Meet the talented California barrel racers who used their horsemanship abilities to carve out successful careers as stuntwomen in Hollywood.
While most of us dream of barreling our way to the bright lights of Las Vegas, a few barrel racers have seen their work light up the silver screen. Through horses, rodeo and the Western way of life, a select few found their horsemanship skills carrying through to fulfilling careers as stuntwomen, doubling some of the most famous actresses in Hollywood.
Yet, their work isn’t limited to “horse work.” They’ve done “high work”—falling from buildings, bridges and over waterfalls. They’ve driven through barriers and slid sideways on motorcycles. They’ve been set on fire. They’ve sold convincing fight scenes without ever landing a punch. They’ve escaped all the perils thrown at them by the bad guys, generally while wearing high heels and short skirts.
“You have to run over here and fall over,” chuckled Ann Scott McGilchrist, a second-generation stunt worker and the 2014 California Circuit champion barrel racer. “The stunt guys are in pants, so they can put on knee pads and elbow pads, and the stuntwomen are all wearing high heels, getting shot at wearing a little dress.”
A two-term Women’s Professional Rodeo Association California Circuit director, Marguerite Happy got into the film industry as a newlywed. Shortly after she married Clifford Happy, her father-in-law Don—a rodeo producer who often supplied stock for Westerns—marched the couple down to central casting to take roles as extras.
“We worked as background extras in different movies and television shows,” Marguerite said. “Within six months, Clifford went straight A, Screen Actors Guild, doing stunt work. I kept working extra for a year-and-a-half, and I got my SAG card on a fight scene in ‘1941.’”
Once she got her card, Marguerite says it took off from there.
“I was a fairly good size to double a lot of good actresses,” Marguerite said. “There wasn’t a lot of horse work then, so we had to learn a lot to become good all-around stunt persons to make a living at it and not have to wait tables or do something else on the side. We were very fortunate and blessed.”
Even though Marguerite grew up in a rodeo family and loved to rope, she had to expand on her horsemanship as well as learn to fall and drive cars and motorcycles.
“The horse background definitely helped, but there was still a lot to learn,” Marguerite said. “I had to learn to drive a team, and you’re put on so many different horses with different cues.”
Marguerite says doing horse work has made she and Clifford better stunt personnel and given her an edge when learning and adapting to the trade.
“The horse work has been a huge feather in our cap,” Marguerite said. “I do believe cowboys and cowgirls have an easier time learning to do high work and falls, fights and car work because they have the athleticism. I think it’s harder for someone that’s say, a motorcycle specialist, to learn horse work, because sometimes they’re afraid of the horses. It’s hard to make that transition when livestock is included.”
One of Marguerite’s favorite stunts was a transfer from a horse to a four-horse hitch for “Triumphs Of A Man Called Horse.”
“I supposedly reach down and pull the pin and the wagon flips, and I’m driving the horses without the wagon,” Marguerite said.
Marguerite was honored with a Silver Spur Award in 2017 for her contributions to Western film and television. She was only the second stuntwoman to be honored with that award. Her husband Clifford received the honor in 2012. Their sons, Sean and Ryan Happy, followed them into the business.
“They did their first commercials when they were toddlers, but they weren’t allowed to do stunts until they turned 18,” Marguerite said. “Both have been severely injured. One got hit by a train while working on ‘The Lone Ranger.’ He does limited work now and works as a park ranger. Our other son is still very involved even though he was severely injured while doing some motorcycle work on ‘Jumanji.’”