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Can You Fedex a Horse?
August 17, 2023

“Sure, and that’s not all,” says Cari Swanson, Equine Trainer to the Stars

By Wendy Carlson

Photo by Donna Demari

On her 63-acre Windrock Farm in Amenia, Cari Swanson has a veritable menagerie of animals, including goats, hogs, more than a dozen chickens, five Icelandic sheep dogs, and a free-roaming donkey named Webster. But the real stars are the horses. They may not look like Hollywood celebrities as they graze in the field, but they have racked up some impressive film roles. 

Swanson provides equine talent for film, television and advertising, and coaches riding for actors. Her horses have appeared in “Orange Is the New Black,” “Person of Interest,” “The Knick,” and more recently, the HBO series “White House Plumbers.” One of her favorite film gigs was working on “Winter’s Tale,” starring Russel Crowe, Will Smith and Colin Farrell, and her horse Novelisto (aka Listo)—her former Andalusian stallion. 

She’s helped supermodels and singers to ride—Gigi Hadid and Beyonce, to name a few. And her horses have appeared solo in commercials advertising iconic brands, including Ralph Lauren, Tory Sport, and Kate Spade. 

Not all of the 12 horses at Windrock are Hollywood stars. In 2004, Swanson founded Red Horse Rescue, a nonprofit to care for unwanted horses. She rescues horses, one at a time, and retrains them in different disciplines, including for use in therapy riding. Healing these often neglected equines is her way of giving back to the animals who have given so much to the world—and to her. 

Horses have been the common thread running through Swanson’s life since she first slid into a saddle at her parents farm in Ohio. She got a leg up in pony club and moved on to compete in eventing, grand prix jumping, and dressage, where she was a United States Dressage Silver Medalist.

Beyond her horsemanship skills in both Western and English riding, Swanson has an innate ability to communicate with horses, which is vital when she began directing horses from behind a camera.

She got into the movie business more than 15 years ago when she met filmmaker Ang Lee, who was shooting Taking Woodstock in the Hudson Valley, near where she was stabling her horse. As it turned out, there were several pivotal scenes that required a horse and a riding coach for the character Michael Lang (played by Jonathan Groff).

Swanson teaches actors and performers how to ride and to look natural in the saddle. She starts them in a round pen, where they learn to stay in balance while Swanson controls the horse with her voice and body language until the rider is in rhythm with the horse.

Her horses need to be unflappable on stage and in a studio so she desensitizes them by introducing them to new environments like her kitchen. As the trainer, she has had challenging requests like when a director asked her to Fedex a horse overnight to a Los Angeles set. Swanson stayed inside the giant Fedex shipping container with the horse for the flight. (Turns out, horses aren’t the largest overnight animal shipment they do, Fedex once overnighted seven whales, she informs.) 

In one instance, a director wanted her horse to poop on demand. It required the crew to have a second camera standing by to capture the moment. But, her horse, Bond, did not want to unload that day so Swanson went to plan B, using fake “prop” poop.

“The prop “poop” was so hard that it bounced on the ground so we had to create a soft landing using sand,” she says. 

“Success,” laughs Swanson, “is often in the details.”