Well-made equestrian films are a rarity. Balancing a well-told story with the technical know-how of horse-riding is a challenge. In fact, viewers who happen to be seasoned equestrians are put off with films that portray their characters as well-trained horseback riders, while turning a blind eye to the finer details of the sport. Horses in movies have been frequently used to represent charisma, a sort of natural wildness and freedom.
In fact, cinema owes a great deal to horses. In 1872, Leland Stanford made a bet over whether a horse lifts all four of its hooves off the ground while trotting. To settle it, he commissioned photographer Eadward Muybridge. Muybridge photographed the horse and copied the image as silhouettes to be viewed in motion. While this event in itself was uneventful, it signalled a groundbreaking change in the process that was used to create photographs and motion pictures, eventually leading to innovative technology in cinema.
Without further ado, here’s our recommendations for some of the best horse movies.
1. National Velvet (1944)
One of the earliest Hollywood films to depict the bond between horses and riders, National Velvet revolves around Velvet Brown, a young girl who wins a horse in a chase. They soon form a bond, and Velvet is encouraged by her egalitarian mother to train the horse for the Grand National. For a film that was made nearly a century ago, I find the feminist ethos of the film wonderfully relevant. In an era when women were increasingly given damsel-like roles to play, the film espouses independence through the adventures of Velvet. Focusing on the bond between her and the horse, the film has earned a well-justified reputation as a classic horse racing film. With a sparkling debut performance from Elizabeth Taylor and a solid star cast, including the likes of Mickey Rooney and Angela Lansbury, National Velvet is one for the ages.
2. The Horse Whisperer (1998)
Based on a novel of the same name by Nicholas Evans, The Horse Whisperer follows teenager Grace, who is traumatized after a fatal accident. When recovery starts looking increasingly difficult, Grace’s mother hires a ‘horse whisperer’ Tom, to work on her and the horse, Pilgrim. As one of the few films that highlights the therapeutic benefits of bonding with animals, the narrative finds its emotional center in the mutual healing process between Grace and Pilgrim. Robert Redford’s fantastic direction, and the use of the beauty of Montana mountain range renders the film a visual delight. The film was reportedly inspired by real-life horse trainers like Tom Dorran and Buck Brannaman. The latter also served as a consultant on the film, advocating an authentic representation of horses and horse-riding in the narrative.
3. The Rider (2017)
Directed by Academy Award-winning director, Chloe Zhao, The Rider dramatizes the life of rodeo star Brady Jandreau. Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, a close fictional version of himself. A rising star in the rodeo scene of South Dakota, Blackburn’s career draws to a halt when a bronco throws him off and shatters his skull. Despite warnings from doctors, Blackburn is stubborn about riding again. Zhao’s direction and story does a wonderful job of bringing out the nature of life in the Native American reservations of South Dakota. The focus on the rigors of a rodeo career as well as the conflict between the members of Blackburn’s family lend an immediacy and depth to the plot. The decision to not use actors, and have people involved in the story play fictionalized versions of themselves allows the audience to feel for them and create a poignant connection.
4. Lean on Pete (2017)
Lean on Pete revolves around a fifteen-year-old boy Charley, and the connection he forms with an old racehorse named Lean on Pete. When Pete’s caregivers try to send him to Mexico, Charley steals him and flees to find his aunt. Reeling from the death of his father, he relies on the horse to keep going. The story presents a beautiful coming-of-age journey told with simplicity. Never pitying or condemning the actions of the characters, it offers an empathetic understanding of the pain of loss. Horse movies revolving around young men can often teeter towards a macho, tough-guy narrative, but Lean on Pete prioritizes sensitivity over spectacle. Through an exceptionally fine performance from Charlie Plummer, it creates a tender story of love, loss and acceptance.
5. Of Horses and Men (2013)
Set in the majestic valleys of Iceland, the film revolves around a small community of people who are brought together through their love of wild horses. Due to the rural background and the quaint nature of life, people only ever observe horses, and each other. The story revolves around the efforts of neighbors Kolbein, Solveig, Johanna, and Egill to find and forge connections with each other. The film contrasts the wildness and freedom that the horses represent with the humans’ attempts to control and create order in their lives, dealing with universal experiences like sex, death and existence. Set against breathtaking beauty, the film was selected as the Icelandic entry for the Best Foreign Language film at the 86th Academy Awards.
6. Phar Lap (1983)
Based on the life of the New Zealand racehorse of the same name, Phar Lap tells the story of the connection between the horse, and his longtime caretaker Tommy Woodcock. After Phar Lap died in his arms, Woodcock reminisces about their early days together. The film blends a sports drama with a classic underdog story. Audiences might have known Phar Lap as a majestic thoroughbred racehorse, but the narrative invites them to form an emotional bond with him. The story of his connection with Woodcock, right from his days as a sickly colt is uplifting and highlights the loyalty that they have towards each other. Phar Lap may have been a national icon, but the film does a commendable job of humanizing the horse, and presents a nuanced portrayal of the harsh conditions that racehorses are sometimes put through.
7. Dreamer (2005)
Loosely based on the story of a mare named Mariah’s Storm, Dreamer is, at heart, a story about a father and his daughter bonding over their love of horses. When Ben, a horse trainer, finds himself owning an injured horse, it creates complications for his work and family life. Things begin to look up when his daughter Cale takes a liking to the horse, Sonya. While the film embellishes certain facts from the events that it is based on, it nonetheless presents a touching and deeply humane portrait of a young girl and her connection with an animal. In fact, the original character of Cale was originally supposed to be a boy, but was changed later, so Dakota Fanning could play it.
8. The Black Stallion (1979)
When a young boy, Alec Ramsey meets an Arabian stallion on the steamer he is travelling by, it sparks an adventure of a lifetime. Based on a children’s novel of the same name, the film revolves around Alec and his stallion’s escapades as they evade a shipwreck. When they are marooned on an island, they form an unbreakable connection that lasts even after they have been rescued. Actor Cass Ole, who played Alec did several of the stunts and riding sequences himself, as he had worked with horses before during his time working at a ranch. The film was widely lauded for its thrilling story, it received several accolades, including two Academy Awards nominations. It spawned many follow-up projects, including two sequels and a television series.
9. Buck (2011)
Horse trainer Dan M. “Buck” Brannaman is something of a maestro in equestrian circles. Cindy Meehl’s eponymous documentary focuses on the hardships and challenges of his life, aiming to provide a complex portrait of the man behind the horse. The film pays particular attention to his philosophy of natural horsemanship. Brannaman believes that one should use a sensitive approach towards training horses and not use punishment as motivation. The documentary revolves around his life’s struggles, including his tense relationship with his father and initial obstacles in his training career. Meehl wanted to showcase Buck’s life after meeting him in a clinic.
“Everyone should know this. Everyone should know the way he teaches,” Meehl has said of Buck’s philosophy. The documentary does a wonderful job of capturing the humanity of the bonds between man and animal, and portrays a positive message for the horse enthusiast community.
10. War Horse (2011)
Directed by the legendary Steven Spielberg, War Horse is a touching story of friendship set against war and strife. Young Albert grows up with his horse Joey, and forms a close relationship. When Joey is sold to the army before World War II, it marks the start of a long separation for Albert and his horse. The story balances a saga of bravery and loss with powerful performances from its star-studded cast, including the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Caine and Tom Hiddleston. Through the optimism of the relationship between Joey and Albert, the film presents an antithesis to the horrors of war. With a touching story and a bittersweet ending, the film possesses that quintessential, indomitable horse movie spirit.
11. Secretariat (2010)
Secretariat can easily be considered among one of the greatest horse racing films of all time. This Disney release was inspired by the real-life story of Helen Bates Chenery and her horse, Secretariat, who was a legendary thoroughbred and the first winner of a Triple Crown in 25 years. The film focuses on the early period of Chenery-Secretariat collaboration, leading up to their legendary win at Belmont Stakes. While there are considerable historical inaccuracies, the film utilizes an inspiring narrative and frantic racing sequences to create a story that is both exciting and truly heartwarming. Keep some tissues handy for this tale of an eccentric lady and her beloved horse – it will most likely make you shed some tears.
12. Hidalgo (2004)
Depicting the story of American rider Frank Hopkins and his mustang Hidalgo, the film follows Hopkin’s efforts to prove his prowess as the greatest distance rider in the world. Hidalgo has all the makings of a classic horse movie – thrilling racing sequences, a story about honor, duty and identity. Most importantly, the film features a bond so strong that it suggests the oneness of man and beast. An exceptionally charismatic performance from Viggo Mortensen and the swashbuckling adventure of the film make it a fun experience. The beautiful portrayal of horses in the film will have you falling in love with these majestic creatures. It has truly earned its spot as one of the most memorable wildhorse movies.
There you go! These are some of the best horse movies for equestrian aficionados. Horses in movies are synonymous with a feeling of freedom, identity, adventure and wilderness. When paired with humans, stories revolving around horses deliver a great deal of emotion, presenting a strong bond between horses and their riders. The connection between them and their rider stands to prove that companionship and loyalty can take many forms. Through these films, artists and horse enthusiasts have highlighted a plethora of narratives. Ranging from eye-openers regarding animal abuse, to heartfelt coming-of-age stories, these will surely strike a chord with you. Check out horse movies like Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron and Seabiscuit when you’re done with our recommendations.
An avid reader and a life-long lover of blue skies, I like to spend my time with obscure poetry and dissecting films. Currently besotted with Maupassant, art history and all things Nolan, you can find me spacing out to Queen while I look for new things to obsess with.