Behind the Scenes with
Ashley Klein with Friesian Stallions Nitrous & Hans
BY KATHRYN BARRETT
Ashley Klein is a horse trainer for Majestic Friesians in Big Rapids, Michigan. In 2014, Ashley was approached by the producers of a film called Albion: The Enchanted Stallion. They were looking for a Friesian to play the lead role of Dag Dia. The film is about a twelve-year-old girl who finds her way to the mystical world of ALBION with the assistance of a magical black stallion, where she discovers that she is the only one who can save an entire race of people. I recently interviewed Ashley about her experience making the film.
BH: So how did the producers find you?
AK: The producers had already found five Friesian horses and had looked at them all, but they decided that these horses were not going to meet their needs. The producer Dori (Dori Rath Sperko) said, “Let’s see what we can find online.” She found a few horses but the stallions weren’t safe enough for children to ride. Then she discovered our kid-safe stallions that are ridden all the time by our children, and not only can they ride them, but they are all trick trained. Once she saw some pictures of them, she said, “Yep that’s them….we want them!” They flew up here, and I gave Avery, the young actress that is the star of the movie, lessons on our Friesian stallion Nitrous. She was not a very strong rider, just a beginner. She had never ridden a stallion before, let alone a big old Friesian stallion. Luckily she was 100% comfortable with him, so they decided he was the horse they were going to use. They were also going needed a backup horse because if Nitrous got sick or injured so they could continue filming so Hans was chosen for this. Hans was to act as a back up horse and he also was used as a stunt double for different tricks.
So the deal was on, and we were off to Europe!
Our first scene was here in Michigan, and the movie begins with a winter/Christmas type scene. The filming was in February when it was ten below freezing! Some underwater shoots were also filmed in Michigan. In March, I drove Nitrous to Florida, and they filmed a bunch of underwater swimming scenes. Three weeks later we left Florida and flew to Europe. I arrived in Amsterdam and I drove from there to Friesland and let the horses have a break for five days. From Friesland, we were driven to Bulgaria where the majority of the movie was shot.
This was really special as both of the horses are imported from Friesland, and we were able to meet their breeders. They were thrilled to see their horses that they had exported and for them to come back and to be in a major motion picture was such a special event.
Video of Ashley teaching Avery how to play with Nitrous the first time
BH: Was the rest of the filming was shot in Bulgaria?
AK: Yes, in Sofia at Nu Boyana Studios (also in Vidin & Belogradchik). It’s a great studio, and they have a fake London and New York and an old Rome and new Rome. By the way, Hercules was filmed here too. The castles in Bulgaria are just amazing, and there are fortresses, not castles, and they are truly spectacular.
BH: So what was a typical day involving the horses?
AK: The horses were in almost every scene. So they did five days a week of shooting. For the most part, Nitrous is in almost every scene. We woke up at six am in the morning to get all horses ready – brushed up, braids out and hair done. We had portable gates that were loaded into the horse trailer every morning for both of the horses to go off to the set. We also had portable pens that we would set up for them and towards the end, Nitrous got so much into the swing of it, and he would just walk around on set when we were on break. We’d film, and then we’d get maybe a 20-minute break while they set up the next scene, and Nitrous would wander around. It was really funny as he found out that the (food) concession stands that were set up on set had apples. So when he was finished with filming, he would wait by the concession stand for an apple. Some of the security guards would give him treats. So he (Nitrous) would walk through a crowd of like 60 people and go straight to the security guard, looking at him like, “Hey, you give me a treat.” So I looked at the security guard and said, “You gave him snacks, didn’t you?” And they’d all start laughing.
But he (Nitrous) was a complete trooper. We put in long, hard hours, and he never refused. He loved it. After each time he did his tricks on camera, I’d have everybody clap and praise him, and he would just get so excited about it.
Nitrous is the sweet, loving horse that takes care of the little girl. Hans was like the stunt double. So what I did with Hans was I didn’t want to teach Nitrous any of the bad tricks like rearing, striking, and talking. You don’t want your show horse screaming all the time. So I taught Hans all of that. He does the striking, the rearing, and all the talking and snorting. So he was kind of my rebel child. I also only had month and a half training on Hans before we left. I was going to use a different horse, but his mane was on the opposite side of Nitrous, which would have been noticeable on film. So at the last minute, I grabbed Hans because they were the closest in looks, but was just a young 5-year-old stallion. He was, thankfully for me, extremely smart, and I was able to teach him everything he needed to know for the film in about a month.
BH: About what time did you finish each day?
AK: We would usually stay there until it was too dark to film, so it was really long hours. Sometimes we’d be done at 6 pm, but other times not until 8. But even when we were finished filming, I still had to take both boys home (to the studio where they were stabled), re-set up their pen, give them both showers, re-braid them, give them their food and water. So sometimes I wasn’t out of the studio until ten p.m. or midnight. We had to re-braid them every day. We wanted the mane to look the same in every shot and braiding them just gives them that majestic, wavy look. I had another guy helping me, Mike Rath, the father of the lead actress Avery. Hes a very experience horseman. He was my assistant with the horses. He assisted me loading up everything, feeding the horses, braiding them, and washing them, plus giving me breaks on set. Or if I had Nitrous, he’d have Hans, and together, we had to do it all.
BH: What was Nitrous’ set of tricks?
AK: He smiles a lot in the movie. He does a head throw, like “come with me”, yes and no, bows, lays down, sits, Spanish walks, and points. He also fetches things or picks things up. He does a little bit of talking, nickering and lip motion like Mr. Ed.
BH: What was Hans’s set of tricks?
AK: Hans rears, strikes, talks. He knows how to bow and lay down, but Nitrous did those scenes in the movie. Hans got the short end of the stick. He was there as a back-up to Nitrous in case Nitrous got sick or lame. But Nitrous was perfect throughout and they both enjoyed it.
BH: Did you stunt double for the actress on set?
AK: Yes, I did stunt double for some of the things she wasn’t comfortable with, but a lot of times she would see us do it and decide she could do it. So many times, towards the end of filming, she didn’t even need a stunt double because she had gotten so comfortable with Nitrous. For every scene, I would ride Nitrous through it, so he knew exactly what he needed to do. And then I would give him over to the little girl.
In many of the trick scenes, Nitrous had to do them from more than 10 feet away. So I would have to be off camera cueing him for something like a smile. Or sometimes he’d have to stand somewhere, and I would stand near him so that he would stay still. Or he’d have to follow people. In scenes where he had to follow someone, I just had the actor or actress give him a snack, and then, of course, he was happy to follow them anywhere!
BH: So what is your method for trick training?
AK: I mostly use treats. I make the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy. If they are smiling really, really well, I reward them for it. If it’s kind of halfway, I’ll keep asking for better and better. For something like smiling, I will tickle the end of their nose and I get a little bit, and I reward them. Progressively I ask for more and more until I get it to where it is what I want. I use a lot of progressive training. For the harder tricks, like lay down and bow, especially in places they had never been to before, that involves gaining their trust and building a bond so they trust me and will do whatever I ask at any place I ask. Nitrous especially, he loves to please me, lives to make me happy. All it will take for him is, “Good boy,” and he is so happy, ears forward and content. Out of all the actors and actresses that I met, I have to say Nitrous is the biggest diva of all of them. Everyone asks me who’s the most stuck up or biggest diva? Nitrous… All the actors and actresses were humble, nice people, and I was truly amazed. They were all just nice everyday people and the same with the producers, but then I have this horse who thinks, “Oh I need cake right now.” One time I was letting him walk around on set because we were in the middle of nowhere, and as he loves people, he’s not going to stray away. And I watched him walking up to people and stealing cake off their plates. No one denied him, they just gave it to him. And so he ended up being a monster! I couldn’t let him out until after everyone had had lunch, or he’d be walking up to random people and taking their salad, giving him bad habits plus he got a little obsessed with cake.
BH: How long was filming in Bulgaria?
AK: About nine weeks.
BH: And what was the process of finishing up and going home?
AK: On our last day of filming and once the filming was a wrap we loaded up the horses and drove with our Bulgarian driver
back to Friesland. It was a 40-hour drive to Friesland, and I wanted to go through all the major borders at night. We got through Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary that night and in the early morning. It was a long drive, and it was horrible. We made several stops so the horses could relax and have a break. But it
was different for me, in all the different countries, my Bulgarian driver and I would look at menus and make our best guess. The driver only spoke Bulgarian, so he wasn’t someone I could chat to. There was also very few places that had free Wi-Fi. Germany did, and so we’d get to a gas station and I’d use Google Translate to let him know I was starving or something but in most places no one spoke Bulgarian or English. We had several meals where, to this day, I’m still not entirely sure what they were, but it was a lot of fun.
We made it to Friesland. I got lucky as the shipping company, Horses to Fly, housed both the horses and me at their facility. They were amazing people. I stayed there for two weeks so the horses could have that time for pure rest. I got to tour Friesland as well and time meet Nitrous and Han’s breeders and Nitrous’ father, Ulke, who was a driving champion. Nitrous is just the spitting image of his sire, so it was really exciting to meet him.
When we went home, we flew to New York City for three-day quarantine. From New York City, my manager came and picked the boys and me and took us back to Michigan.
BH: Now that they have had a taste of stardom, how are they doing now?
AK: Nitrous had a huge depression initially when we got home. On set, he spent every day with me or 60 other people. When he got home, he was not happy to be out in a pasture. But we have lots of people that come by every week to see him. He’s learned that doing his tricks gets him snacks and attention. When new people come over, as soon as they start walking down the alleyway, Nitrous is out there smiling and shaking his head, pointing at people. It’s quite funny. None of the other horses get attention because he just keeps doing tricks. Hans started to see this, even in Bulgaria and started to do the same thing. Nitrous is the older, stead-Eddy. And just by being around him, Hans became a better horse, just from watching Nitrous and seeing what worked for him.
Ashley wanted to thank some people who made this whole experience possible. Kirsten Feela is Ashley’s apprentice. She helped me maintain the tricks before we left and she and her husband helped with the filming in Michigan. New York Transformations Equine manager Willem Vanderkooi helped with all the transportation and found the hay and feed in Friesland. A special thanks to Lori Brock who owns Nitrous and Hans.
I would like to give the biggest thanks of all to two wonderful people Dori and Castille for believing in me and for producing such a fantastic and exciting movie. Dori and Castille, are both very experienced horse people which makes filming much easier and a lot more fun.
To find and contact Ashley Ph +1 2312456674 email – Transformationsequine@yahoo.com
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