Since the pilot aired in 2007, Heartland has always centred around horses, not only as background characters, but as main characters themselves. For example, Stormy, the horse that originally played Spartan, is still used in the show. The handsome black Quarter Horse gelding is Amy Fleming-Borden’s main horse in the show. “Stormy is still with us and still very much a part of the show. To have one horse being the main [animal] character over 12 seasons is something you don’t see every day,” said Amber Marshall, who plays Amy Fleming-Borden.

Spartan (“Stormy & Stetson”)
“Stormy was only five when the show started,” Amber said. “I was impressed that a five-year-old did so well under the pressure that we put him in. There’s a lot of different sights, sounds and people, and things going on – it would be unsettling to most horses. He took everything in stride. He seems to really enjoy it. You watch him on set and he watches everyone doing their thing. It’s almost as if when we use other horses, he gets angry, like ‘Wait a minute, this is my job!’

“Over the years, he has developed arthritis and he’s getting up there himself – he’s in his late teens now – so we’ve had to use other horses for a lot of the scenes that require more athleticism. We just don’t want to put that demand on him.

“I usually request him for any scenes that are emotional, just because I know that if I have a big scene and I lean my cheek on a horse’s face, Stormy’s not going to head butt me in the middle of the moment. He knows his job, and he really enjoys it.”

Phoenix (“Ghost & Jag”)
Phoenix, the jumper ridden by Georgie, played by Alisha Newton, is portrayed predominantly by two horses. Jag is the main horse and Ghost is the horse used for the jumping scenes.

“Jag is the guy you’d see standing around in the barn. His job is to look pretty,” said Alisha. “He’s also more of a western horse – he’s a Quarter Horse. In any western riding scenes we use him, or any quiet scenes where we’re not doing super hard work. We’ll use him in an English saddle as well.

“We use Ghost as our jumping horse. He’s definitely a jumper! He didn’t go through the same amount of training as Jag has. We usually don’t use him for scenes where Phoenix is standing around. Ninety per cent of the time we use him for jumping.”

Alisha started on the show when she was 10. At that age, just like most girls, she was especially horse crazy. Ironically, her relationship with Jag started out rocky because of that. “I was this annoying little girl who liked to maul him with love,” she said. “When we first started, he hated me because all I would do is love on him and touch his face and his nose. He just hated it. Now he’s gotten a little older – he’s about 18 – and he’s still quite grumpy. If you touch him the wrong way he’ll get really angry. We’ve developed an interesting relationship because we’ve known each other for so long. He’s gotten more cuddly [with me]. In Season 11, when Georgie went through [a period of] online bullying, she had one scene with Phoenix where she was crying on his shoulder. In scenes like that, where I get emotional, he gets very cuddly. We have an interesting bond now that we’ve been together for so long.

“We’ve developed real-life connections with these horses because they’ve been on the show acting as their characters for so long. It’s really cool to see how the connections that we build with them on TV are so similar to our connection with them in real life.”

Buddy (“Bullseye”)
Two horses have been a great part of Grandpa Jack’s (Shaun Johnston) life on the Heartland Ranch – Paint and Buddy. Buddy is played by Bullseye, a trained western horse.

Shaun described one of his favourite moments in Season 12: “In about episode nine, where we are herding the wild horses at Will Vernon’s place … it’s such a small moment, but you can see it. We’re driving the wildies across a big field. We’re trying to separate a mare and foal, and that mare, she was very protective of her foal, they were truly mother and daughter. I’m trying to separate this mom and her baby. She started to load up and she was going to kick Bullseye right in the mouth. Both Bullseye and I saw it at the same time. I pulled back a little bit, but I didn’t really have to do that because Bullseye’s smart, he saw what was coming. She never did kick, but you could see she was [going to] if I kept pushing her, and Bullseye could have gotten his jaw broken.

“That’s one small moment in a 100 some odd episodes we may have made already; it’s an indication that nothing is the same. On any given day, when we’re working with these beautiful animals, nothing is the same every day.”

The Wild Ones
Amber commented, “I really enjoyed having the foal on set. It’s like having a puppy around; it brings the crew’s morale up. She got so used to us loving on her. We ended up calling her Cutie. I think she developed a lot of bad habits being on set though, because she would run around loose and go up to everybody and bash her bum into them for a scratch. It was fun having her around.”

One of the continuing storylines throughout the many seasons of Heartland has been the wild horses, which started with the Ghost Horse back in Season 2. The Heartland Christmas special in 2017 showcased Alberta’s “wildies” in a one-off episode that was based on the true story of two horses that were abandoned in McBride in 2013.

In the season 12 finale of Heartland, there is a breathtaking scene of the wild horses running across open pasture. “We used a group of horses that have run together before. They acted as a herd naturally, so it helped us with filming,” said Jesse Thomson, the show’s wrangler coordinator.

Heartland has always been about the horses, and hopefully will be for many seasons to come. “Heartland started as using horses to heal human lives; it has progressed to how human lives can heal horses,” said Shaun.

Amber agrees. “Some people have never been around a horse in their life, but they watch Heartland, and they feel something inside, because of what happens. I think that horses are such majestic creatures. When you get to see such a strong relationship between a girl and her horse on screen, see how that horse can help her overcome something, and then, in turn, she can help the horse overcome something … I think it resonates with people, because they buy into that magic, because it’s so real.

“It might make them realize something about themselves, or about a relationship, or just the connection they have with their own pet. I think it’s something that awakens the dream in all of us.”

The Wrangler: Jesse Thomson
In the behind the scenes shot above, horse wrangler coordinator Jesse Thomson (right) chats with young actor Casey Emerson.

Born and raised in a ranch west of Okotoks, Alberta, Jesse is no stranger to horses. “We did everything on horseback. I rode bucking horses and roped in rodeo and now I train horses full-time when I’m not working on a show.”

Jesse has served as the wrangler coordinator on Heartland for two years. In this position, his job is to find the perfect animal the script is calling for. “It has to be solid and safe around set. Horses have to be actor-friendly, but still get the job done,” he said.

All 12 seasons of Heartland are available to watch on-demand on the free CBC Gem streaming service. Stay tuned for Season 13, which will be 10 episodes and premiere in the 2019/2020 CBC line up.