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'Horses of McBride' recounts true story of family who rescued 2 trapped horses

TURNER VALLEY, Alta. - When Aidan Quinn returned to this picturesque town outside Calgary last March to shoot "The Horses of McBride," he was happy to see a familiar face — John Scott.
Aidan Quinn and Mackenzie Porter pose on location at the filming of 'Horses of McBride' on Alberta's Moose Mountain. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Bell/CTV

TURNER VALLEY, Alta. - When Aidan Quinn returned to this picturesque town outside Calgary last March to shoot "The Horses of McBride," he was happy to see a familiar face — John Scott.

The veteran horse wrangler and Alberta rancher has been helping everyone from Brad Pitt to Sam Elliott to Jackie Chan stay in the saddle for 40 years. Scott worked with Quinn, Pitt and Anthony Hopkins on the 1994 feature "Legends of the Fall" and with Quinn again on the 2007 HBO film "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee."

"He's the reason I wasn't thrown off," Quinn says of Scott's efforts to keep him in the saddle on those earlier pictures.

On "The Horses of McBride," which premieres Sunday at 7 p.m. ET on CTV, Quinn's cowboy character is seen more often on a snowmobile than a horse.

The 53-year-old actor plays Matt Davidson, a cowboy-outfitter who, along with his teenage daughter Nicki, played by MacKenzie Porter ("Dinosapien"), helps rescue two starving horses trapped behind an avalanche of snow in the Rocky Mountains. Kari Matchett ("Covert Affairs") plays Davidson's wife, Avril.

They're all based on the Jeck family of McBride, B.C., who, in 2008, rallied their community to pick up shovels and dig out two actual horses trapped in a similar predicament.

Quinn, a native of Chicago who now lives with his family outside of New York City (a short commute to his new series, “Elementary”), went so far as to listen to an audio clip of David Jeck on set every day to try to capture the real cowboy’s accent and cadence for the film.

Scott did not have to do much work with Matchett and Porter on “McBride.” Both are quite at home on horseback. Porter grew up on a ranch in Medicine Hat, Alta., and Matchett, a native of Spalding, Sask., grew up riding in Lethbridge, Alta.

His big challenge was to come up with the four-legged stars of the TV movie — Lady and Slim. They needed to look as if they had been starving on a mountain. Scott found two rescue horses in Cochrane, Alta., and Penticton, B.C. They had to match up with two healthy horses used earlier in the production in scenes showing the horses before they became trapped in the snow.

Scott says it was a greater challenge to find the two emaciated horses than finding the 400 he had to wrangle in New Zealand during production of “The Lord of the Rings.”

“Trying to find malnourished horses with the same markings (as the healthy horses), it was a hard thing to do. I've got a lot of friends in the horse business that helped me a lot, and I had probably 40-50 people looking, but it took quite a while.”

The two horses gained weight during production, “as did I,” kids Quinn. Now healthy, homes were found for them after “McBride” wrapped.

Scott has worked with his share of two-legged actors before. He says Clint Eastwood, who he wrangled horses for on “Unforgiven,” is one of the greats, especially as a director. “Some days we were three days ahead of schedule on ‘Unforgiven,’” he says. “He likes a quiet set — no walkie-talkies.”

Pitt, he says, had never been on a horse before Scott broke him in on “Legends of the Fall.” By the end of the picture, Pitt looked at home on the range. “Brad Pitt rode seven different horses,” says Scott. “I thought he looked good on them all.”

Chan was another one of Scott’s cowboy converts. The two worked together on “Shanghai Noon.” “He was a perfectionist. He wanted everything to look real good,” recalls Scott. “After 12 days, it looked like Jackie Chan had been on a horse his whole life.”

Scott says one of his biggest thrills was doubling for childhood hero Roy Rogers when the cowboy legend made an appearance at the Calgary Stampede.

“The horses have taken me a lot of places around Canada and the States,” says Scott. He caught the end of the TV westerns in Hollywood where he worked shows like “Gunsmoke,” “The Big Valley” and “Alias Smith and Jones.”

Elliott is one of his favourite Hollywood stars. “He’s a good cowboy, a good rider, a good actor,” says Scott.

Quinn is also a pleasure to work with, says Scott.

Quinn says the feeling is mutual, and that goes double for the horses. He doesn't subscribe to the notion that actors should never work opposite children or animals. “I think there’s nothing better,” he says, “because horses don't act. That’s what you want.”


Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.