There is something about watching animals in movies that gives the whole experience more magic. It might be our long-standing relationship with them that stirs an unexplainable urge to keep watching, or it may be seeing that twinkle of understanding behind an animal’s eyes that makes us cheer the characters on.
Whatever the explanation may be, the inclusion of animals in movies–especially the live-action titles–gives an added dimension to the film itself. For cats and dogs, most of the time they provide mischievous comedic timing (or lots of chances for ugly crying). For larger animals like majestic and beautiful horses, they are usually portrayed as trustworthy journey companions to the protagonists.
Horses in movies sometimes provide a subtle plotline themselves, especially if their first meeting with their protagonist counterparts is far from pleasant. But just like how the experience of bonding with your horse in real life has challenges, so too is the experience of the protagonist bonding with their equine companion: it is a journey in and of itself, and in certain movies, its own adventure. From giving human actors a helpful neigh to being a strong neck to hug, horses are usually portrayed as reliable and strong-willed comrades.
Nothing beats kicking back and watching a nice movie with your family after a tiring day at the stables, and family-friendly movies offer high-quality bonding experiences for you and your kids. You can even talk about the movie afterwards, enhancing these movie nights even further.
In this article, we will be going to the movies! We will be discussing how horses are as actors, the challenges behind having these beautiful animals on set, and wrapping it up with a few recommendations on the best horse movies to watch.
How movie horses are trained
Behind every scene where an animal–be it a horse or a dog–is acting alongside its human co-stars are hours of planning and preparation. From making sure equine actors can be comfortable in a place with so many people to ensuring that the horse is able to perform specific orders, horse trainers truly have their work cut out for them.
Just like not every human being on the planet can act convincingly in front of the camera, it takes a special kind of horse to be able to pull off a convincing rear up into a majestic gallop into the sunset. With all the bright lights and loud noises of a movie set, a skittish – or “looky” as they call it in the movie industry – the horse will be a danger to its co-stars and to itself. Very strong, high-power horses are also a no-no. Jack Lilley of Movin’ On Livestock, a motion picture stable that supplies animals for film and TV, says that “We want that type that you could put [your kids] on, and say, ‘Ride him home.’”
According to Atlas Obscura, generally, the film industry favors the American Quarter Horse breed because of their generally relaxed disposition, making them safe for actors to ride and easy enough for trainers to bring onto the set.
Similar to non-actors being on a set for the first time, horses can also get a form of being “starstruck” in the form of loud noises, bright lights, and in most cases, gunfire. Trainers will have to be extra patient with their equine charges, usually giving the production crew the heads up that they will need to acclimate the horse to these anxiety-inducing environments. Horses are ridden slowly far and around the outside of the sets first, coming closer and closer until they realize that there is nothing dangerous to them.
For firearms and loud noises, Mr. Lilley in the same Atlas Obscura article says that there’s no roundabout way of doing things but to get the horses used to the sounds. Safety is still the biggest priority when shooting blanks at the ranch or while at the set.
When it is finally time for the cameras to roll, there are still a lot of considerations done by the trainers and crew to make sure the rider and horse are safe. Training courses for actors are non-negotiable, and no actor that has not been cleared to ride a horse can ever even attempt to get a foot in one of the stirrups. More importantly, for scenes requiring our animal actors to gallop at full speed, their runway has to be prepared. The ground has to be tilled and ensured that rocks and other debris are removed to make sure that it will be soft and the dangers of the horse tripping or veering off course are minimized.
Horses, just like any other animal acting in front of the camera, are strictly monitored and observed by their trainers and animal association representatives to make sure that they are not overworked, nor are they treated harshly on set. No matter if it’s the first time a young stallion is brought on set or it’s the last day of an aged mare before retiring the celebrity life, horses in movies are always cared for and made sure everything is comfortable and safe for the animal.
Celebrity horses you need to know
There is a surprising amount of movies with horses in them, both in animation and live-action. For animated movies with horses, of course, Disney movies have a sort of monopoly on them, thanks to their willful attitudes, and of course the wealth of funny horse moments you can have thanks to the lighter nature of animation.
For live-action movies however, equine actors fall into two categories: either they are the star of the show like Seabiscuit in his titular movie, or they are part of the cast but are still unforgettable like Shadowfax in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Either way, horses in movies are guaranteed scene stealers and we, the horse lovers, are better off for it.
Contrary to what you may believe, horses have just as varied a filmography as their human counterparts. Because so few horses have the proper disposition, characteristics, and personality for film work, it’s not surprising that one horse can have a long list of acting credits.
Horse and Hound notes that more often than not, a horse would be asked to play the same role in a film franchise, like Pinocchio, the horse actor Chris Helmsworth rode in both Snow White and the Huntsman and The Huntsman: Winter’s War movies. Incidentally, Pinocchio also starred alongside Angelina Jolie in both Maleficent films.
We mentioned earlier that one of the more iconic horses to grace the silver screen is the white stallion that Gandalf the White rode in The Lord of the Rings movies. Unfortunately, Blanco has since passed on but his work on what is regarded as one of the best fantasy epics in modern history will forever be remembered. (Source)
Another example of a horse that is paired with a well-known actor is Rusty together with Russell Crowe. Both actors appeared in Gladiator and Crowe’s version of Robin Hood.
Sometimes, acting runs in the family. The 2010 Disney movie Secretariat is based on the true story of the horse Secretariat and his female rider and the challenges they faced on the road to becoming a Triple Crown winner in 1973. Horsey Hooves explains that for Disney’s retelling, Trolley Boy, Secretariat’s great-great-great grandson was the main actor to portray his ancestor, as well as Longshot Max to handle some of the stunt work required for the movie.
There are times when a role would be too demanding for one steed to portray. In the true-to-life movie Hidalgo, the titular horse actor Viggo Mortensen rode was played by a total of five horses: RH Tecontender (TJ), RJ Masterbug (RJ), Impressivelybetter (Oscar), Honky Tonkin Tuff (DC), and Ima Stage Mount Two (Doc).
10 horse movies to watch
Now that we have a better understanding of the challenges of bringing horses to movie sets and have familiarized ourselves with a few of the more famous horses in cinema, what better way to wrap up this article with a list of ten movies about horses, perfect for a movie night with the family. To make things easier, we’ve split the list to have horse movies on Disney Plus, horse movies on Netflix, and animated animal movies featuring equine actors whose roles may be too wild for real horses.
Horse movies on Disney+
Black Beauty – The classic novel comes to life as the stallion Black Beauty narrates his life in 1870s England
Secretariat – This movie is based on the true story of Penny Chenery as she faces the challenge of maintaining a stable of horses while forging a winning bond with the titular horse
The Horse Whisperer – After a riding accident, a young girl and her horse must learn to heal their physical and emotional scars and learn to ride together again
Flicka – A young lady attempts to win the approval of her father and the right to take over the family ranch by attempting to tame a wild horse.
Horse movies on Netflix
Dreamer – A girl with a big love for horses takes on the challenging task of caring for an injured horse in a movie about trust and second chances
Dream Horse – The story about a woman and the challenges she faces in following her dream of training a racehorse for the Epsom Derby
Walk. Ride. Rodeo. – A young girl finds the strength to overcome an injury that left her paralyzed in order to make it to the top of competitive rodeo events
Ride Like a Girl – A bibliographical drama set in Australia about a girl who becomes the first woman champion of the Melbourne Cup
Animated animal movies with and about horses
Tangled – Yes, it’s Disney’s version of the Rapunzel story, this time being joined by the charismatic Flynn Rider and Maximus the Palace Horse
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron – This is a story of a wild stallion and his journey across the Western Frontier
Whether or not your horse makes it into show business, it’s important to give them the best tools and accessories to keep them safe and comfortable in and out of the arena.Kavallerie’s gel saddle pads, boots, and bit accessories will help keep your horse away from injuries and allow both of you to enjoy your rides more.