Not just horsing around

Adam Battaglia and Kim Carlaw train horses for the film industry.
Adam Battaglia might seem like an ordinary horse trainer, but there’s more behind the scene, write Alex Chapman and Georgia Manning.

Adam Battaglia always wanted to work in the movies. Unlike most young boys with such a dream, Adam has achieved it, but not as an actor. Rather, he trains the real stars – his horses.

Growing up without pets in Sydney’s inner suburbs, Adam always wanted to work with animals, but could not have imagined the career that lay ahead. Taking up horse-training and dressage as a hobby and working part-time job at Taronga Zoo led to his 20 year career as a zookeeper – he also worked at Melbourne and Western Plains zoos – and inspired him to develop the training skills and techniques that led to his own horse training business, Dark Horse Productions. Almost two decades later, he has worked with more than 500 horses and his is a household name in equine show business.

Based in Sydney, Adam and his crew travel the world teaching horses behaviours and tricks for film, television and commercials. “To me, the horse is as important as the director,” the 36-year-old says.

“If you’ve ever seen a horse on TV, there’s a good chance we trained them.” Adam told his audience at this year’s Royal Melbourne Show where, as well as the Sydney Royal Easter Show, his team performs each year. The rest of their schedule is filled with television commercials, corporate events and films, in Australia and overseas.

Adam has brought three horses with him to the Melbourne Show, where they perform in The Farmhouse three times daily. First up, Cooper, is only six months into training, but doesn’t miss a step. A tall, brown stock horse with white nose markings and a thick, black mane, he follows Adam’s whips around the arena seamlessly and confidently, before playing dead at his feet.

But it was the final horse that stole the show. With Adam alone in the middle of the arena, the spotlight shifted from him to the long walkway hidden from the crowd. As he hyped up this horse as the most experienced and sought after, the crowd leaned forward, eager to steal a peek at the new performer. Emerging into the spotlight came a one-metre-tall pinto Shetland Pony, trotting around the arena and flicking his mane as kids squealed and scrambled to get a better look. Sparkles had arrived.

“That’s just him,” Adam says. “He’s so cheeky and loves showing off. He loves bossing around the other horses and pretending to be bigger than he is.”

Adam has worked with Sparkles for 10 years, but Adam is still constantly surprised by the pony. “He’s a bit of a princess, doesn’t drink day-old water and won’t share a stable, but he’s probably earned that. He’s the most delightful horse I’ve ever worked with, he’s easy-going and loves people.”

Sparkles finished off the duo’s act by rearing back on his hind legs and sneaking a treat from Adam’s pocket. Despite his size, he is one of the biggest stars in the Australian equestrian industry, starring in commercials for corporations such as Hungry Jacks, Commonwealth Bank and ING. “No one ever remembers my name but everyone remembers Sparkles.”

As Adam told the enthusiastic, constantly clapping crowd, it takes six years of training before a horse is “screen ready”. He tells the crowd the horses have a job like everyone else: “They work 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.” As their “payment”, they receive treats such as liquorice, carrots and apples; “anything they love”.

Adam doesn’t have children, but compares the way he treats his horses to the way he would treat a six-year-old child. He puts time and care into their development, and they must be well mannered. If they act up in front of others in a hazardous setting, “they will get a smack”, but that’s as far as he would go.

Dark Horse Productions has been active for 17 years and for the past seven it has been Adam’s full-time job. Behind the pavilion, his horses looking enviously at stacks of hay bales, he spoke about his greatest accomplishments: growing his staff, becoming a full-time, international company. He credits much of his success to his team’s ability to maintain a high standard of quality throughout a large number of horses. Each crew member must have five years animal training experience. “The fact that we’re actually able to maintain 50 horses is huge,” he says.

Kim Carlaw, a former zoo keeping colleague and now Adam’s second-in-charge, says Adam began the business with just two horses, but had his sights on the big movie business. Dark Horse progressed “very quickly”, she says, with Adam giving 100 per cent dedication to his job.

Movie horses are around people unfamiliar to them, and camera equipment that can cost as much as $4 million. Adam frequently turns down jobs that he says aren’t right for his company – requests from production companies with impossible expectations, or those not logistically right for his horses. “They have to have a home away from home whilst they’re working,” he says. It is important for them to be in a relaxed environment when off set.

For Adam, each job has its own demands. When working on Wolf Creek 2 in South Australia, a dilemma arose when one horse was not the colour needed. Four horses were required for four tricks. “Every horse was black except one, a brown horse which we had to dye black.” In his crew is an equine makeup artist, who in four days turned the horse from brown to black using safe and organic dyes.

When training internationally, Adam is given horses to train rather than subject himself and his horses to the stress of transporting them. In countries such as USA or Mexico, production companies buy local horses and Adam is expected to train them “to suit the script”.

Dark Horse Productions is one of only two such dedicated companies in Australia. The other, Harris Entertainment, works alongside and has mentored Adam and his crew. They assist each other in this niche market. “They have helped me build a reputation, given me jobs and more opportunities,” says Adam.

Adam’s complete dedication to his career in horse training is a “lifestyle” he says. He treats each horse as a valued employee, so much so that when packing his suitcase for his next job, he’ll also “pack a tent for each horse”.