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Lord of the Horses

9 min read
Chris Rutten is a revered equestrian rider and racehorse breaker, hand picked for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. His talent for selecting young thoroughbreds is also considered gifted, with Yourpoint the latest smart performer for the bloodstock agent.

In the acclaimed Lord of the Rings triology, horses play a major part. The most magnificent of them all is a grey Andalusian stallion called Shadowfax, the mighty horse of Rohan. Shadowfax is fearless and runs faster than any other horse in Middle-Earth.

His equine supporting cast is impressive too with a few customary “bad guys” in the mix, namely the Black Rider horses that get swept away in a river during one of the movie’s most famous scenes.

Behind the cameras for this and many other epic moments in Lord of the Rings, a humble New Zealand horseman played his own starring role.

Revered equestrian rider and racehorse breaker, Chris Rutten, was handpicked by the production team to source and train the horses that appeared. According to many in his home country, Chris has no peer when it comes to working with horses.

“A nicer bloke you would not meet. He’s so genuine and basically what you see is what you get which I love in a person.

Chris Rutten

“But more so than that, I would regard Chris as one of those special horse people that you come across in life who you know is kind and teaches them to do what they should be doing so they can put their best foot forward.

“He’s a legend,” said Waikato Stud’s Mark Chittick.

Working on Lord of the Rings was the opportunity of a lifetime for Chris but, looking back, it was also one laden with risk.

The opportunity of a lifetime

At the time when he was approached to work on the movie, he was busy running a bustling breaking-in business and a prerequisite of being involved was that he had to give that all up and focus solely on his work with the film.

“Someone must have told them about me,” said Rutten. “They rang me out of the blue. It was all very hush hush and they couldn't tell me what it was all about it.

“I couldn't have anyone come onto the farm so had to stop doing racehorses and concentrate on their horses for three years.

“In the movie business there are no guarantees, and should something have derailed the project, I would not have been paid,” he said.

Chris Rutten (right) being presented with the John A Higgs Award | Image courtesy of New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders

Fortunately for Chris, the gamble paid off and the journey was one of the most rewarding of his life.

“When they asked me, they said this will be the biggest movie you will ever see in your lifetime.

“It’s a different world from racing. There’s a lot of pressure on you to have them do what they do on set. One minute they had to look wild and the next they had to stand and be quiet around the cameras.

“You used your ideas and transferred them to what you would think would work with the horses.”

“You used your ideas and transferred them to what you would think would work with the horses.” - Chris Rutten

Chris not only trained the horses but he and a team of wranglers who were also charged with the responsibility of teaching the various actors to ride. He and his children also made a few cameo appearances in the film.

“We played a few parts in it. My kids were on screen and it was a great experience for all of us.”

The famous horsemen

From a young age his life has centred around horses, and, nowadays, it’s fair to say that Chris is one of New Zealand’s most famous horsemen. Mention the name Chris Rutten in any equine related circle and people’s eyes light up and they gush with adulation.

“I have been around them since the year dot. As soon as I could ride a horse, I was pretty well on one. I did Pony Club, dressage, show jumping and eventing and then I started to break in horses as well.”

Yourdeel (NZ)

At just 15, Chris began breaking in horses for his own equestrian pursuits that took him to the top level of show jumping and eventing. Mainly self-taught, he has relied on his instinct and unique talent.

“Through the years I have had lots of different instructors and when anyone came into the country, I would pick up the best bits from them.

“It all has a lot to do with your temperament and how you deal with the horses especially breaking them. You need to be calm and keep your adrenaline low.

“It’s a lot of give and take and pressure and release and sensing how much you can ask of a horse. You can always come back to it and don’t get excited,” he said.

“It’s a lot of give and take and pressure and release and sensing how much you can ask of a horse." - Chris Rutten

It wasn’t long before his rare natural horse skills were embraced by the racing industry.

At the peak of his powers Chris had up to 90 horses under his care at Cavallo Farm in the lower part of New Zealand’s North Island being prepared for major racing operations throughout New Zealand.

“What we could do in a couple of weeks would take other people up to nine months. You have to do it quickly because you don't have much time and they race as 2-year-olds. Every day is important.

“It’s always a challenge getting a horse and getting it educated and it’s very rewarding getting a horse doing what you want. If there’s an affinity with the horse and rider they enjoy it more.”

The frenetic pace and demands of working with so many horses, day in day out, inevitably took its toll on Chris. Wear and tear on his body resulted in the development of back problems and at the age of 60 Chris has decided to reduce the numbers of breakers and prioritise the agistment side of his business.

Yourdeel (NZ) as a yearling

With an astute eye for a horse, Chris has also more recently branched out as a bloodstock agent in his own right.

“After Lord of the Rings I did clients horses but I thought, alright, I will take the risk and start buying horses and nearly every horse I have bought has done well and been traded.”

Bloodstock agent

One of his most successful finds so far is New Zealand’s champion 2YO of last season, dual Group 1 winner Yourdeel (NZ) (Dundeel {NZ}). He paid NZ$100,000 for the colt out of the Little Avondale draft at the 2018 New Zealand Bloodstock National Yearling Sale.

"He looked like he could run at two, which Dundeel's are not really renowned for. He had the possibility there and I was really looking for him to go on, not just be a 2-year-old.

"I liked the strength of him, his type, balance, and just the way he walked and his action. After seeing thousands, you get to know."

"I liked the strength of him, his type, balance, and just the way he walked and his action. After seeing thousands, you get to know." - Chris Rutten

Yourdeel went on to win the G3 Waikato Stud Slipper (1200 metres) on his home track at Matamata before winning the G1 Sistema S. (1200 metres) at Ellerslie and ran home late at Awapuni for victory in the G1 Manawatu Sires' Produce S. (1200 metres).

In July this year he was purchased by Hong Kong’s Edmund Lee and now races in the colours of dual Newmarket Handicap (1200 metres) winner Redkirk Warrior (Notnowcato {GB}). The Hong Kong Derby (2000 metres) in 2020 is now his major goal.

Yourdeel is not the only top racehorse selected by Chris. Others include champion New Zealand 2YO of his year Vespa (NZ) (Elusive City {USA}), Karaka Million 2YO (1200 metres) placegetters Touche (NZ) (Thorn Park) and Kingsman (NZ) (Darci Brahma {NZ}), and last year's Karaka Million 3YO Classic (1600 metres) winner Scott Base (NZ) (Dalghar {Fr}).

He says after years of being so hands on with young racehorses he instinctively knows what to look for as soon he lays eyes.

“I have a brother who is a builder and like he can see faulty walls and gaps, I can see things straight away I don’t like in a horse as soon as they walk out of a box.

“When I’m looking at horses, I look at the way they move and type and there are some things you have to make allowances for.

“When I’m looking at horses, I look at the way they move and type and there are some things you have to make allowances for." - Chris Rutten

“Balance, movement and strength and the angles are so important. Riding every day and lunging them all the time, you get to look at the horses and how they operate.

“Doing that all your life helps a hell of a lot. When you are lunging them all day, every day, you can just see things that you don’t like in a horse such as long backs and short necks. How they move and the length of stride is the key,” he said.

A horse that ticks all the right boxes for Chris is his latest star purchase, 2-year-old gelding Yourpoint (Bull Point) that dominantly won his maiden on debut at Matamata (1200 metres) on December 28.

The impressive performance has now placed him in contention to line up in the Karaka Million 2YO (1200 metres) on January 25. It’s likely he will have one more start on January 12 at Ellerslie in order to guarantee his position in the field.

Chris paid NZ$100,000 for Yourpoint out of the Brighthill Farm draft at this year’s Karaka sale.

“He’s a very similar horse to Yourdeel and I would say they were on par ability wise at the same age.”

Whilst Karaka continues proving to be a happy hunting ground for Chris when it comes to finding high quality racehorses, he is seriously considering venturing abroad to the major Australian yearling sales in 2020.

“It’s not easy to get into so I’m taking my time in getting there and getting good clients.”

Despite his outstanding record at selecting high quality racehorses Chris remains self-effacing.

“I love looking at horses, I really do. When you are at the sales you get up alongside people and hear things and pick up things. It’s all a big experience and I’m definitely still learning.”

Mark Chittick put paid to that modesty;

“A bloke who can train a horse to do the things they do, let alone the quality of work he does, sit at Karaka see 500 horses and pick one he likes - and then it can gallop... I think he’s more horse than human.”