The art of horse puppetry

Susannah Breslin is a guestblogger on Boing Boing. She is a freelance journalist who blogs at Reverse Cowgirl and is at work on a novel set in the adult movie industry.


The New York Times has a story on these beautiful horse "puppets" that appear in a play in London called War Horse: "Making Horses Gallop and Audiences Cry."

The horses are seven feet tall, and each requires three human puppeteers working within the body of the puppet to tell the story of an impoverished British boy who loses his horse to a British officer who rides the beast to battle in World War I.

The ears of the horses, for instance, are driven by bicycle brake cables and are capable of a 180-degree sweep. The tail is controlled by three cables acting as tendons, producing a movement based on the actual anatomy of a horse. And the curling of the lower leg and hoof, as the horse raises its leg, is controlled by so-called passive tendons, loose cables that are moved first by the puppeteers and then by sheer gravity.

What makes the horse puppets seem truly alive is the way they appear to breathe -- an accomplishment that Mr. Kohler described as "a complicated effect that ended in a simple solution."

"Because the spine of the horses is supported by backpacks worn by the puppeteers inside, the chest manipulator" -- the puppeteer handling the chest and front legs -- "simply has to bend and straighten his knees, allowing the torso of the horse to raise and lower," simulating breathing, Mr. Kohler said.

Making Horses Gallop and Audiences Cry. (Image credit: Andrew Testa/The New York Times.)



  1. I saw Warhorse in London and IMHO the puppets make the play (which is otherwise a little “a-boy-and-his-horse” sentimental). The thing that elevates the puppets beyond their remarkable engineering is the effort the puppeteers make to replicate the mannerisms and tics of a horse. All those mechanisms for the ears, tail etc. described in the article are used to create an astounding illusion of a living creature. The “puppet” WWI tank in Act 2 is also terrifying.

  2. #2, the play *is* meant to be for children, so the accusation of sentimentality is a little beside the point.

    I saw it at the National too (it’s now in Drury Lane), and was completely floored by the puppetry. I had to keep reminding myself that the “stablehands” were leading the puppets, not following them.

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