Al Underwood is a consummate professional with all things Horses, History and Teaching Actors how to safely ride on screen both in and out of Battle. A member of the Horses in Action Foundation, Al has joined the Historical Drama Elijah and George, A Revolutionary Tale as Horse Wrangler, Actor Trainer and Cast as Loyalist British Dragoon SGT. Benjamin English.
Actors learn to ride for the silver screen in Albemarle
BY DAVID A. MAURER – Apr 9, 2017
Al Underwood teaches actors how to ride horses at Preddy Creek Trail Park.
Watching a cowboy or gunslinger galloping across the silver screen on a horse with its mane dancing in the wind makes for a good scene.
Put a few hundred actors on horseback and have them charge across an open field, and you likely have a scene for the ages. Finding that number of actors who won’t end up being bounced along the ground with a foot caught in a stirrup, however, is another matter.
On a recent sunny afternoon at Preddy Creek Trail Park north of Charlottesville, Al Underwood was teaching equestrian skills to a new generation of actors. For a number of years, he has been helping producers and casting directors fill roles that call for horse-related skills.
“You can learn how to ride a horse anywhere, but the specialty thing we bring is that we’ll teach you how to be an actor on horseback,” Underwood said as he slung a British Army saddle onto the back of one of his horses. “We teach confidence and competence.”
“Not only will we teach you how to ride and look like you own the place, you will learn how to present yourself well for the camera. And we’ll teach you how to be safe, and keep your horse safe.”
“Today, I’m giving four students an advanced class on rough-terrain riding. We’ll be going up and down steep hills, crossing a stream and riding through wooded areas.”
Photos/Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress
Before Underwood retired as a Lieutenant Colonel from the U.S. Army, he had put in time in the saddle as a member of the legendary B Troop, 4th U.S. Cavalry Regiment (Memorial), at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. This storied outfit was activated in 1855 and has distinguished itself in most of the nation’s wars.
The mounted element of the regiment honors the long tradition of cavalrymen, and it usually is seen these days in parades and historical events. One of Underwood’s high points while a member of B Troop was riding in the Rose Bowl Parade.
The retired soldier had another high point when he got to be one of the riders in the 2000 film “The Patriot,” starring Mel Gibson. This indirectly led him to the task of teaching actors how to ride.
“During the filming of ‘The Patriot,’ I noticed that except for the big-time actors, all the guys they had riding horses were from states out west like Montana and Colorado,” said Underwood, who lives near Barboursville. “They had to import them from way out there, and that stuck with me. Then, four or five years ago we had a little reenactment group, the First Virginia Regiment, Dragoon Section, out of Northern Virginia. There were four of us, and we’d put on riding demonstrations. Our names were handed out to various film companies that needed riders. This led to us getting a job at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, where they were making a film and needed some guys who could ride.”
Other film jobs followed. An added plus for producers is that Underwood’s horse, Ranger, will ride through fire and smoke, and isn’t bothered by gunfire or the booming reports from cannons. “Oftentimes, when I went to do some riding in a film, the director would come over to me and say they almost never got guys who can really make the horses go and look the part,” Underwood said.
“Another guy told me he was on the production staff for the movie ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ and they wanted 250 guys who could ride well and do basic things. They could only find about 100 riders, so they had to change things. We were working on another film when the casting director suggested to Sheri Bias, owner of Liquid Talent Agency in Richmond, that they would like to set up some riding classes through her agency.” Underwood was the obvious choice for the head instructor position.
Thanks to the growth of the film industry in Virginia, he since has given hundreds of actors the skills they need to land parts that call for boots and saddles.
Competition in the acting profession can be so fierce that one might exaggerate horseback-riding proficiency in order to land a part. The horse likely will be the first to realize that the would-be rider doesn’t know the difference between a bridle and a saddle girth.
“We had a guy come up here from South Carolina who was going to be in a movie with Matthew McConaughey,” Underwood said. “He said he had to be on a galloping horse, with a pistol in his hand, to get the part. He claimed that he knew all about horses, had ridden a lot and just needed a refresher. He had brought his own video crew with him.”
“I told him to get on that big black horse over there, and I’d show him how to do it. He kept walking around the horse, and finally he came up to me and said, ‘I have quite a bit of equestrian experience, but I can’t remember how to get on.’
“That kind of thing happens a lot. He spent six hours out here and got to where he was pretty comfortable on the horse. He got the part.”
Underwood can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David A. Maurer is a features writer for The Daily Progress.
Contact him at (434) 978-7244 or email@example.com.
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