• Grayson Dejesus on Topthorn (left) and Michael Wyatt Cox on Joey. (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)

Ever tried running a three-legged race while carrying about 136 kilograms? Few have. But the puppeteers in the play War Horse experience something similar every night they take the stage.

War Horse tells the story of Joey, a horse raised on a farm before being sold to the British cavalry and shipped to the battlefields of France during the First World War. The play has puppets instead of real animals, and some of the puppeteers have the heavy job of supporting not only around 55 to 59-kilogram puppet horse frame, but also a 77-kilogram human rider.

The show is based on Michael Morpurgo’s book, which reveals Joey’s thoughts and feelings to readers. Since many events happen from Joey’s perspective, the audience had to be able to see his emotions — without having him appear as a sort of wartime Mr. Ed.

To make that happen, three puppeteers work together, using the body language of a real horse to express Joey’s emotions; his ears go back when he’s frightened, his tail rises when he’s unhappy and his breath quickens when he’s scared. The puppeteers use their body movements, sounds or breath to communicate how to move the puppet without talking.

Joey, with puppeteers Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui. (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)

“We wanted to represent him like a real horse,” says James Duncan, one of the puppeteers. “What’s so important with these puppets is that you believe that they are alive by seeing them breathe.”

During the First World War, thousands of horses were sent overseas from Canada. Tony Glen, the director of the Canadian War Museum, says that the horses weren’t used in traditional cavalry charges. Instead, they were used as draft animals, moving equipment, wagons and supplies. He says the Germans also used horses in the same way.

“Many horses participated in the First World War, and unfortunately, most of them didn’t survive,” he says.

The Canadian War Museum has a mini-exhibit of cavalry and veterinary items from the war, including a saddle, equipment and uniform of a Canadian cavalry member. There’s also a full kit from a German soldier.

“It’s to remind people that while it’s a fictional story, it’s based on real things,” Glen says.

The show and mini-exhibit will be at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa until Jan. 26 before going on tour across Canada.

For more on the First World War, keep an eye out for Canadian Geographic’s July/August commemorative issue in honour of the war’s 100-year anniversary.