The sky a furious red and with the air choked with smoke, the front barnyard was filled with horsemen and women frantically trying to load panicked horses into trailers—and to safety—as a huge fire bears down on the horse ranch.
Last November, California experienced some of its deadliest fires—but this is not a story about devastation and loss, rather it is a story with a happy ending. This is also a story about how Steve Rother and Francesca Carsen of Rother’s Horsemanship, Hunter, WA, found themselves in the middle of California’s movie making country—and it’s deadliest fire.
Like all good stories, this one starts at the beginning. As a young man Steve had a passion for horses. Traveling the country to work and study under some the greatest horsemen of the time, he eventually started perfecting his own method of training he calls “Excel With Horses,” which he has been using for the last 20 years to help thousands of horses and riders.
Steve and Francesca’s performances have become a “Can’t Miss” tradition at the Washington State Horse Expo. They will be back this year, March 1–3, 2019 at the Clark Country Event Center in Ridgefield, WA.
“We look forward to it every year,” says Steve. “It is a great way to start to our season and has the best crowds—and it’s a time to visit with old friends and to make new ones.” His popular clinics at the Expo are filled with simple step-by-step programs designed to share his expertise with the attendees.
Also immensely popular at the Expo is Francesca and her trick performing duo, Dally (a Jack Russell) and Spanky (a mini horse.) Using Steve’s methods of training, Francesca was able to give the little bit naughty Spanky a job and in the process created a couple of national and international celebrities.
Dally and Spanky have been featured on National Geographic Wild TV (2016); appeared on the David Letterman show (Dec 2014); and won at the World Dog awards in Hollywood (2016). They have also been featured on TV shows around the globe, and graced the cover of National Geographic’s 2018 kids’ book: “Amazing Animals.”The famous Breyer Model Horses released the “Dally and Spanky” model in 2017. And they have their own book, “The Great Adventures of Dally and Spanky”—illustrated with beautiful photos of their true story.
With all this exposure it is no surprise that the Dally and Spanky’s story eventually reached the ear of a Hollywood movie producer. “When I received an email from a Hollywood producer asking to do lunch, I really didn’t think that much about it,” said Francesca. “I didn’t think he was serious. However, we agreed to meet since we were in Delmar anyway for the Night of the Horse Show.”
Meeting in a manicured park near L.A. with the producer, Dally and Spanky were out of their element. There were no fences, no arena, just lots of gorgeous green grass, a challenge for Spanky, who lives to eat. “They nailed it,” said Francesca. “The entire time the producer just kept saying, they’re so calm. I can’t believe it. They’re so calm.”
Not daring to get their hopes up, Steve and Francesca came home to Washington and it was back to business as usual training horses and helping people. “Oh my God, it’s a real script,” Francesca said amazed when an actual script arrived in the mail. “This is really going to happen.”
“Dally and Spanky: The movie,” was a reality. Family-oriented and starring two young Disney actresses, Brenna D’Amico and Reylynn Caster, the film also features Trace Adkins and Denise Richards. (The movie will be released by Sony Pictures in 2019.)
According to Francesca, they immediately got to work with Dally and Spanky trying to anticipate as many things as possible before shooting started. “For example, knowing we weren’t going to be on arena footing, we worked on stall mats to get Spanky used to different footings. One of our other big concerns was teaching both Dally and Spanky to take their cues from a distance since we could not be seen in the shots,” said Francesca.
By fall it was time for Steve and Francesca to trailer down to the shooting location near Thousand Oaks, CA, with Dally, Spanky, Jet (another mini horse that is being incorporated into the act), Boots (a young and upcoming Jack Russell) and Steve’s horse Maverick. They set up a temporary home for the horses at a nearby ranch.
“I don’t think they realize just how amazingly that little pony did,” said Francesca. “Each setup required six to eight takes to get all the shot angles. He just did it.” According to Francesca, Spanky did everything he was asked to do over and over to perfection despite the totally new environment he was in. Nothing seemed to faze him, “not cameras, lights, 50 or more crew around him, not even the fact he was turned loose with no barriers and asked to perform. He was nothing short of amazing.”
Both Steve and Francesca attribute a lot of Spanky’s success to the Rother Horsemanship training method. A method that includes teaching a horse how to understand and react to “pressure” so your training will occur in potentially dangerous situations—like a fire.
It paid off on the movie set. “We were told repeatedly by the crew that Dally and Spanky were the best animals they had ever worked with on set,” said Francesca. They started calling them the “one take wonders.”
According to Francesca, they could not be more proud of their animals and to know that Steve’s training methods work at this high level.
With a little more than a week of shooting left, the story took a sudden turn. Fires started raging all over California, including in the small horse community in Agoura Hills where Steve and Francesca were boarding their horses. Seeing the smoke and hearing the news, Steve asked the ranch foreman if the ranch was in the path of the Woolsey Fire. The answer was “no,” the experts were predicting a zero percent chance of the fire heading their way. But the fire turned and the ranch owner decided to evacuate ahead of the official evacuation order.
The word went out and soon volunteers were pouring in with trailers to help move the 50 or so horses that lived at the ranch. “It was night, super dark except for the red glow in the sky and the lights of the emergency vehicles,” said Steve. “We quickly rounded up our horses and tied them to the outside of the trailer for a quick load and get-away, then started helping load horses that were too panicked to get in their trailers.”
Steve and Francesca used a two-person loading method they had practiced, which enabled them to load each horse in less than two minutes or in many cases less than a minute. An Animal Control Officer in charge on scene, saw how well Steve and Francesca’s loading method was working and ordered other people to stop trying to load their panicked horses and let the duo load their horses for them.
Working together, Steve and Francesca quickly loaded up all the horses—they even took a few minutes to toss in a little trailer training while they were at it. “It freaked some people, but we didn’t just put each horse in once, but 4 or 5 times for each horse,” said Steve. “It really just added a couple of minutes to each horse and I wanted to give them the best shot possible of getting the horse back in the trailer if the winds turned and they had to do another emergency load.
“I would not have taken the time if the fire was any closer, but I knew we had the time and it could possibly make all the difference later that night if they needed to load again.”
According to Steve, one of the reasons he teaches his horses to understand pressure is for exact situations like this one. While they were helping other people with their panic stricken horses, Spanky fell asleep where he was tied to the trailer while awaiting his turn to load.
Horses all in and on their way to safety, our heroes took a few minutes to help load the donkeys, goats and chickens that also made the ranch their home. Then they loaded their patiently waiting crew and made their own way to safety. They learned the next day that more than half of the Ranch facilities had burned to the ground and in barns that hadn’t burned, the stall mats had melted.
In retrospect, Steve said he has two takeaways from the trip. The first was proof that his method works as demonstrated both by a superstar performance from Spanky on the movie set under very difficult conditions, and how well their practiced emergency two-person loading method worked to save horses lives. His second takeaway was how impressed he was with the horse community and how quickly they came together and helped each other. “The horse community is comprised of some of the best people I know. It was humbling to see how quickly strangers answered the call to help and to see them work as one.”
What’s next for our local heroes and superstars? Continuing to grow their international fame, the duo is going to be featured on a UK TV Show called “Britain’s Favorite Dog Breeds;” and also on Animal Planet on the Discovery channel. Both will air in Jan 2019.
Meanwhile, come down and meet the whole team, Dally, Spanky, Jet, Boots, Maverick, Steve, and Francesca at the 9th Annual WA State Horse Expo, March 1–3, 2019. You can also find Dally and Spanky on social media and follow their journey on their website Horseteacher.com.