The Browns train animals for the BIG SCREEN
ARTICLE BY HAILEY MINTON / PHOTOS BY MELISSA SPELTS
Mike and his three brothers grew up right at the mouth of the North Ogden Canyon. Each of them have followed in their parents’ footsteps by training animals to be used on movie sets. It began as a family affair, and it continues today, even as each of their families grow.
Mike’s parents, Ginger and Ron Brown, were involved in a Wild West show in New Jersey. Trick riding and Roman riding shows were a part of their repertoire. Roman riding involves a team of two horses. A rider stands with one foot on the back of each and rides them around the arena while performing various stunts. Both Ron and Ginger did this! Mike said there was a lot of external pressure for their family to pursue the entertainment business full time. “My father and mother were contacted multiple times to be circus animal trainers. However, they knew family was the thing that mattered most, so they passed on opportunities that might have given them fame and more fortune. They wanted to make sure we were raised in the best way for us. They stuck around and had their teaching jobs, so they could have that stability for us,” said Mike.
Mike’s wife, Brandice, told me the entertainment industry can be hit or miss. Sometimes, they’ll go a few months between jobs. To be offered consistent work and then to pass it up must have been tough. Mike said, “You can follow fame and money, and that will sometimes get you some things in life. But, ultimately, at the end of the day, what really matters is your family, children, and where you sit with those relationships. They made some decisions to continue working with the animals and still be grounded.”
Mike’s parents were teachers in Weber County, so the summers were their time to participate in shows. “We’d go to rodeos, fairs, Wild West shows, and big productions on the East Coast. In the early 90s, they transitioned their business to movie work, and in ’94, they started a business of doing horseback rides and wagon rides on Antelope Island for 25 years.”
The Browns’ reputation, involvement with training animals, and the connections they made with other professional trainers paved their way into the movie scene. Brandice talked about how skilled Ron was as a trainer. She explained he could train a horse to perform a specific action in minutes; it could take someone else hours or days. “His timing was so good,” she said.
The Browns have trained and handled animals for movies, including Return to Lonesome Dove, Far and Away, and most recently, the fourth season of the Book of Mormon videos for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You can safely assume the Browns had a role with the animals seen in the recent Bible and Book of Mormon videos. Ron passed away in 2015 after battling cancer, but his wife and all of the family still come together to help in the productions. Most of the time, they have all the animals they need among their family members. Brandice explained that, sometimes, they get requests for animals they don’t have, like rats. She said she would rather rent and train them for the scenes where they’re needed instead of having a long-term commitment of caring for them. Mike said, “We rely on so many people even outside of our family unit who are really skilled and have different specialties than we do. They also help provide animals for different projects that come up. It’s good to have a network of people who know what they’re doing… You really grow collectively that way.”
His parents worked with some of the well-known trainers back in their time. They passed their knowledge to Mike and his brothers, but they and their families have also learned more as time has gone on. Mike said people are always getting better at training animals using better techniques. You can take a little portion of how another person trains and add it to your program. “The ultimate goal is to have better breeding and better techniques that improve your animals and what you can do with them.”
Brandice explained that planning out when to shoot different scenes is important. Getting an animal, like a dog, to respond aggressively in a scene evokes that emotion in them. It isn’t realistic to shoot a scene like that and then try to shoot a cozy scene with someone petting the dog afterwards on the same day. She has also noticed a big difference between animals (like dogs) that have more predator-driven instincts versus animals (like horses) that are more fear driven in their behaviors. Brandice explained sometimes they need a horse to listen to a voice command, but they usually respond more readily from body language. “You have to have a lot of trust in your animal.” She stressed that it takes a lot of time and work to get an animal to do what you want it to do. She said it’s pretty neat to release a horse on the salt flats and send them galloping away at full speed, then have them return when given an audible command.
As time has passed, Mike and each of his siblings and their families have specialized in training different animals. Mike’s wife, Brandice, works primarily with dogs. Their son, Brighton, loves birds of all types, and Wyatt is really good with horses and dogs. Lonnie Brown and his wife, Elizabeth, have branched out into reindeer. They have a reindeer educational program and give tours during the holidays at Rockin Reindeer Ranch in Taylor. Ryan Brown was instrumental in finishing up the years out at Antelope Island after their father passed away. “All of us are keeping the tradition alive of what we grew up doing,” said Mike.