Amber Marshall: Horse Girl

The star of Canada's longest-running one-hour drama talks about horses, bullies, marriage, and the importance of downtime.

Amber_Marshall

“Animals judge you by what’s on the inside, what’s in your heart,” the star of TV’s Heartland says

Broadcast globally and watched by approximately one million Canadians every week, CBC-TV’s Heartland is filmed in Alberta’s scenic ranch country, where the production crew successfully captured the show’s entire 14th season during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a difficult task.

When the season concluded in late 2020, Amber Marshall, who portrays the series protagonist, Amy Fleming, was drained.

“I believe we all were. Not only are you attempting to concentrate on the task at hand—to memorize lines, review scenes, make everything as authentic and believable as possible—but the moment the scene finishes, it’s, ‘You must put your mask on now’ and ‘You cannot eat or drink here.’ There were numerous rules. We were routinely tested [for COVID] and subject to strict guidelines regarding what we could do outside of work.

“One of my favorite aspects of this job is being able to interact with others. Many of us have been working together for 14 years. We relish embracing each other in the morning and saying goodbye with hugs, sharing snacks, and discussing our day during downtime. And that simply wasn’t permitted this year.”

Marshall made a noteworthy debut as Amy in 2007. First came a flash, then a crash: The inaugural episode opened with Amy and her mother, Marion, driving at night through a severe lightning storm. They’re in a pickup truck, pulling a horse trailer in a courageous rescue of a severely mistreated horse named Spartan. As rain pours down, truck and trailer veer off the road, tumbling down a hillside in a horrific accident. Awakening in the hospital, Amy discovers that Spartan has survived. Amy’s mother has not.

Amy’s recuperation at her grandfather’s Heartland ranch soon unveils her calling as a gifted healer and trainer of horses, abilities passed down from her mother. Amy’s gruff, endearing granddad, Jack Bartlett (Shaun Johnston), and her big-city sister, Lou (Michelle Morgan), who’s returned from New York City, are there to offer support. Soon to arrive are Amy’s bold, estranged father, Tim (Chris Potter), and charming young Ty Borden (Graham Wardle), a juvenile on probation employed as a ranch hand.

Inspired by the Heartland book series for young people aged eight to 14, by 2015 the show had outlasted Street Legal as Canada’s longest-running one-hour TV drama, and with its compelling characters, unexpected plot twists, magnificent horses, and breathtaking scenery, it continues to captivate its devoted fans. Marshall has played Amy Fleming for over 200 episodes and has cherished her role since the beginning. Raised in London, ON, the 32-year-old Marshall says she immediately bonded with her new environment.

“I feel that certain places accept people, and the instant I stepped foot in Alberta, I felt like I was home. It’s a peculiar notion—you arrive somewhere you’ve never been before and it simply envelops you with these warm arms and says, ‘Okay, this is where you belong.’ I am so grateful for that.”

Heartland and Marshall have proven an ideal match. She began riding at three years old and as a teenager rode and cared for horses. She worked as an assistant in a veterinary clinic. Her other passion was performing. As Amy—with her natural beauty, her determination, her extraordinary talent with horses—she's become a symbol. (One of her Instagram accounts has 743,000 followers.) “Heartland isn't about violence and action,” Marshall says. “It’s about a genuine family coming together with real problems and solving them.” The series strives to be both authentic and inspiring. Marshall speaks of its impact with passion and evident pride:

“I didn't start acting because I thought I’d have a massive connection with people around the world. That’s not something you consider. But as time passes and you start connecting with people who have been touched by the role you play, it brings a whole new dimension to acting. You realize from the stories and the letters from people around the world how Heartland has transformed their lives in various ways. I don't take that lightly. I read how people have overcome trauma or sickness by watching the show. It’s given them new motivation and a new drive for what they truly want to do. I love that bond.”

The Judgment of Horses

From a young age, Marshall displayed a natural inclination for high-energy pursuits. "Being idle is simply not in my nature," she reflects. Both her parents were "in sales"—her mother, Wenda, in the signage industry and her father, David, "in the concrete world, selling pipes and lighting poles."

Her mother continued her career until Marshall's brother, Lee, was born five years later. "From a young age until I was six, I spent my days at my grandmother's house," Marshall recalls. "My grandmother is always on the move, even now in her late 80s. She's constantly gardening, sewing, or engaged in some activity. It was always, 'We must be busy; this is what you do.' That mentality has always resonated with me and fuels my drive to take on various endeavors."

Family stories recount Marshall's early forays into acting at home. At the age of eight, she joined London's Ontario Kids Theatre Company. By 12, she had secured a talent agent based in Toronto, and her initial onscreen credits included the leading role in the TV movie The Elizabeth Smart Story at the age of 14, a fact-based crime drama about the abduction of a Utah teenager.

While she accumulated other acting roles, the reality of auditions far outnumbering roles remained constant—and for an actor residing in London, there were significant challenges to overcome. Thankfully, Marshall had the unwavering support of her family.

"Initially, my mom would drive me to Toronto, a three-hour journey each way. Of course, the actual audition typically lasted only 20 minutes. Those car rides became precious moments—enforced trips that allowed us to maintain a strong connection." (Her parents eventually divorced.) By 17, Marshall was independently making the drive to Toronto.

She cultivated a positive perspective on audition rejection: "I'd give it my all and then completely let it go. I figured if I heard back, it was fantastic; if not, it wasn't meant to be."

In pursuit of extra income, she applied for a position as an assistant at a veterinary clinic. Her experience with auditions gave her a remarkable composure during the interview. "I was only 14, and they were quite impressed. They remarked, 'It's like you've done this a hundred times.' I responded, 'Well, in a way, I kind of have.'"

Her boss at the clinic was supportive, granting her time off for auditions. However, at school, she faced mockery from some who ridiculed her aspirations.

"Throughout my life, I encountered many bullies, and it was a struggle. People would say things like, 'Oh, you're on TV…you must be special,' and they made fun of me. This went on from when I was 11 to…19, perhaps even longer. I can't fathom what it would have been like with social media. Back then, people would make prank calls to our home phone, which was incredibly hurtful—friends on the line saying mean things or laughing at me. It was absolutely devastating."

It might be wrong to say horses saved Marshall’s spirits, but they helped.

"We resided in the northern part of the city, so a short drive brought me to the countryside," she recalls. "From ages 12 to 18, I spent my days caring for horses at a stable. My mom would drop me off in the morning, I'd be out there for hours, then I'd be picked up, complete my schoolwork, and go to sleep. It was incredibly beneficial to have a living being rely on me.

"I understand that horseback riding can be a costly pastime, but there are alternatives—you can assist with chores, clean the stalls and the barn, and do tasks in exchange for lessons. It can be very important to bond with an animal."

In Heartland, Amy Fleming, who trains horses and rehabilitates those who have suffered trauma, is often referred to as a horse whisperer. She clarifies, "We don't whisper; we pay attention to them." Hailing from Alberta, Marshall elaborates:

"People have believed you must break a horse's spirit, dominate it in order to ride it. My character disagrees, stating, 'No, you must establish an understanding.' Every animal is unique. They require consistency and dedication. People claim that animals lack judgment. They don't. However, it differs from human judgment. Humans judge others based on external appearances. Animals judge you based on your inner self, what's in your heart. If we could strive to judge others as animals do, we would be much better off."

While Marshall is, as she has noted on her blog, “living the dream out West,” she acknowledges that this role, this unique bond, might not have materialized for her:

“It wasn’t as if the producers of Heartland sought me out and said, ‘Hey, we want you to portray Amy Fleming.’ I attended numerous auditions before I secured that role. I put in a lot of effort, committed countless pages to memory for numerous shows. That’s an aspect people don’t witness. And yes, I became quite disheartened. There was a point when I approached my agent and said, ‘I’m not sure if I can continue this. I’m spending a significant amount of money on fuel to attend these auditions and I’m not seeing any results.’”

The turning point occurred in Ottawa.

“I was filming a pilot episode for another show when the Heartland auditions took place, so I missed the initial and second auditions. While on the train returning from the set, my agent contacted me and said, ‘You know, there’s this show that you’re ideal for, and they still haven’t cast their lead role. It’s about this horse enthusiast and I truly believe you should return home and record an audition tape.”

She chuckles at her endeavors. “I only knew how to record on VHS tape. Then I wondered, Okay, how do I upload this to the Internet? A London company was able to transfer VHS onto a computer file and send it. The file playback was incredibly slow. You know the ‘spinning wheel of death’ when something’s loading? I recall the producer mentioning later that it took 30 minutes to load just the first clip. But the moment they saw me—I said, ‘Hi, I’m Amber Marshall. I own two horses; I adore riding’—they were captivated. They expressed, ‘We want to see more.’ From the outset, this character aligned perfectly with who I aspired to be.”

Throughout the seasons, Marshall has reciprocated fans’ affection by sharing her life with them—through newsletters and blogs, on social media, and in her own quarterly publication. YouTube features close-up videos of her fairytale wedding and the ranch life she shares with her husband, Shawn Turner, and their cherished animals. Fans can purchase from a wide range of her personally branded merchandise on ambermarshall.com.

“Hearing you refer to [her website] as an enterprise brought a smile to my face,” Marshall confesses. “It’s simply something that evolved over time. People inquired, ‘Do you offer any apparel? Do you have jewellery?’ There’s a sense of passion that goes into it. I’ve genuinely concentrated on Canadian-made products, local suppliers and manufacturers. It’s difficult to actually generate a profit from it, but that’s not my motivation.”

When Marshall returns to her ranch, the spirited actor has numerous tasks to keep her occupied, but over time, she’s learned to shift gears.

“Every year after Heartland concludes, my agent asks, ‘Okay, can I submit you for this, can I submit you for that?’ And I respond, ‘Let’s just pause and breathe. I’m simply enjoying the fresh air.’ Just outside my back door, I have my horses, my cows, and my dogs and cats and chickens, and this is what I desire to be doing right now. I can sit on a fence and observe the animals graze, and just relax or de-stress. I derive my inspiration from the world around me.”

Home life is fulfilling. Turner, also from Ontario, is a talented photographer who works freelance as a heavy-equipment operator. Marriage has altered Marshall—but only slightly: “You know, it’s amusing and I dislike saying this aloud, but I had never even owned a television until my husband moved in and declared, ‘We need a TV.’”

She’s a distinctive kind of TV star. It’s difficult not to cheer for Marshall, the cast of Heartland, and the show’s production team. Over the phone, her optimism is undeniable. There’s a pragmatist within her as well. “I don’t believe this lifestyle suits everyone,” she remarks. “There are actors on Heartland who…this isn’t their ideal life. We’ve observed that over the years. They don’t wish to be in Alberta for five or six months of the year. They prefer to be in downtown Vancouver or Toronto pursuing projects that enthrall them.

“I can’t criticize anyone for having different aspirations. This is a project that genuinely excites me. I hope Heartland continues for a long time. I still cherish it every day.”

  1. Terry Ruth says:

    Amber Marshall. Horse woman, was a good read for me Ever time I get to read about your life I feel a deep connection with you as if you were one of my own children! . You are beautiful the way you share your feelings in your own heart with others. Amber you are special and we wish you blessings. May the Creator always watch over you and your family! Really do love you.

  2. Terry Ruth says:

    Amen to all that ! Amber’s love and kindness has spread throughout the world. Thank you Amber for your goodness. PawT

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