horse Valley he said “Him look like silver.” He was no relation to Buck Jones’s Silver.
Silver Bullet (Whip Wilson)
Topper (Hopalong Cassidy). The first week of production on the first Hoppy film, Hop-A-Long Cassidy (1935), William Boyd fell off Topper and broke his leg.
Silver King (Fred Thomson). Thomson usually played a good guy, but in The Sunset Legion (1928) he played a good guy and a bad guy; and in his role as the bad guy’s horse, Silver King, who was white, wore a tight-fitting suit of black.
Midnight (Tim McCoy)
Rush (Lash Larue)
Diablo (Cisco Kid)
Scout (Jack Hoxie)
Lightnin’ (Monte Hale)
Raider (Charlie Starrett)
Ko-Ko (Rex Allen, “The Arizona Cowboy”); Ko-Ko was so named because he reminded Allen of a “wonderful thick cup of chocolate.” Star of Phantom Stallion (1954), Ko-Ko was billed as “The Miracle Horse of the Movies.”
Rebel (Johnny Mack Brown). Brown, who came from Alabama, named his horse to honor the South.
Copper (Eddie Dean). According to Movie Western magazine, “Eddie Dean, PRC’s singing cowboy star, sees to every need of his beautiful horse. He knows full well how important his mount is as part of his career as well as to him personally as a trusted companion.”
Ring Eye (Smiley Burnette). Like Smiley, Ring Eye was a comedian: an old white horse that was sometimes stubborn as a mule and known for a perfectly drawn circle around his left eye- a mirror image of the Little Rascals’ dog, Jiggs. “Foremost among the up-and-coming gallopers is Blackjack,” Movie Western announced in 1950. Blackjack belonged to Allan “Rocky” Lane (who played Red Ryder after Bill Elliott), and was said to be a descendent of the Ketchum brothers’ herd of horses, known for their spirit back in the 1880s. Blackjack retrieved the newspaper every morning from the mailbox and delivered it to Rocky on the front porch of his ranch. He could count. Dance. And answer many questions; and he got equal screen billing with his rider. “His income runs into four figures,” Movie Thrills reported. Blackjack was known for having more saddles than any other horse except Trigger: “work saddles, flower-stamped everyday saddles, and silver inlaid saddles for dress.”
In an article Rocky Lane wrote in 1950 titled “I Doff My Stetson to the American Pioneer and His Horse,” he said “My stallion Blackjack, who is part of me, has no Stetson to doff, but he forebears, those four-legged partners of the early-day cowboys who shared their dangers and their triumphs. As long as cowboys sing ‘Old Faithful’ in the solitude of the night or in the glare of a stage spotlight, so long will the horse hold his place in the affections of man.”