published Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Star horse trainer of 'Walking Dead' fame brings his philosophy to North Georgia ranch (with video)

IF YOU GO

The public is invited to the Liberty Horse Ranch for a riding presentation at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 16. The ranch's address is 6187 E. Armuchee Road, Summerville, GA 30747.

  • photo
    Tommie Turvey rides a previously aggressive Zangersheide horse bareback.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

SUMMERVILLE, Ga. — You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

Tommie Turvey probably could, though.

Turvey is a horse trainer, showman, entrepreneur and film and TV stuntman who recently moved with his wife, Chantal, a Montreal native, to a 50-acre ranch surrounded by Chattahoochee National Forest land at the border of Walker and Chattooga counties.

He calls himself an "equine extremist," and he isn't just any horse trainer.

"Tommie's good. Tommie's one of the best -- if not the best," said Jeff Dwyer, a Gambrills, Md., man who traveled about 800 miles with his Morgan horse, Coca, to train last week with Turvey. Dwyer is no novice. He's been riding since he was 10, manages a stable of 30 horses and performs an act riding Coca bareback without a bridle.

Boyd Polhamus, a Brenham, Texas-based rodeo announcer, said he's seen Turvey perform between 50 and 100 times.

"People absolutely love it. It doesn't matter which act he does," Polhamus said. "He is, without question, one of the most-loved performing acts that this industry has. He has very few peers -- if any."

Even if you're not a horse aficionado, you may have seen Turvey's work.

That tear-jerking Budweiser Super Bowl 2013 commercial that showed a 3-week-old Clydesdale growing into an adult draft horse that galloped through the streets of downtown Chicago to reunite with the man who raised it? Budweiser hired Turvey for three weeks to train the five different horses used in the 60-second ad.

Growing up around horses

Turvey had a head start getting comfortable around horses as he grew up near Sacramento, Calif.

"My dad was a rodeo cowboy. That's how he made a living. So I just always had horses all around me," he said. "I've got pictures of my dad holding me in a diaper on a saddle."

When he and his dad went to horse auctions, Turvey -- a boy of 10 -- would get into a horse's pen, hop on it bareback and ride it into the sale corral.

Turvey remembers, "The auctioneer would say, 'Even a child can ride this horse.'"

School wasn't where Turvey learned his horse-training skills.

He enrolled for two semesters at the College of Southern Idaho to study business and marketing. But that ended in 1989 after Turvey, then 18, saw jousting and sword-fighting on horseback at the Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament dinner theater in Kissimmee, Fla., during a spring break visit with his retired parents.

"I said, 'I know how to ride horses. Can I have a job?'"

The pay was minimum wage -- $4.75 an hour in Florida then, he remembers. But Turvey learned various skills there and at subsequent shows: Arabian Nights, a horse-themed dinner theater in Florida; Euro Disney Resort's Wild West Show in Paris and the Royal Hanneford Circus, which is billed as the U.S.'s oldest circus.

In time, Turvey launched his own act.

One trick he's known for is "Roman riding," or standing upright on two horses as they gallop side by side, with one foot on each horse's back. Turvey spices it up by having the horses jump over a flaming hurdle.

He and Pokerjoe, a brown-and-white paint horse, do a comedy bit, "The Riding Instructor." Pokerjoe will roll on his back when Turvey tries to put a saddle on him. Then the supine horse will play patty-cake with Turvey and extend his leg just out of reach as Turvey stretches to get his hat off the horse's hoof. Video of the act has more than 4 million views on Turvey's YouTube page.

Turvey got his Screen Actors Guild card in 1992 and started working in movies, commercials and TV shows.

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    Tommie Turvey demonstrates how he is able to control Joker the horse without touching it while at Liberty Horse Ranch in Summerville, Ga. Turvey is a stuntman and self-described equine extremist having performed with his horses in numerous movies and shows including "The Walking Dead."
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

Blade, a mustang, was in the first episode of "The Walking Dead," the AMC Studios hit about a zombie apocalypse that's now in its fourth season. In the episode, Sheriff Rick Grimes finds the horse at a Georgia farm and rode him into downtown Atlanta, where Blade was pulled down and devoured alive by zombies. Turvey's horses also have appeared in the 2011 film, "The Greening of Whitney Brown," and the 2008 comedy, "Larry the Cable Guy's Witless Protection." Most recently, Turvey worked on an AMC Networks TV series, "Turn," about George Washington's spies. It premieres on April 6.

"Blade's worked in about seven different movies, just because he's nondescript," Turvey said. Directors prefer the plain sorrel mustang to Turvey's fancier paint horses.

Likewise, Turvey doesn't ham it up when he does stunts on horseback in film and TV.

"I'm always looking away from the camera," he said. "I'm not in it for fame. I'm only in it for fortune."

Training philosophy

Turvey calls the 50-acre ranch he leases in North Georgia "Liberty Horse Ranch." It gets its name from Turvey's preference to train horses inside his barn's arena with no lead rope.

"Our end goal is not to have to lead them everywhere. It's for them to follow us," he said.

It's key, he said, to slowly introduce horses to new tasks.

It took Turvey three years to teach Pokerjoe, who's known as the "upside-down horse," to lie on his back.

Turvey emphasizes trust when he trains animals.

Blade, the mustang, roamed the Nevada desert for at least three years before Turvey got him in 2001 from the Bureau of Land Management and gentled him.

Turvey's dog, Maverick, is a Queensland heeler, an Australian dog bred to herd cattle for miles across rugged terrain by biting at their heels.

The horse and dog are natural enemies, Turvey said, and would never trust each another.

But they both trust him. At Turvey's command last week in the arena inside the barn at Liberty Ranch -- like the proverbial lion lying down with the lamb -- the dog jumped on the horse's back and the animals stood there calmly.

The fierce-looking, part-dingo dog also will get a beer for Turvey from the fridge. And Turvey sells a self-produced DVD for $14.99 so anyone can learn to teach their dog the same trick.

When a horse does a trick on a TV or movie set, Turvey said, the first or second time usually makes the best take. The horse tends to get bored and lazy after that.

"The whole thing about being a trainer is to not be greedy," Turvey said.

It helps to have an American Humane Society animal safety representative on a movie set, Turvey said, because they can dissuade a director from making a horse do a trick over and over again. The humane society's "No Animals Were Harmed" disclaimer appears in the credits of movies with which Turley has been involved.

Equine entrepreneur

Georgia's growing reputation as "Hollywood South," with more than 700 feature films made there, is one reason Turvey relocated to the Peach State from Florida.

"There's a lot of film work up here," Turvey said. There's also miles and miles of horse-riding trails in the National Forest land around Liberty Ranch.

Customers who come to the ranch can ride the trails. Turvey held a three-day horsemanship clinic over the weekend at Liberty Ranch and plans more. That's one of many entrepreneurial irons he has in the fire.

Turvey films and produces his own DVDs of his act and his horse-training instruction, and he sells horse gear, including models by toy-maker Breyer, immortalizing his show horses Pokerjoe and Paint. He also gentles "untrainable" horses that people send him.

His life isn't all work. Turvey takes a break by skydiving, hang-gliding and scuba diving. Still, he's never gotten tired of horses.

"It's not just a way to make a living," he said. "It's a great way of life."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township¹s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...

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