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Trigger

 

"The Smartest Horse in the Movies"

By

Joel “Dutch” Dortch

Illustrations

                   Soon after Roy Rogers signed a contract with Republic and before he began production of his first film, he started searching for a suitable horse to ride in his films.  Back then, the “B” cowboy stars all rode beautiful “lead” horses as compared to ordinary “cast” horses.  Republic sent out a casting call to the rental stables that provided horses to the movie companies.  Roy tried out a couple of good horses but as soon as he got on a big golden palomino stallion sent over by the Hudkins Brothers Stable, he knew that he had found the horse he wanted and did not need to look any further.  In truth, it was a match made in heaven!

            While discussing a name for the horse, Smiley Burnett, Roy’s sidekick in his first two films, commented that the big horse was sure “quick on the trigger.”  Roy decided that would be a good name for him and that is how Trigger got his name.  Smiley was right, Trigger was very fast; in fact he was the fastest horse on the lot. The beautiful golden horse was very athletic and could stop on a dime and give you nine cents change.  He could cut and spin so fast that a less experienced rider could be left in mid air and yet his disposition was such that Roy could put three or four kids up on his back at the same time without any worry they would be injured.

            Roy’s eye for horses proved to be excellent.  Trigger was without doubt the greatest horse ever to appear in motion pictures.  Truly, he was “one-in-a-million,” an exceptional animal that captured the hearts of men and women, boys and girls, all over the world.  Trigger was a contemporary of Seabiscuit, and more recognized and popular than the great racehorse.           

Trigger was four years old when Roy started using him in his films.  He was born and raised on a small ranch near San Diego.  Bing Crosby was reported to be a part-owner of the ranch.  Originally named Golden Cloud, in honor of his owner and original trainer, Roy Cloud, he was the offspring of a palomino stud named Tarzan and a light chestnut half-Thoroughbred mare.  He inherited the color from his sire, speed and sweet disposition of the mare.  Prior to coming to Roy, he had been ridden by Olivia DeHavilland in the Errol Flynn film, The Adventures of Robin Hood.  Over a period of almost 20 years, the original Trigger appeared in each of Roy’s 81 starring films at Republic and all 100 of Roy’s television episodes.  This is a remarkable record unmatched by any other motion picture animal!  Roy did have doubles for Trigger that were used in long shots and for some of the chase scenes.  Making Western pictures can be very hard on horses as they may have to retake a scene several times to get it just right.  Each of Roy’s films featured one or more “running insert” close-ups with Roy and Trigger following the camera car at a high rate of speed, and when Roy leaned down, patted his neck and spoke to the big horse, he would accelerate, often faster than the camera car.  In scenes where they were following the camera car in a fast riding close-up, it is obvious to any knowledgeable observer that they had a true unity and partnership unmatched by any other cowboy star and his horse. 

            Roy eventually purchased Trigger from the Hudkins Brothers, for $2,500 on time payments.  When Roy was not making films, he was touring the country making personal appearances.  Roy’s fans demanded to see Trigger at these personal appearances.  It quickly became obvious that Trigger could not keep up with the heavy schedule of movie making and traveling on personal appearance tours.  So Roy purchased another horse, Little Trigger, a stocky Quarter-type palomino that looked a lot like Trigger except that he had four white stockings and was not quite as tall.  He was trained by Roy’s wrangler, Jimmy Griffin, and used primarily for personal appearances throughout the ‘40’s, although he does show up in some scenes of Roy’s movies from time to time, notably Don’t Fence Me In, Heldorado, and especially Son of Paleface.  He was given a starring role in Trigger Jr. (1950).    

Griffin left Roy to go to work in the better paying defense industry during World War II so Roy then hired a young cowboy and horse trainer from Nebraska, Glenn Randall, to take care of and help train his horses.  Randall was perhaps the foremost horse trainer of all time and worked for Roy for many years.  Roy spent a lot of time working with Randall to become the very best horseman he could possibly be.  Over time, he became perhaps, the finest horseman  of all of Hollywood’s leading men.

When William Witney, veteran Republic action director (he directed 27 of Rogers films) and noted horseman was asked, “Which of the cowboy stars was the best horseman?”  He replied without hesitation, “Roy Rogers.”  He went on to explain that good horsemanship is not in the seat or legs but in the hands.  He said, “Roy had excellent soft hands.” 

Glenn Randall stated that Trigger was very smart and a fast learner. He could learn tricks for bits written into the movies after being shown a time or two what was expected.  Trigger was a star performer and became quite a ham.  He quickly learned the movie business and when he heard the words, “Quiet on the set,” he would perk up, sometimes from dozing in the sun, ears alert, waiting on his cue, ready to work.  Likewise when he heard “cut,” he would relax.  He was fearless and had what horsemen call “a lot of heart.”  He would do stunts in the movies that other horses would balk at and refuse.  He had starring roles in three of Roy’s films, My Pal Trigger (1946), The Golden Stallion (1949) and Trigger Jr. (1950).  Trigger even had his own series of Dell comics in the 1950’s.

In the late 40’s, Roy bought a beautiful palomino Tennessee Walking Horse stallion that he named Trigger Jr.  Randall taught this horse a full range of crowd-pleasing tricks and even taught him to dance.  Roy used him occasionally in films and extensively in personal appearances throughout the 50’s and 60’s.  Roy used Trigger Jr. as a stud and raised some good palomino foals on his Happy Trails Ranch in Oro Grande, CA.  Randy Travis owned a grandson of Trigger Jr. and Triggerson, the performing horse Val Kilmer led onstage as a tribute to Roy during the Academy Awards show in March 1999, was a grandson of Trigger Jr.

For a time, Roy used a whole herd of highly trained palomino horses owned and trained by Randall that Roy used in a circus type liberty horse act.  A liberty horse is one that works without bridle and reins - at liberty.  Roy used this act in some of his personal appearances at rodeos and state fairs.  The fact is that Roy owned and/or used many palomino horses throughout the years, some that he bought and some that he borrowed or bred and raised.  To the casual fan and observer, they were all Trigger!

Dale also had a beautiful palomino named Pal that she used in personal appearances around 1950.  She used this horse in a pilot film that she made for television, Queen of the West.  This show never aired because Roy made the decision to go into TV in 1951 and Dale joined him in the highly successful and long running Roy Rogers Show.  She didn’t use Pal in that show because he looked so much like Trigger, it was felt that the audience would get the two horses confused.  Glenn found a nice buckskin Quarter Horse, Buttermilk, for Dale to use in the show.  As a side note, Glenn earlier had looked at a beautiful chocolate colored horse with a white mane and tale for Dale to ride but determined that the horse was a little too spirited for her to handle comfortably.  When Rex Allen was looking for a horse, Glenn remembered the chocolate horse and told Rex about him.  Rex bought the horse and he became Koko, billed as the “Miracle horse of the movies.”

For many years, Roy raised and trained Thoroughbred racehorses at his Happy Trails Ranch at Oro Grande, CA, near Victorville, and he always bred and raised a few good palomino foals each year.  In October 1993, he sold at auction the last of his horses, which included grandsons, and granddaughters of Trigger Jr.

Trigger, Trigger Jr., Buttermilk and Bullet, Roy’s wonder dog, have all been beautifully mounted and were on display at the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Branson, MO till it closed in December 2009.  Also on display were Roy’s beautiful Bohlin silver mounted saddles and his unique plastic saddles along with his guns and many other items of interest including Nellybelle, the Jeep that Pat Brady, Roy’s comical sidekick drove in the Roy Rogers TV series.  Beginning at the High Noon Auction in January 2010, the entire contents of the museum including Trigger were sold in a series of auctions, culminating with Christiess auction on July 14 and 15, in New York.

Trigger and Bullet were purchased by Patrick Gottsch, founder and President of RFD-TV, a cable network based in Nebraska.

Illustrations (images will open in new window)

 

  1. Trigger, showcasing Roy’s 1942 Bohlin saddle

  2. A classic pose of Roy and Trigger

  3. The Palomino Horse Association and Stud Book Registry

  4. September 16, 1943 Bill of Sale for Trigger from the Hudkins Brothers Stable

  5. December 6, 1943 Receipt for Final Payment on Trigger

  6. A Certificate of Honorary Ownership of Trigger

  7. Roy giving Little Trigger a kiss

  8. Another pose of Roy with Little Trigger

  9. Trainer Glenn Randall with one of Roy’s good palominos with the late 40’s Bohlin saddle

  10. Roy mounted on Trigger, Jr. with one of the famous All Western, Inc. plastic saddles.

  11. Roy with his Liberty Horse act

  12. Roy mounted on Pal

  13. Roy with the Music Saddle outfit

  14. Roy shown on an advertising brochure for All Western Plastics, Inc. saddles

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