When describing why Marco Polo is such an important project to me, I usually point out that the show is a confluence of multiple interests and passions: Adventure travel, Eastern philosophy, martial arts, nomadic warrior culture, and horses. Put me and Marco together and it’s a recipe for epic horse adventure on a grand scale.
Not only will the show feature horse archery and mounted warfare, it is – as was the true story of Marco Polo – the story of a young Venetian who came of age in the horse culture of the Mongols.
I knew that we were going to need a special head wrangler for this show. I count myself blessed to have worked with some of the best wranglers in the business. Jack Lilly, Derwoord Herring, Rex Peterson, and the Bews Brothers of Calgary. But for this show, I needed a rare breed among that rare breed, and so I called on Andy Hric, the Horse Master from “The Forbidden Kingdom.”
As fellow horsemen, Andy and I share a trust. On the set of “The Forbidden Kingdom” we were blocking out the bamboo forest scene with the actors, but we didn’t have a stand-in for Jackie Chan, on hand, who could ride. Andy gave me a nod and I mounted. I have fond memories of being Jackie Chan’s riding stand-in at sunset in Anji, China, in the very bamboo forest where “Crouching Tiger” was filmed. Andy and I have been friends ever since.
In North America we call them wranglers; in Europe, guys like Andy are known as Horse Masters. And a master he is. He has been the magic man behind the horse stunts in Spartacus, Tristan and Isolde, Kull the Conqueror, Dragon Heart, and a Knights Tale.
When I called him about coming on board a show rooted deeply in horse culture and challenging horse action, he described it as “a dream come true.” I could hear him smiling on the other end. There was only one problem: Where do you find horses in Malaysia?
As we did our respective homework, I came across some arcane horse history of Thailand and placed a call to one of my closest friends, Jeff Troyer. Jeff has been living and teaching in Thailand for nearly ten years and I consider him to be something of a modern-day Marco Polo. He’s also a masterful and selfless problem solver, so I gave him a call. Within days he set me up with a wonderful Thai lady and professional equestrian who happened to be a fan of some of my horse-themed movies. She soon emailed me a few horse pics.
“Yes,” I said. “Those are pics of Mongolian horses. That’s what we’re trying to replicate. What kind of horses do you have where you are in Thailand.”
“No,” she said. “Those are our horses. Those are Thai Cavalry Horses.”
When I pressed for more information, she told me that the Thai Cavalry Horse traces its bloodlines back to Mongolian pony stock crossed on an ancient breed from Burma.
Now, a lot of magical things have happened in getting this dream of mine to where is right now, but Mongolian horse bloodlines in Southeast Asia? Can’t be true.
She sent more pics. The horses appeared to be consistent at 13.2 hands, standard Mongolian horse size (and, not to digress to my obsessions, but also the genetic size of original Native American horses).
I placed a call to Andy. “Andy, listen. I might have found horses. In Thailand. Horses from Mongolian bloodlines.” When I gave him the background and sent him the pics, Andy said he was getting on a plane. He’d go there and investigate.
That night, I didn’t quite get to sleep. Never mind the strange stroke of fortune, how in the heck did Mongolian horse blood ever make its way to Thailand? Mongolian horse blood crossed on an extinct Burmese pony lin’
A few days later, while poring over photos of these prospective horses, something hit me. According to Marco, after Kublai Khan’s conquest of China, the new emperor invaded the Kingdom of Mien. Mien. Now Myanmar. Once Burma. Not just once in 1277, but again in 1283, and yet again, several more times after that to assert supremacy over the territory. That, my friends, is a lot of Mongolian stock making migrations and incursions into Burma (to run wild and hook up with this now extinct breed of Burmese war pony?)
God, I love this stuff.
In any event – however it went down – it makes a plausible case for how these horses might have ended up in Thailand only to be used 8 centuries later in a Netflix series about Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. I love when that happens…
But no dream comes that easily.
As I write this, Andy is still out in the jungles and on the roads, trying to accrue a viable string of these horses, get them to Malaysia and in training. That’s really what he does: train, school, work with the actors, choreograph stunts. So he has been a warrior and gentlemen, dedicated to this show while most would have handed me their spurs and headed home. As Marco would say, I haven’t told the half of it.
Yesterday, while on this great horse hunt, Andy witnessed a near-fatal motorcycle accident. He quickly pulled over and ran to assist the injured biker. In the swirl of activity on a Johor Bahru highway, while he called for help and tried to pass his cell phone to the victim, his vehicle was robbed. Everything: passport, ID, iPad, money. Wiped out. In a matter of seconds, while trying to help an injured man.
The Horse Master came back to the studio, discouraged but unbroken. Another wrangler would have packed it in. Never mind getting robbed of your money and all your ID; the logistics and politics and cultural quagmires of getting horses to Malaysia should have been enough. But Andy smiled and shook his head, then pulled out some new photos of horses still up there in Thailand. “Here’s a nice one,” he said. “A good one for Marco. What do you think?”
Thank you, Horse Master. You’re the best of the best.