Saturday, December 3, 2011

Five Horse Myths in Movies & TV

I'm a sap. I love horse movies. I even love movies that are not about horses, but have lots of horses in them. That includes the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Kevin Costner's hated "Postman," the super sad "Dances with Wolves" and others. I grew up watching "My Little Pony" cartoons. I could probably name every Disney horse ever drawn. However, any time I watch one one of these horse-filled flicks, I can't help but be horrified at the downright wrong things portrayed as "true horse facts." Here's a list of the worst horse myths in the media:

MYTH 1)  Ponies Are Great for Kids. From the My Little Pony franchise to "Misty of Chincoteague," ponies have long been marketed as perfect pals for children. They're cute, they're tiny but can be ridden, and they eat less, all appealing traits. Small equine + small person = perfect match, right?  


Ponies don't make good mounts for kids any more than Tasmanian devils make good house pets. Just because something is small and fluffy doesn't mean it won't chew your face off. 

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm sure there are a few well-behaved ponies out there. However, every single one I've met was an evil, power-hungry, biting bastard. There's three reasons why ponies tend to be horrible monsters:

1. Ponies can't be ridden by adults. True ponies are just too small. There are ways of exercising and training ponies that don't involve riding (kind of), but the point is, ponies don't actually get ridden by competent adults-- so they're never quite as well-trained as they should be.

2. Ponies aren't bred for children. Somewhat like dogs, horses have undergone thousands of years of selective breeding in order to refine them into trainable, specialized, hard-working companions. Ponies, on the other hand, have remained basically the same since the dawn of time. Only in the last two hundred years or so have we really bred ponies as companions-- and we tend to breed them for size and color, not niceness. As a result, the average pony has the instincts and temperament of a maddened wildebeest.

3. All ponies have a Napoleonic Complex. (They're small, so they have to prove they're just as tough as anything else.) Combine that trait with the aforementioned wild survival instincts, and you've got a beast that will bully huge draft horses, chew through fences, hog all the hay and bite anyone that gets close. My first pony was named "Sharkie," due to her habit of circling around and around, biting anyone that came within her kill zone.

The moral of the story is that children should ride well-trained older horses or small horses, not ponies. (Yes, there's a difference between small horses and ponies. Let's not get into that right now.) Unless, of course, you want them to be traumatized. I know of a few kids who deserve that.

Ponies: Evil like Cthulu

Horse Movie That Got It Right: None as far as I know. The pony conspiracy is widespread.

MYTH 2) Horses make noise constantly. Movie-makers like to portray horses as creatures who whinny, snort, neigh, grunt and even scream on a regular basis-- in fact, every time they interact with a human or another horse. Cavalry charge? Horses whinny and neigh constantly, even while running. Human friend appears? Horse snorts and whinnies. Horse fights people/other horse/predator? Lots of screaming and grunting. Hollywood can't stand a silent character.

In reality, horses don't make much noise. They do call to each other, but mostly to new horses or departing/returning friends. They will also call out when food is arriving, rather like a toddler that yells when it sees cookies. However, horses will rarely "speak" to each other when they're together. The reason? Horses do most of their communication with body language. They're prey animals, so they have no need to vocalize to cooperate over distances (like a hunting wolf pack) and don't make noise that draws the attention of predators (like a hunting wolf pack).

If a horse pins its ears back at you, or starts leaving you nasty Facebook comments, watch out.

 Here's a great example of a real horse fight that takes place in near silence. Hollywood, of course, would consider this unimpressive, and edit in lots of horsey screaming:

Horse Movie That Got it Right:
The beloved 2002 DreamWorks movie, "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmarron." This is one of the only animated movies starring a silent animal character. Sure, Matt Damon does a voice-over for Spirit's most important thoughts, but Spirit himself never speaks-- and most of his communication in the movie is done via movement/body language.

Translation: "Your face looks stupid."

MYTH 3) Horses are basically large, rideable dogs. Pixar's "Bullseye" from the Toy Story movies is a perfect example. Disney, however, is the biggest promoter of this dangerous idea. In Disney movies, the only difference between dogs and horses is that the horses are bigger-- and therefore more capable of inflicting comedic damage:

From The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Phoebus says, "Achiles, sit!"

Unfortunately, horses are closer in behavior to oversize, schizophrenic deer. As high-strung prey animals, their first instinct is to run from danger-- and "danger" means anything that looks even remotely weird. Horses are known to shy away from shadows, mailboxes, plastic bags and their own tails. A few horses become so well trained that they are capable of acting as riot police mounts or parade animals, but the average horse is hardly likely to put up with the kind of crap Disney says they will: fighting duels (Hunchback), sliding down mountains (Mulan), boarding lifeboats (Road to El Dorado), sniffing out and retrieving bad guys (Tangled) etc. This isn't such a big problem; no one really wants to try these things with horses. The bigger problem is trust.

Thanks to Disney and cartoons like "Horseland," little girls get their first horse or pony and immediately assume the animal won't hurt them, and can be convinced to do anything with enough petting and kind words. Horses, however, are not dogs. They don't feel the need to cuddle, cooperate with, or befriend humans like dogs do. They're trainable, but biologically, they're just not very friendly or loyal. Unlike wolves and dogs, horses haven't needed to evolve the ability to cooperate with each other on stuff-- like hunting. Horses don't mate for life, and while they do have preferred "buddies," since their main method of survival is running the hell away from danger, friendships go only as far as the next cougar attack. Too slow my friend? Too bad. Finally, horses don't really express much affection physically; while they'll groom each other, there's no cuddling up in a den or sharing a nice dead deer together. All of this means that while tamed horses are willing to suck up to you for treats and scratches, they pretty much don't give a crap whether you live or die.

Please keep in mind that I do love my horse, and I believe she has some affection for me in return; it's just that I hold no illusions about horses. They are wonderful animals. Most of them will work hard for you, and some will perform amazing acts of heroism, but at heart they are what God made them: prey animals. To try to re-make them into human-like creatures (or even dog-like creatures) is at best wishful thinking, and at worst, dangerous folly.

Throughout history, horses have habitually bucked off, kicked and run away from their riders whenever they felt threatened or overly energetic. Those trusting little girls find this out soon after getting their first concussions.

"Awww, your first CAT scan! This is going in the scrapbook."
 Horse Movie That Got it Right: Seabiscuit. In his movie, the famous horse takes on jockeys, grooms and owners with rage, doing everything from kicking on stall doors to biting and rearing. True, there's plenty of pity-him pathos to explain away Seabiscuit's violence (the narrator tells us that Seabiscuit was mistreated in his youth) but at least we get to see that horse behavior isn't all nuzzles and nickers. We also see the jockey "Red" Pollard getting seriously injured by a spooked racehorse.

MYTH 4) Wild horses live wonderful, free, happy lives. It's a uniquely American image: the beautiful mustang, galloping powerfully across the range. We associate wild horses with a mystical sense of wilderness, space, majesty and freedom. The truth, however, is less pretty.

Mustangs live in the most rugged, unwanted country in the USA-- there's not much grass, and often little water. Temperatures in these mountainous and desert lands range from forty degrees below zero to one hundred and ten in the shade. Mustangs frequently die from thirst, starvation, cold and untreated medical conditions. They are preyed upon by mountain lions and wolves. Stallions may fight to the death over mares, and mares in too-small bands often become pregnant before they're mature. And that's before the humans get involved.

Out west, even the worst pastureland is treasured by cattle ranchers, many of whom resent mustangs. Ranchers have been known to poison mustangs, shoot them and drive them over cliffs to free up precious water and grazing for their cattle. In order to try to maintain a balance, the Federal Bureau of Land Management attempts to keep horses within certain ranges (usually the least desireable lands) and often rounds them up by helicopter. Once captured, the exhausted and traumatized horses are destined for auctions. A few are sterilized and re-released. You can even bid for one on the BLM's website here. They usually sell for less than $200.

Mustang Black Stallion: Sold at the BLM facility in Hines, OR for just $250, complete with gaping neck wound!

Horse Movie That Got it Right: Hidalgo. The movie is based on a fraudulent story created by Frank Hopkins, an "endurance rider" that spent more time telling lies for his own financial gain than riding horses. However, the movie does bring to light the plight of unwanted Mustangs in the American west.

MYTH 5) In the Good Old Days... well-bred, shiny horses got to pull nice carriages. Movies showing any time period before 1920 generally have at least one picturesque scene where a well-groomed draft horse from a gleaming stable pulls a shiny carriage down a cobblestone street (or a shady country lane).

In reality, horsepower was used for absolutely everything-- not just pretty passenger vehicles. Fire-fighting wagons and hose carts, river barges, garbage wagons, milk wagons, mail trucks, lawn mowers, cranes, even snow plows. Horses had to do every shitty, hard job that vehicles and machinery do today-- and many were treated as machines instead of living animals. Many were bred without much regard to conformation or temperament, since they were pretty much disposable. Probably two of the worst equine jobs belonged to coal mine ponies and treadmill horses:

"Pit ponies" worked underground in mines almost their entire lives, rarely or never seeing grass or daylight. They performed backbreaking work in dangerous, coal-dust-filled conditions.

Treadmill horses powered machinery in factories. They faced a life of heavy indoor work, constantly pulling "uphill" without rest. 

 Horse Movie That Got it Right: Black Beauty. Although none of the movie versions of Anna Sewell's famous book portray all of the factual cruelty she exposed, they give a better representation of the life of the average historical horse than many movies.


  1. Did you ever see Littlest Horse Thieves? I watched it nonstop as a kid; it is basically super depressing (though probably not as depressing as the live action Black Beauty from the 90s, which, yeah, still leaves out quite a bit of the book's depression-factor) but ANYWAY ... it's how I first learned about pit ponies.

  2. What an interesting post. You are spot-on with your observations. I'm trying to think if there are any others that "got it right" but can't offhand... certainly not "War Horse," with all the running through barbed wire virtually unscathed (loved the movie but that scene just pissed me off). Black Beauty has done so much to open the eyes of people towards the often-lousy life of horses. Maybe someone needs to make a feature-length movie about the miserable lives of the so-called unwanted horses here and their thrilling trip to slaughter, and the rest of the world will start paying attention!

    BTW, I know quite a bit about pit ponies but I'm shocked that I actually have never heard of "treadmill horses." That's HORRIBLE! Poor things...