Roy Rogers had “Trigger”, the Lone Ranger had “Silver”, and Gene Autry had “Champion.” But what about the greatest celluloid cowboy of them all, John Wayne? Even Jeopardy! contestants would have a hard time naming horses ridden by the Duke in his movies. There are a few reasons for this.
First of all, Wayne usually played a different character in each of his approximately two hundred films. Notable exceptions are the serial westerns he did early in his career, particularly his eight movie stint in the “Three Mesquiteers” series in 1938 and 1939. Prior to signing on as a Mesquiteer, Wayne had been cast in a series of six westerns produced by Warner Brothers in 1932 and 1933 in which he always played a character with the first name of “John” and rode a white horse named “Duke.” These were the so-called B-Westerns which were usually filmed within a week. The quick production time obviously contributed to a lack of originality in character and horse names.
In contrast, Roy Rogers acquired Trigger in 1938 and rode the horse in every one of his subsequent movies and television shows. Clayton Moore, the best known Lone Ranger, personally chose a twelve year old Morab Tennessee Walking Horse cross stallion to be “Silver” in 1949, just prior to beginning his television series. In 1952, a Morab Saddlebred cross replaced the original “Silver” but few fans noticed the switch. Gene Autry actually had three horses that portrayed “Champion” in his films and on his television show at different times from 1935 until the 1950’s. All three were sorrel colored with white “blazes” down their faces.
Other reasons for Duke Wayne not to be identified with a particular horse were the roles the animals played in his westerns and his personal view of horses. Instead of being costars, horses in John Wayne westerns are primarily seen as convenient modes of transportation or as spring boards for stuntmen. Rarely, if ever, were they given a name in the films. Also, Duke reportedly did not enjoy horseback riding as he grew older and viewed horses merely as a tool of his trade. His former secretary, Pat Stacy, wrote in her memoir in 1983, that after years in the saddle onscreen, Wayne didn’t consider horseback riding a “recreational activity.”
However, there is always an exception to the rule and one horse stands out as being Duke’s onscreen equine partner, even if for only one film. In 1969, Wayne received an Academy Award for his portrayal of the irrepressible Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. In the movie, we are introduced to Roosters’ big American stud, “Beau.” Throughout the movie,”Beau” carries the overweight marshal across plains and up mountainous terrain and even performs well while enduring the humiliation of his drunken master falling out of the saddle and blaming him for a “misstep.”
Duke and “Beau” become forever linked in the climax of the film when Rooster faces the “Lucky” Ned Pepper gang in the meadow scene. After Rooster gives Ned the options of dying on the meadow or returning to Fort Smith to be hanged at Judge Parker’s convenience, Ned chooses the former rather than the latter. Rooster and “Beau” charge the outlaws with guns blazing and “Beau’s” reins clenched tightly in Rooster’s teeth. Rooster and “Beau” survive the charge, wounding Ned and killing his gang. Ned takes a final shot to kill Rooster but ends up fatally wounding “Beau.” Pinned under his dying steed, Rooster gives perhaps his highest tribute to “Beau” when he says, “Damn you, Beau-first time you ever give me reason to cuss you.” In the end, Rooster recognizes that “Beau” also had true grit.