Horses in the Movies

Here’s a little fun for a hot summer’s day: let’s talk about portrayals of horses in the movies–the good, the bad, the ugly.

Hollywood in general does not have the greatest rep for getting anything right. It’s a big day in the movie theatre when a film actually, you know, makes the effort. In the meantime there’s a fair amount of horses as trucks, horses as very large, constantly whinnying dogs, cowboys flapping their arms for takeoff, and what is with this universal “Hyah!” to make the horse go?

So let’s talk movies. I just recently caught Secretariat on video–loved it. It’s been criticized for “too much human, not enough horse,” and there are historical and factual elisions and alterations, but somehow that didn’t bother me. What made it really work for me was the quiet, unassuming, unspectacular ways the film got things right.

He isn’t pushed to the fore or in any way anthropomorphized, but the star of the film really is Secretariat. He’s always there; everything revolves around him. The human drama is, at base, about him. And there are a couple of moments where the film really gets it: where you see the bond the horse has with his owner. She’s not his trainer or his rider, but she is his human. And you get to see that.

A girl and her stallion–no drama, no fanfare. Just there. Just right.

For contrast, there’s that thing called The Horse Whisperer, which is a whole lot of heavy breathing and overwrought drama with a horse for an excuse. He’s not even the same breed as in the book–in the book he’s a Morgan. In the movie he’s a Quarter Horse. It’s not vital to the film, and it doesn’t affect anything really, but it kind of sums up the general not-there-ness of the whole thing. All the “whispering” and the so-called “training” and “rehabbing” add up to “Nobody involved in this film has any real understanding of either horses or horse rehab.” It’s all just a vehicle to get the romance from Point A to Point Bathos.

Sometimes the change in horse breed is downright ludicrous but the film has almost enough charm to carry it off. Hidalgo is based on a tall tale–there’s nothing factual about the “true story” it’s based on–and yet it’s a surprising lot of fun. Viggo Mortensen is a real horseman who really connects with his horses (he bought the horse he starred with in this movie, as he did the one in The Lord of the Rings), and besides, well, Viggo. Plus the pleasure of seeing Lady Anne Blunt in a movie–she’s played as a bit of femme fatale, but it kind of works.

The ludicrousness is actually the result of a logistical problem. The original horse meant to star in the film was a Spanish Mustang, like the horse in the story–i.e. a horse with the toughness and stamina to actually carry off an endurance race through the desert. This horse ended up being unavailable, however, so someone had the brilliant idea of substituting a very spectacular, very sweet and cute and trainable Paint horse. Which made for nice visuals, but oy, and ouch.

A Paint is a relative of the Quarter Horse–the king of the quarter-mile. Built like a bulldog and designed for blazing speed over a very short distance, after which he promptly poops out. If he’s ranch bred and properly conditioned he can go all day at a fairly slow rate, but he isn’t noted for his ability to excel in long-distance races. He’s a sprinter, not a marathoner.

So here’s this terribly cute horse, very flashy and nicely put together for what he is, and seriously, by day 3 he’d be dead. He’s just not designed for the job he’s supposed to be doing.

But I still enjoy the movie. And the horse is adorable.

So–how about you? What are your favorite and dis-favorite movie equines? If you’re not a horse person, our panel of excellent horsepeople can weigh in on the pros and cons of a given film–and we’ll be happy to opine on actors who can ride versus actors who, well, the less said about sacks and potatoes the better.


Want to know more about horses and writing and how they intersect? Here’s where to begin. Questions answered, terms defined, and links, many links, to further investigations. With copious illustrations.

Just $4.99 in all the popular formats (including Kindle, Nook, and Sony e-reader) from the Book View Cafe e-bookstore.

Or if fictional horses are more to your taste, try A Wind in Cairo, the magical story of a prince, a Turk, and an Arabian stallion. And for further historical delights, try The Dagger and the Cross: A Novel of the Crusades and its prequel, Alamut.




Horses in the Movies — 13 Comments

  1. Viggo Mortensen has the best seat of any actor I’ve ever seen ride. I didn’t believe a moment of _Hidalgo_ for exactly the reasons you mention, but it had its watchable moments. And moments I’d’ve just as soon not seen, like the tiger trap part.

    I think The Island Stallion Races would be a kick as a movie. It’s among the few SF/horse stories I know of. (Along with Starship on Saddle Mountain.)

    Horse Whisperer can send me off on a rant, so I’ll spare you that.


  2. I’m surprised that the end of Hidalgo didn’t get your back up; it sure did mine. Viggo and the horse are just about dead from dehydration, but wait, they hear the other horses heading for the finish line. So they pop up and race to the finish and win. Instead of collapsing at the finish line, they gallop on and frolic in the waves. And the entire time this is happening, I’m shouting at the TV, “Would someone, PLEASE, get that horse some water he can drink!”

  3. Actually, I enjoyed the snippets of Harrison Ford’s horse in Cowboys vs Aliens. I spent a wee bit of time trying to figure out if the horse was in the two-rein or straight up in the bridle, and decided on the latter. Nice carriage on that horse!

    Surprisingly, there’s some decent scenes in Buck, especially the dramatic scene with the palomino stallion.

    Otherwise….eh, well, we won’t talk about some things.

  4. Vonda, I’ve never seen the Saddle Mountain book (makes note).

    Why not rant about “The Horse Whisperer”? You know you want to.

    Kiana: By the time I got to the end, my disbelief was dead and buried at the crossroads, so seeing that cute Paint galloping through the waves without having a drink was just more of the movie magic that made it possible for a horse of that body and muscle type to survive the race at all, let alone win it.

    I mean really, it’s like we can’t find a big red TB to play Secretariat so let’s substitute a Gypsy Vanner instead. Pretty! Flashy! Who cares if he can’t run? So he wins the Belmont by 65 lengths after dumping the ring in the volcano and it’s all good, baby, for values of good that include hallucinogens and other controlled substances.

    Joyce: Haven’t seen those yet. The locals like “Buck,” a lot, so I’ll be interested to catch that one.

  5. The Black Stallion is my absolute, hands down favorite – who cares that I can pick the one actual black Arabian who was so valuable, he had to have 17 stand-ins, none of whom were black and had to be dyed? (They were trained to do specific jobs, like the horses in Seabiscuit.)

    The Black Stallion is a magical treatise on the bond between human and horse and it always makes me cry with its sheer beauty and simple honesty.

  6. My all time favorite, and I think will always be is Black Beauty. Cry like a baby every time. All speculation, but still makes you think about how you treat your animals.

    I know when I watched The Horse Whisperer for the first time (After reading the book), I thought. Jee, if anything dangerous came between me and my horse, I sure wished he’d stand up and try to protect me like that. Granted, I do not wish harm on any horse, and I would have been one of the ones to put my horse down. But wow. Crazy barking neighbor dog harassing me.. Here horsey horsey horsey. I’ve been close with horses of my past, but I could never seem them doing that for me.

  7. You will most definitely want to see “Buck.” Ironically, Buck Brannaman worked on “The Horse Whisperer.” I believe his input is one of the reasons that the movie’s ending differs from the book — hero killed by wild stallion… Uh, yeah. Supposedly, Mr. Brannaman was Nicholas Evans’ main inspiration for his protagonist in said novel too. If you check out Wikipedia’s site about the movie, it states “While Brannaman was the on-site technical consultant, he did not have creative control.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say, “’Nobody involved in this film has any real understanding of either horses or horse rehab’” but I’d say those highest up on the production food chain had little to no regard for “the horse” in the movie. It was all about Hollywood Star power.

    While I think no one film has ever really captured the whole essence of Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty,” I do enjoy Caroline Thompson’s 1994 version.

    I am very interested in seeing Spielberg’s “Warhorse.” The book is excellent! Joey’s right up there with Beauty, if you ask me.

  8. Jennifer: I don’t know why that movie left me cold. It was pretty and I love Arabians. Something’s missing in it for me. Never quite figured out what. I loved the books and definitely love the main horse star. Maybe the other 16 horses were too obvious?

    Amber, I have a mare who in her younger days would stand between me and anything or anyone she judged to be a threat. If anyone made a threatening move, they had to face 1100lbs of whirling dervish. People used to call her “Judy’s Rottweiler.” She will still stand between me and a stranger–if I want to talk to them I have to do it over her back. If she lets that stranger near me, it’s a good sign.

    Her son has been known to chomp people he doesn’t like–and they’ve always turned out to be bad news, even if they seemed lovely at the time.

    Emily, I’ve been wanting to see “Warhorse,” too. It sounds really good.

  9. The horse movie that I loved beyond all reason was and is Phar Lap. I think it is part of why Seabuiscuit didn’t do much for me, despite its admitted charm. (Well, and the fact that through half the movie, I kept thinking that Seabuscuit was not as pretty as the horses playing him!)

    The Black Stallion always left me a bit cold, too, and I could never figure out why, either. and while I utterly loathe the movie Dances with Wolves for a myriad of reasons, the loyalty amd resourcefulness of the buckskin in it always amused me and reminded me of a Houdini QH I knew a long time ago.

  10. Well, I’m hopeless. If it has a horse, I’m there. Hidalgo – pretty paint +Viggo (Yes, the best in the butt on horse contest) — it’s in the library for those days I must have desert + horse + guy on horse. Horse Whisperer? Liked the movie, hated the book (yep the book ending was just so false). But, and here’s a thing — it’s less that I liked the movie but the sheer visceral reaction at the beginning, bringing me to a time when my sister’s stallion was slipping in the mud, I tried to grab reins to help, and the inevitability of the horse going down. Sister’s okay (she still rides) — but the emotional memory was apparently still with me. It’s that emotional memory that carries me right on up and over the multiples sillinesses. There was that buckskin in the The Three Lives of Melquiades — another opportunity for my theater seat mates to hold me down and pass me napkins to mop up my tears…and the horse on the ferry in The Ring…yeah, you don’t want to go to horse movies with me – but – Judith – War Horse for sure!

  11. Would you believe I’ve never seen “Phar Lap”? I don’t think it’s captioned. Might be by now, of course.

    Jenny, ha! Melquiades I haven’t seen, either.

    There is, deep in the archives, a version of “Carmen” filmed in Andalus, with the horses, and the bullfighter is sung by a Spaniard who can indeed ride. Alas, the tenor is Domingo, and while I love the man and his voice, ye gods whyyyyy did they put him on a horse? Even the very soft-gaited Andalusian he was on could not de-potato-sack-ify the man.

    But the Toreador aria on a piaffing Andalusian, with a singer who can ride, is worth even the eye-burn (and sad disappointment) of Domingo in the saddle.

  12. Phar Lap still stands high in my memory — but i’ve never found it on DVD, and so haven’t seen it since I saw it in theatres as a horse crazy kid. If I find it, and it’s captionned, we’ll arrange viewing, Judy.

    And I bought a previously viewed copy of Secretariat today — in part because I recall you saying you like it.

    The Man from Snowy River was one of the keystone horse films from my childhood — I have rewatched it as an adult and while parts make me cringe more now, it still gets lots of things really kind of right. The horses are just part of it, full co-stars, in their way, and not just plot devices, because they are such a part of the lifestyle. (it probably doesn’t hurt that my Mom went out of her way to take me to the theatre especially, just the two of us, to see it. I had to hide my eyes during the scene where Jim’s dad dies, but after that, this horse crazy 10 year old was hooked. :D.

    Don’t get me started on the horse whisperer. or actually the Tim McGraw Flicka, which just ACK.

  13. And if you really want to sob, see In Pursuit of Honor, where the army horses are to be terminated, and instead, well, you have to see it, and it has Don Johnson.