Sophie McCandlish meets the East Yorkshire family of stunt horse riders who taught Poldark how to take the reins. Main picture by EJ Lazenby.
A former dairy farm in East Yorkshire is home to a stable of television talent that regularly shares the small screen with stars including Aidan Turner, Jenna Coleman and Cillian Murphy. The equine stars of TV blockbusters Poldark, Victoria and Peaky Blinders are part of the team at Atkinson Action Horses based on the family farm in Goole.
But the business, started by Mark Atkinson more than 20 years ago, did not start off supplying horses for film and TV, but as a riding school and livery yard. A self-confessed “pony geek”, Mark had followed in his father Albert’s footsteps, working as a dairy farmer and keeping horses as a hobby until his wife Jill suggested a change of direction.
“I went in for coffee one day and Jill said I should have a career in horses where my passion and interest really lay. I decided to do it and we set up a riding school and livery yard. We ran a Riding for the Disabled group and had hunter hirelings.”
And it was through the livery yard that Mark found himself, admittedly reluctantly, involved in his first live performance.
“We had a couple of new horses on the yard owned by re-enactors and they were doing a display at a museum in Hull. Someone was sick and they needed an even number. Jill volunteered me, which I wasn’t happy about but went along. We were riding round and there were cannons going off and fires being lit. I thought it was all a bit crazy.”
But while he was there Mark met a member of the English Civil War Society who asked about supplying cavalry horses. Mark agreed and when he got home set about training the hunter hirelings that were out in the field for the summer.
“All the people who helped with Riding for the Disabled came to give us a hand. We lit bonfires, banged and clattered dustbin lids, used gunshots and improvised all we could to try and recreate the noise and chaos of a battlefield.”
Two weeks later they travelled down to the event in Yeovil and it was a great success. This led to more work from the Sealed Knot, English Heritage and the Royal Armouries.
“I think we were really lucky,” says Mark. “We seemed to come along at a time when others were retiring and we picked up the work.”
Demand for the Atkinson horses grew and they were soon taking on TV work as well as the live performances. And while Mark has continued to take part in the live events, it is his son Ben who takes the lead, with his father now focused more on the filming side.
“I prefer the filming and Ben prefers the live displays so it works well,” he says.
Finding the right horses is an important part of the production process and preparation starts with the script.
“We read the scripts and have discussions with the director and art department then make the decision from there. The style and type of horse is important as is the style of riding which also needs to fit the period the drama is set in.”
For many of the actors learning to ride is part of the role and they spend time at the farm picking up the ropes.
“It is a really fun and interesting part of the job,” says Mark. “We need to make the actors feel safe but also make it look as if they have ridden for years. They need to be accomplished but not look trained. It is like making a sketch of someone then softening the outline to make it look more natural.
“For a show like Peaky Blinders or Jamaica Inn the actors needed to ride in more of a gypsy style, leaning back with shoulders rounded and generally slouched. For Victoria it is a military style, with the actors using the military dismount, and for Poldark it is a rougher, more workmanlike style with Aidan leaping on and off the horse.”
Ben, who has also been the riding double on Poldark, says the sets on period dramas also throw up some interesting challenges for training.
“There is a lot of smoke which we have to get the horses used to as well as different sights, smells and noise. It is not really the things you see but the backstage stuff like camera booms, sound equipment and lighting. Each set is also different in the way the horses are used. In Poldark you need to deal with a combination of the elements and wide open spaces, whereas for Victoria it more contained the horses going from A to B.
“In the most recent series of Poldark, there is a sequence where Aidan is galloping along the moorland. That was all shot above the horse from helicopters. I can’t explain to the horse what is going to happen so we have to come up with all sorts of weird and wonderful things at home to prepare. We have CDs playing in the stables and lights rigged up to get them used to it.”
And, Ben says, the horses also learnt to trust each other. “The horse chosen for the galloping sequence was a young stallion so when we were on set we paired him with an older, experienced horse who galloped alongside out of shot, giving him confidence and making the helicopter less scary.”
Both Mark and Ben stress that the horses’ welfare is the most important thing during filming and both crew and actors always put the animals’ comfort first.
“The actors also build up a real relationship with the horses,” adds Ben. “We are now on season four of Poldark and spend six months at a time shooting. One of our horses, Seamus, plays Ross Poldark’s horse, Darkie. Aidan has been with Seamus since the series first started and now he knows the horse inside out.”
Seamus is not only a firm favourite with Aidan – he also has his own loyal fan base. “Seamus is without doubt the most famous horse we have on the yard,” adds Mark. “He has his own following on social media, he has had articles written about him in the Boston Globe and we get requests from people to meet him – apparently he even has a drinking game named after him.
“It is unusual for a horse in a period drama to get such a following but I think it is because Aidan likes him so much and talks about him in interviews. During filming for the last series I was riding him on set and there was a large group of ladies I assumed were waiting for one of the male stars but they were waiting to meet Seamus.”
As well as getting the horse and riding style right, it is as important that the animals look the part, just like the actors.
“Everything has to be correct for the period,” Ben says. “As Dad does most of the film work he researches it to make sure it is right. We have to think about whether the horses would have shoes on or not, what kind of saddle or bridle they would have used and whether the horses would look scruffy or smart.”
There are two saddlers on the team who make the tack and are able to carry out any repairs needed on set or during the live performances. The horses’ saddlecloths and rider costumes for the live performances are made by professional seamstress and Mark’s mother-in-law, Joyce Bentley.
“For a show like Victoria we needed different saddlecloths to match Jenna Coleman’s costumes, so if she was wearing green velvet, the saddlecloth needed to be green velvet. Queen Victoria also created decorated brow bands so Joyce customised those for the show as well,” adds Mark.
With horses constantly in demand for filming and live performances, 21-year-old Ben spends hours every day training and working with the equine extras.
He has grown up performing and was placed on the Gifted and Talented Programme at Howden School. The programme, which aimed to encourage sporting talent, allowed him to combine his education with training and performing.
He says the diversity of their work led to an interest in different aspects of horsemanship and at 14 he was sponsored by English Heritage to learn the acrobatic art of Cossack riding. Originating from the battle techniques of the Golden Horde and Genghis Khan, it involves riders hanging off their horses at full gallop.
Ben trained for six months with leading Cossack rider Guido Louis and then joined his team travelling the UK and Europe doing live performances.
“The whole experience was brilliant,” he adds. “Working and performing, you do grow up fast and learn to look after yourself.”
As well as Cossack riding, Ben had always been interested in Liberty Training which is working with a horse when it is completely free of equipment.
“I have been training horses this way since I was 11. I have learnt from myself and horses and the experience of my father and grandfather who used natural horsemanship before it was really recognised. It is all about learning to read horses and I have learnt through lots of error and small successes.”
At 16, Ben travelled to Madrid to learn classical riding, the forefather of modern dressage often described as “horse ballet”. Among the 40 horses on the yard are some Spanish Andalusian horses which are traditionally used for classical riding. One of the stallions, Almanzo, is also one of the stars in Victoria, being ridden by Jenna Coleman.
Classical riding, along with Cossack riding, plays a big part in the live performances and Ben says they have a packed schedule of events including their first appearance at the Great Yorkshire Show next week. They will be the first English horse stunt team to appear at the show and Ben says it meant a lot to be asked.
“To be in the main arena once a day, all three days of the show is going to be fantastic. What we are planning is going to be bigger than anything that we have done before and we are really looking forward to it.” For the full Great Yorkshire Show programme, which runs from July 11 to 13, go to greatyorkshireshow.uk