A HORSE OF ONE’S OWN : ‘Great Day Is to Me What a Rodin Sculpture Is to an Art Collector’

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William Shatner, star of the CBS series "T. J. Hooker," is in New York this weekend presenting the awards for the American Saddlebred Grand Nationals

“I first got to know horses when I was about 15, in a cheap, shabby, muddy stable near my home in Montreal. My parents became aware of my new-found love because of the way I smelled. I’d ride my bike to the stable three or four times a week, sandwiching these trips between football and acting. Even those mongrel horses appealed to me. I was good at riding them, and they responded. I would often daydream about having a ranch, with my own horses.

When the livery stable gave way to a housing development and I began my acting career, horses all but left my life. One of the few times that work and my pastime overlapped was when I filmed the movie ‘Alexander the Great.’ Because Alexander was legendary not only as a warrior but as a horseman, I spent six months learning to ride bareback for the title role. There was a problem with a scene one day, and three of us--the director, myself and King, a beautiful horse cast as Alexander’s stallion Bucephalus--walked off the location set into the Utah desert. The creaking of my Grecian leather costume had muffled the dialogue for an entire scene, and we were going to have to reshoot.

In a flash, my mind went back 2,300 years. Suddenly I was Alexander, the director was a commander in my army, the buttes of Utah were the plains of Syria, and the horse beside me was my horse Bucephalus. We were discussing how we could mute the sound of our blood-stiffened uniforms as we tried to slide by the enemy at night. Just as Bucephalus was a part of Alexander’s legend, King rounded out this picture of the past in my mind. History and the present became one.


Ten years later, I finally got my ranch, and slowly the joys of breeding and showing off my treasures unfolded. I now own Sultan’s Great Day, a great saddlebred stud, the same breed as King. Great Day is to me what a Rodin statue is to an art collector, except that this work of art is alive.

When I began to ride this magnificent breed, training under Royce Cates, I thought I knew something about riding. I quickly learned that I knew nothing. ‘Damn it,’ Cates would bark, ‘I told you to keep your hands down.’ You can imagine how nervous I was at my first show. The horse, sensing this, didn’t respond to familiar cues. And when my horse stepped sideways and almost trampled a judge, I was in an agony of humiliation. It had been a long time since I’d felt that way, but I think it’s given me more compassion as an actor and a director.

Whether I win or lose in a show ring, each horse brings the exhilaration that comes from total concentration, from getting inside the horse’s head and riding to the edge of our ability, to the edge of wildness, of becoming one with my horse.

I’ve spent the past five days acting and directing a segment of ‘T. J. Hooker.’ Every day, I’ve been on my feet for 12 to 14 hours, running down abandoned alleys and learning 10 pages of dialogue. Last night I staggered into my house, lay down and fell asleep. Yet, I awoke at 7 this morning and hurried to the barn, because this is refuge, this is excitement, this is love, this is my family, these are my friends, and these are my beloved horses.”