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No Eyes? No Problem! Diablo, The Blind Movie Star Horse

Updated: May 3

A MumsHaynet Exclusive

On a hot summer’s day, in front of a crowd of enthralled spectators, a 15.1hh Welsh cob named Diablo expertly showcased the consummate skill of the professional stunt rider. Having starred in such cinematic classics as War Horse, Merlin, and Robin Hood, the bay-coloured stallion played to his audience, performing the tricks and stunts that had cemented his reputation as one of the country’s finest equine actors. As the crowd cheered for more, his rider lifted the flambeau torch he held and turned to face the audience.

“Have any of you noticed something different about this horse?” he shouted.

The spectators shook their heads in confusion.

“Look at his eyes,” the rider encouraged, and that’s when the penny dropped.

“He has no eyes!” came a voice from the crowd.

The rider smiled. Three months earlier, an operation to save Diablo’s life had meant sacrificing his sight, now he was back doing the job he loved. “This is what the bond of trust and good training does,” Dylan Jones told the spectators. “It doesn't matter if my horse has eyes or not; the trust that we have in each other and the training that we put into all our horses, enables us to do what might seem impossible.”


Blind horse Diablo is an equine movie star
DYNAMIC DUO: Dylan and Diablo (All photos courtesy of Dylan Jones/www.filmhorses.co.uk)

Dylan Jones, of Dolbadarn Film Horses in Wales, is the very proud owner of Diablo, a completely blind stunt horse who turned 31 earlier this month.

A seasoned actor himself, who was born and raised with horses in the foothills of Snowdonia, the 47-year-old first met Diablo when the horse was an unbacked stallion, running loose with his mares.

Pitching up at the farm of a respected breeder to find a horse to add to his film stock, Dylan was warned to mind the stallion in the field, saying ‘if he runs towards us, jump over the gate and stay in the safe zone - he has no brakes.’ 

“My father and myself walked into the field,” says Dylan, smiling at the memory. “I then clocked this lovely bay stallion in the corner, and he also clocked us. I looked at my Dad and the horse started galloping towards us. Both of us were mesmerized, not noticing what was happening behind us until I turned around and saw everybody clambering over the gate.

“Both me and my dad stood our ground, and Diablo came to a stop right in front of us – crested, snorting, his mane matted, and just wild looking. And I thought to myself, ‘yes, please’.

“I then said hello to him and let him smell me. He wasn’t dangerous, and after two or three minutes he galloped off.”

Injured

Although it was only a meeting that lasted minutes, Diablo had left his mark on Dylan's heart. It was also long enough for Dylan to notice that the stallion’s left eye was swollen and closed, most likely the result of a kick from a mare.

Nevertheless, Dylan expressed his interest in the stallion only to be told that he wasn’t for sale as he belonged to the breeder's father who had recently passed away.

Understanding the sentiment, Dylan urged them to fetch the vet to the injured horse and told them to contact him should they ever change their mind – which they did some weeks later. They also revealed that the vet had seen the horse and due to the trauma of the impact on his eye a cataract had formed on the iris.

Knowing the cataract shouldn’t hinder the horse in any great way, when he was told Diablo was his for the taking, he immediately said ‘yes’.

“Obviously, I made a very good deal because of the cataract and also because he was an eight-year-old breeding stallion that hadn't been backed,” says Dylan.

Once Dylan got Diablo home, the training began almost immediately.


Dylan the Blind Move Stunt Horse when he had eyes.
LOOKING GOOD: From the start, Diablo was a natural on set with movie star appeal

“He picked everything up very, very quickly,” recalls Dylan. “He relished the work and the attention, and his character from the start was very honest and very noble. He was one of the easiest horses I’ve ever trained.

“I was in my early 20s at the time and I was very passionate about what I was doing and I was very driven so I just spent all of my time with him, building up that trust. I bonded with him instantly.

“The first time I sat on Diablo it felt easy, it felt safe. He has this aura about him. He feels like an old soul and he took to everything I showed him straight away.”

As Diablo grew more adept at the skills of his job, he showed a natural talent for stunt work and became a firm favourite among actors and film crews. But then, three years into his life as an equine superstar, his left eye showed signs of failing as his immune system began to attack the cataract as a foreign body, triggering uveitis. 

Dylan took Diablo to the Leahurst Equine Hospital on the Wirral where he was treated by Professor Derek Knottenbelt.

“After six months of treatment the decision was taken to remove the eye as it was causing him so much pain,” says Dylan. “Thankfully, I had already established his training by then. He was classically trained, he was driving, he was trick riding, and he was already working on film projects with me.

“So, once the operation was done and I got him home, I treated him like a normal horse and had him out the very next day.  

“The first time I got on, he was unsure on his blind side, but because he trusted me enough to navigate him and keep him safe, he allowed me to show him the way.”


MAKING A SPLASH: Diablo became a firm favourite among film crews due to his good manners and striking presence

Using a combination of half halts and whistles to ready Diablo for changes in terrain, it took less than four days before the stallion was riding out like a normal horse.

But of course, Diablo was no normal horse – he was the only one-eyed stunt horse working in the country and the jobs rolled in with appearances in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe, the BBC’s Merlin series, and that all-time equine classic, War Horse

“He was the type of horse that if we had an inquiry that involved a sticky situation, we would choose him because we would only have to show him the root of a routine once and he would do it foot perfect the first time,” says Dylan, his pride in Diablo almost tangible.

“Diablo is that intelligent that when he had an actor on him, he would be the most docile horse ever. As soon as I put a driving harness on him, he would go into driving mode. When I put a trick saddle on him, he would go into trick mode. He is one of the most versatile animals I have ever had.”

Operation


Unfortunately, in 2012, at the start of the last season of Merlin, Dylan saw signs that the uveitis that had taken Diablo's left eye had tracked over to his healthy eye. He immediately sent him back to Leahurst and Professor Knottenbelt.

“For five or six months, Diablo was on steroid antibiotics. He had corneal graphs and every procedure possible to try and save the eye,” says Dylan, “but in the end he was in so much pain that the professor and I both decided we had to take the second eye out.”

Despite some pushback from other members of the faculty, Prof Knottenbelt refused to consider putting Diablo to sleep, understanding the horse had an incredible bond with Dylan and, therefore, he had a fighting chance of leading an active life long after his eyes had gone.

“The day we went to pick him after the operation, he was in a padded stable,” recalls Dylan. “I walked up the block and called him and he immediately showed his head which had this metal contraption on it to protect the eye socket, and he neighed. I knew then he would be OK, and I led him from the stable and loaded him up.”

Amazingly, Diablo not only walked into the trailer, he also walked back out of it to come to the rescue of another horse that was refusing to load.

“I had just put up the ramp when I saw this woman struggling to load her horse on the other side of the yard, and she was getting increasingly distressed.

“So, I took our blind horse out of the trailer and went over to her so her horse could follow Diablo into his trailer. We then returned to our own and drove back home.”


Diablo the blind movie star horse
HEALING POWER: After Diablo's operation, Dylan treated him like a normal horse to maintain his confidence

For the next few days, and only because of the stitches and the protective headgear he wore, Diablo was confined to his stable, next door to one of his friends. Relieved to see he was eating normally, Dylan spent hours with his old friend, reassuring him and making sure he felt safe.

“He never once fretted,” says Dylan. “And after about four days we decided to ride him out with a companion horse.

“Obviously, he was a little bit snaky at the beginning, but due to his classical training I could navigate him with my weight aids and within 30 minutes, I could feel his confidence returning. He was raring to go.”

For two more days, Diablo rode out with a companion horse, but Dylan knew he would be fine on his own. Not only that, Diablo needed to know he would be fine on his own.

“He had to be treated like a normal horse,” explains Dylan. “So, I rode him out for an hour, up into the foothills of Snowdon, and I was amazed. Within ten minutes he knew there was no other horse with us and he tuned into me and we trotted up those mountains like there was no tomorrow.”



Although Diablo’s big budget film career effectively came to an end following the loss of his sight twelve years ago – for insurance reasons only – he has continued to play a pivotal role in Dylan’s demonstrations and also his life.

“He is a legend, an absolute legend,” says Dylan. “The bond we built up all those years ago when I first got him, enabled us to get where we are today. He is an incredible horse. A horse of a lifetime.”


For more information on Dylan, Diablo and the rest of the Dolbadarn Film Horses, go to www.filmhorses.co.uk

And if you want to see more of Diablo - and who wouldn't - sit back and enjoy this stunning short film, shot by Dan Prince, featuring Dylan and Diablo.


 

 

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