Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Was The Duke A Bad Horseman?

December 28, 2016
   When you talk to horse people they are very opinionated about who they think is a good, or bad rider. Almost every expert rider I have talked to—and this includes my Kingman cowboy cousins—agree that Ben Johnson was one of the best riders who ever rode across the silver screen.

   Of course there are others who get mentioned, but what is kind of shocking is how many of these same people do not have kind things to say about the Duke's horsemanship. Here is an example from someone I am related to, but who does not want his name used:

"I love John Wayne and have most of his movies, but I must say I cringe sometimes when I see him jerk his reins and, more or less, manhandle his mount, which tears up a horse's mouth. I realize he was trying to get his horse to hit a mark or make a complicated shot work, but I'm sorry to say his heavy-handed riding is not something I would attribute to a good horseman."

   And here's another professional critique:

"John Wayne may have been passionate about horses but his skills atop a horse are questionable. 
He is often seen jerking and pulling on the reins with quick and drastic force. This results in head tossing and a gaping mouth as the horse tries to avoid the sharp and forceful pressure of the bit being jammed into the roof of his mouth."
—R. Deremo, Professional Horse Trainer 

A Jerk On The Reins?

And one more for the road:

Page Williams: Less Hilton who owned horses like Mr. Ed, Fury, Flicka, and Smokey. Oops let's not forget Francis The Talking Mule. Less would never let Wayne ride one of his horses. When I asked him why he said " Just watch his hands. "

"Riding:  The art of keeping a horse between you and the ground."
—Old Vaquero Saying


  1. Brian Downes2:23 PM

    Watched "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" this weekend and our hero looked magnificent on horseback. But co-star Harry Carey, Jr. admitted that Wayne "rode with a pretty heavy hand." Brian Downes, John Wayne Birthplace

  2. I've always heard he did not particularly like riding horses. Don't know if that true or an old wives tale.

  3. Anonymous5:32 PM

    First of all, John wayne was a modern day Actor--not a cowboy. I like and respect the Dukes work, but if you watch his moves (on and off) of a horse, he was truly heavy handed. Ben Johnson on the other hand Was a true horseman and the differences are noticeable. The horsemanship of both actors just help make their overall persona. Watch them and enjoy for what they were.

  4. Been in NRHA & showing reining horses for 27 years. I've watched reining champions from the early days & riding styles have definitely changed since then. Can't imagine what they were in Duke's day but I see lots of Westerns where dramatic effect is at the expense of a horse's mouth or getting spurred in the sides. Duke frequently grabbed the saddle horn but understand he suffered back problems. I cringe at the scene in El Durado where he backs the Appaloosa stud. No need for that much pressure! He was a wrangler not an equestrian.

  5. Anonymous10:42 PM

    It's was just a TV show

  6. Any horse should be happy to have John Wayne astride.

  7. In Gary Will's "John Wayne's America", the prologue is a piece written by John Wayne, talking about the family horse he had to ride to town. While Will's tome is a hit piece on the Duke, from Wayne's own words, it doesn't read like he really cared for horses much, not like Roy Rogers or Tom Mix did. Where Rogers viewed Trigger as a fellow actor, Wayne viewed his mount as a prop. While Gary Wills dwells on the Duke's sexiness - I mean, like, a lot - he ultimately has to admit that Marion Micheal Morrison is in fact a consummate actor. When Wayne jerks on those reins, it's for dramatic reasons, defining the character he's playing and advancing the story line. No attempt at being a good rider.

  8. Love all the John Wayne movies, but I'm glad somebody else sees what we see in his skills, we wouldn't let him ride any of our horses either.

  9. Anonymous10:37 AM

    if you want to watch an expert horseman then ben Johnson is the one to watch, an expert horseman & rodeo star in his day.

  10. It would also be interesting to know how much time Wayne had to get to know any of his mounts before he was shooting action scenes. These horses were not reining champions either. Wayne was a very big man to be the classic rider, particularly late in life.


Post your comments