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William Shatner: from spaceman to horseman philanthropist

When most men are hanging up their spurs, William Shatner, 78, is playing the role of a lifetime: horseman philanthropist.

William Shatner. Just when you thought you'd gotten a handle on all the characters that this one name has conjured up over the last half-century of filmed, televised, recorded, stage-produced, and published entertainment (yes, the man's an author of science fiction novels, too), along comes an interview like this to unveil an entirely different side of the guy.

 

We all know the jauntily uniformed Capt. James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, the coiffed police sergeant T.J. Hooker, and the staccato-speaking host of Rescue 911. Lately we've been spending hilarious quality time with the half-nuts lawyer Denny Crane, a role that earned an Emmy when the character debuted on The Practice, and another when Crane became an outrageous mainstay on Boston Legal. You might even know him as the crooning voice behind a CD with Ben Folds entitled Has Been or the guy who keeps showing up in Brad Paisley videos. And let's not forget those Priceline.com commercials and Shatner's Raw Nerve, a recently launched celebrity interview show on the BIO Channel.

As ubiquitous as ever, William Shatner is, you may also recall, the only entertainer ever to raise $25,000 for charity by auctioning off his own kidney stone to an online casino. "This takes organ donors to a new height," the actor quipped after the sale. "To a new low, maybe."

But the equine aficionado you're looking at right now? This is no performance. "Horses have played an essential role in my life," writes the 78-year-old Shatner in his recent autobiography, Up Till Now. "I have ridden horses, owned horses, and admired horses for as long as I can remember." His devotion includes producing the annual Hollywood Charity Horse Show (jump to event details or more on Shatner's philanthropy), presented by Priceline.com and sponsored by Wells Fargo.

On a Thursday morning in Los Angeles, we finally caught up with one of the busiest, most tireless men in Hollywood to talk about what really rocks his universe these days. Hint: It's not commanding a platter-shaped spacecraft.

Cowboys & Indians: We know you from decades of iconic TV and movie roles, but many of your fans presumably have no idea about your passion for horses. Did this come later on in life?
William Shatner: It actually started when I was a little kid growing up in Canada on the outskirts of Montreal. There was a rental stable close to my home, and I remember going there all the time and having this sort of innate interest in riding, which I couldn't fulfill at the time because of the expense involved. But I was just drawn there anyway — hanging around the rental stables without ever actually getting on a horse.

C&I: So when did you finally climb on one?
Shatner: Eventually my parents asked me if I wanted to try it. It was a very surprising offer to me because my parents were the furthest thing from being horse people. They were barely out of the steam engine. But, of course, I seized the opportunity and got on a horse and started flopping around at a gallop, much to my parents' astonishment. I remember being so excited to be on top of a horse at long last and I just took to it immediately. After that, I started riding more frequently in the empty fields outside of Montreal, which are now all jammed with houses.

C&I: How did that fateful move into horse ownership happen?
Shatner: Well, it took several years before I had some, as we put it, discretionary income to go ahead and buy a horse. And it actually happened by accident. Years ago, I was at a quarter-horse auction near Visalia, California, and was introduced to a rather well-known local horse owner and his 10-year-old son. I had no plans whatsoever of buying a horse that day, but I was sitting there with them and suddenly the horse owner's kid points at some gelding and says to me out of the blue, "That's the horse you should buy." And I raised my hands in mock horror, like "Me? Buy a horse at an auction?!" And then I hear the auctioneer saying, "And Shatner buys the horse at — ." So suddenly I'd bought a horse that I had no intention of buying, but I was too embarrassed to say "No, no. I didn't mean that." Anyway, we trained him and he became terrific and that was the day that my whole interest in quarter horses started.

C&I: A good accident in hindsight?
Shatner: It was a great accident in terms of my lifestyle and a very sad day for my business manager. I soon became living proof that you can't buy one horse any more than you can eat one potato chip.

C&I: They kept coming?
Shatner: Indeed, they did. Not long after that, I remember filming a show at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center here in Burbank. We were racing down the aisles with police cars and stuff like that and I saw these amazing looking horses over in Barn A. I met Royce Cates there, a legendary trainer, who handled about 90 of them. And I fell under his thrall and proceeded to buy saddlebreds. I started competing there and then went on to Lexington, Kentucky, where I ended up buying a horse farm. Eventually, I became deeply involved with reiners. I now breed, train, sell, and buy them under the aegis of Danny Gerardi, a trainer based here in the L.A. area and a real genius horseman. I also have a ranch in Central California.

C&I: Do you ride mainly as a hobby and as an escape from Hollywood life, or has it crossed paths at all with your acting career?
Shatner: Not really. Well, come to think of it, back in the 1960s, just before Star Trek, I played the title role in a pilot for a projected series about Alexander the Great. Alexander rode bareback through Syria and Afghanistan, conquering the largest empire of that time on what was apparently a beautiful alpha horse he called Bucephalus. In order to capture the spirit of Bucephalus, they brought me this five-gaited champion of California to ride. I didn't realize exactly what that meant until years later when I began to ride five-gaited horses. But, for that production, I had to learn how to ride this magnificent animal bareback at a gallop — I suppose like Alexander did — except in front of a camera, with people who kept telling me to go back and do it again 10 times.

C&I: You write in your recent autobiography that you learned how to act mainly just by doing it. Do you have any kind of formal training with horses, or did you just jump on one day and start doing it?
Shatner: Essentially, I just started doing it like with acting and various other things I've done in life. And I've made all the mistakes that a do-it-yourselfer could possibly make.

C&I: Any you care to mention?
Shatner: There are too many. Falling off a horse is one of my favorite things not to do — and I've done it several times. I've broken ribs ... broken everything. But one memory that sticks out was this one time when I was riding this 3-year-old quarter horse, which I shouldn't have been doing in the first place. I was in a ring with a few other people, and we were just walking along warming the horses up, and somebody said, "Y'know these dry-dock horses, they sometimes have a tendency to buck if you put your hand on their haunch." And I said, "Y'mean like this?" And I unthinkingly put my hand on the horse's haunch.

Well, the next thing I know somebody's helping me off the ground, where I'd been out cold for half an hour. I kept saying, "What happened?" And they kept saying, "You got bucked off." And I said, "Really?" And then I'd repeat the first question again: "What happened?" And then they'd say, "You got bucked off your 3-year-old." And I'd say, "Do I have a 3-year-old?"

And then as the concussion dimly cleared, I remembered that I had to go to a studio later that afternoon to sing five songs for an MTV Awards show. So, with remnants of a concussion and manure in my ear, I sang five songs that afternoon. And I never put my hand on the back of a 3-year-old dry dock again.

C&I: You once said you've "had mystical experiences with horses." I know our readers would love to know what you meant by that.
Shatner: Because I've ridden as long as I have, the act of riding has now become a Zen experience in one degree or another. I'm so with the horse when I'm riding that the horse is part of me. At times, when the horse is right and I'm right, there's a true unity. And that's the mystical experience. I'm into the horse's head, and the horse's body is part of mine. And I can read his brain.

C&I: Do you still ride a lot?
Shatner: When I'm not working, I'll train up in Moorpark near my home in Los Angeles two to three times a week. I rode five horses in competition about a month ago. And my wife, Elizabeth, who's been a leading trainer in saddlebreds, competes with me. She and I have won world championships on saddlebreds, and I encouraged her to ride reiners as well, so we both ride competitively and occasionally against each other. Currently, we do the reiners' circuit here in California. And now that I've just finished my series [Boston Legal], I'll attempt to get more ambitious about where we compete.

C&I: Do you have a favorite horse that you ride?
Shatner: Every one of my horses has little charming traits that we work on and try to eliminate, but at the same time it makes them individuals and I find it hard to play favorites. I have one horse that's 14 years old. She's kind of old for a reiner, but she's so broken and tries so hard all the time. So she'd be a favorite. But then there's a new 4-year-old gelding — well, he'll be 5 in a month — who's as light and as happy as anything, and he's a joy to ride, too.

C&I: You'll be celebrating your 19th Hollywood Charity Horse Show on April 25. How did this event originate?
Shatner: The Hollywood horse show was an event for years before I took it over when the ladies who were running it decided they couldn't do it anymore and were going to close it up. It was a saddlebred show, and in my arrogance I thought, How difficult can running a horse show be? Y'know, just get people in, get people to feed the horses, and delegate as much as possible. So I said, "I'll take it over." And I tried for four or five years to make it a saddlebred show, but I couldn't get any cooperation from the saddlebred people in California. So after four or five years of trying — and by that time I'd gotten into the quarter horses — I turned it into a reining show. And that's when it really took off. Currently, we get about 900 horses in the show with some of the top trainers in the country competing.

C&I: When did you start bringing big musical guests into the event?
Shatner: Some years ago I decided to ask Western singers to come and give us a concert, and we've had a lot of success with that, too. Some of the all-time greats have performed at the Hollywood Charity Horse Show. Last year, we had Randy Travis. And this year we've got Willie Nelson playing in a 500-seat hall at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, where basically you'll be within arm's length of Willie wherever you sit. We'll be catering a great Italian meal, and every penny of ticket sales will be donated to children's charities. So you have horse entertainment, you have Willie Nelson, you have a great meal. And all the money goes to handicapped kids.

C&I: Will you be wearing several hats as usual? Hosting? Riding? Performing? ...
Shatner: Yes, I'll be hosting the evening. I'm pretty much hands-on with this show the whole way through.

C&I: Singing?
Shatner: Willie Nelson is coming. How about we leave it at that?


HOLLYWOOD CHARITY HORSE SHOW


Photo by Daryll Weisser

When: Saturday, April 25
Where: Los Angeles Equestrian Center
480 Riverside Drive
Burbank, California
Ticket info: (888) 776-0222, www.horseshow.org

Any big charity event with William Shatner at the helm is bound to live long and prosper. Case in point: the Hollywood Charity Horse Show, presented by Priceline.com and sponsored by Wells Fargo. For nearly 20 years this event has been thrilling horse fans, music lovers, and Shatner groupies while raising money for children in need. Held at L.A.'s Equestrian Center in Burbank on the last Saturday in April, this year's HCHS will kick off with a silent auction, followed by an arena competition featuring world-class reining talent and a Western dinner party catered by Cafe Firenze — all before closing out with a private Willie Nelson concert for the event's 500 lucky attendees. Yes, the usual sellout crowd is expected.

"One of the things we're really proud of with the event is that all of our expenses are privately covered," says HCHS coordinator Chris Carley. "So when you buy a ticket from us, every penny of it goes toward a kid."

Some of Shatner's favorite kids' charities benefited by HCHS include Ahead with Horses, a therapeutic riding group for special-needs children; Camp Max Straus, a summer program for underprivileged youth; Children's Hospital Los Angeles; and The Painted Turtle, a year-round camp for children with chronic and life-threatening medical conditions.

— J.R.


RAISING FUNDS & HOPE

Enlarge
Courtesy Mural Mosaic
Shatner is a celebrity guest of the Le Cadeau du Cheval mural mosaic (check out the mural at www.muralmosaic.com). This panel is No. 206 of the mural.

Watching severely handicapped children perform intricate moves on the back of a horse deeply impacted William Shatner. After seeing a late-1980s performance by the therapeutic riding group Ahead with Horses, Shatner said, "You can't watch these kids without knowing that you have to help, somehow."

So Shatner and actor Patrick Duffy co-founded the Hollywood Charity Horse Show in 1990 to raise money for Ahead with Horses. Other charities that help children have subsequently been added, including Children's Hospital Los Angeles, The Painted Turtle, and Camp Max Straus.

Through his work with the Hollywood Charity Horse Show and his support of Ahead with Horses, Shatner has witnessed the benefits of therapeutic riding in improving the lives of the disabled. A horse's gentle and rhythmic movements help those with decreased cognitive, physical, and emotional disabilities. Riders with physical disabilities often show improvement in verbalization, flexibility, balance, muscle tone, motor development, and emotional health.

Shatner is a celebrity guest of the Le Cadeau du Cheval mural mosaic, currently on tour across the country (www.muralmosaic.com). His panel, No. 206, was painted by artist Lewis Lavoie from a favorite photograph of Shatner on horseback by photographer Daryl Weisser. In Lavoie's painting Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before, Shatner is galloping his horse across a cratered planet with a spiral galaxy in the distance, a reference to Shatner's iconic performance on the television series Star Trek.

Shatner is also the spokesperson for the William and Elizabeth Shatner/JNF Therapeutic Riding Consortium for Israel, which supports therapeutic riding programs that serve people of all religious, economic, and cultural backgrounds. Last year it funded 11 programs across Israel.

— Leanne Haase Geobel

 

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