I’ve watched a lot of DVDs this week. It’s less than eight weeks until I return to camp and with a herd of horses – at least five of them new-to-us – and the prospect of being part of a team of mostly first-time staff, there are a few things I’m worried about: my boss wants to make better use of natural horsemanship techniques in order to hopefully ensure that the horses are more relaxed and easier to handle on the ground, so I’m trying to learn as much as possible between now and then.
I read about the movie Buck – a documentary following renowned natural horseman Buck Brannaman on his travels – a little while ago and managed to borrow a copy from a friend this weekend. And, essentially, that’s what has brought me here: there are many horse and pony books – both fiction and non – available for equine-mad kids and adults alike, but representation of horses in film and TV is still patchy at best. I often find that the passion for, as well as the complexities of horses are lost in translation when they are brought to life in film and TV rather than in books, but there are some pieces that I adore.
Most of the movies reviewed below are well known, but here’s my take from a horse lover’s standpoint.
Black Beauty (1994) – perhaps the most famous book about horses of them all. If this were adapted for a movie now, I think I’d be highly suspicious, because I love it so much. When the movie was released, I was just excited, but even re-watching it as an adult, I think it’s incredibly well done. Twenty years on, it’s also become a game of “spot the eventual celeb”, as some of those in minor roles have gone on to bigger things. Perhaps it’s nostalgia, but I think the adaptation is strong – there’s very little of the story left out, which is often a big problem with novel to film conversions. I’m also impressed with the condition of the horses, which I find realistic (more on this in a later review!) – the way they made the protagonist look so poor (that’s horse-speak for skinny) towards the end was impressive. My only real problems with it are very minor, and one isn’t even horse-related: Ginger is played by a gelding (though who’s to really complain? That could possibly be regarded as being forward-thinking these days!) and, when Beauty takes his family to the train station so that they can re-locate to warmer climes, the station used is Horsted Keynes (which is in the south of England, near to where I live)… which would be fine, if all of the exposition prior to this hadn’t led us to believe that Beauty et al were firmly based in Yorkshire (sadly, movie representation of Sussex geography is notoriously poor, as anyone who has watched Wimbledon and knows the area will attest).
The Horse Whisperer (1999) – another book to movie adaptation and, in an uncharacteristic move, I actually bothered to read the book years after I saw the movie. They have different endings, and I can never decide which I dislike more. The Horse Whisperer came at a time when natural horsemanship seemed to be gaining popularity in the UK, but I couldn’t have cared any less about it. That said, I remember enjoying the movie – perhaps because I related to the age of Grace, the girl injured in the accident at the beginning, and her early teenage angst. My main problem in horse terms with the movie isn’t unique – there are many other posts online regarding this – and some of the natural horsemanship elements divide wider opinion (the use of hobbling, for example, remains something I fail to see the logic of). The main issue is this: at the beginning of the book and the movie, the horse which survives suffers an enormous one-off physical trauma, caused by ice, another horse and a truck. But the horse apparently becomes nervous of humans. Common wisdom is that it generally takes a horse much longer to fear humans, although a fear of vehicles, the particular location of the incident, or being too close to another horse whilst ridden would be some of the understandable outcomes of this incident. But hey, that’s fiction for you. When I later learned more about the way this movie was made and the relationship which developed between Robert Redford and Buck Brannaman, I was impressed with Redford’s portrayal.
War Horse (2011) – I’ll confess that I haven’t read the book, nor have I seen the stage production (though universal opinion of that is that it’s incredible). I’ve also got a strong dislike for Steven Spielberg, which put me off watching this for a long time. And I tried to like this film. I wanted to, honestly. But I just couldn’t. My main problem may seem trivial but here it is: it’s not Black Beauty – the horses are clean and have a healthy (bordering on fat in some shots) shape throughout which, to me, didn’t seem realistic. Yes, animals used in film and TV have to be properly cared for, but a bit of dirt for filming followed by a thorough groom at the end of the day won’t hurt them. I certainly wouldn’t condone starving a horse or over-working it for the sake of the camera, but a bit of mud and dust doesn’t cause any harm. It didn’t help that it felt to me like this movie was nine hours long. The emotion which many people feel watching this was sadly lost on me, and it’s not one I’ll re-visit.
Seabiscuit (2003) – One of the most visible horse movies of recent years, partly due to the main human character being played by Tobey Maguire – better known at the time as Spiderman and hugely popular with it. A Twitter discussion with other bloggers recently produced the comment that the racing scenes in this movie look rather synthetic, and I’d be inclined to agree. In addition, it’s obvious to any horse enthusiast that a variety of horses were used to portray Seabiscuit, it felt like little to no effort was made to ensure that they had similar builds, colouring or markings. Entertaining? Yes. As a social commentary piece? I liked it. As a horse movie? Don’t hate it, but also don’t love it.
Secretariat (2010) – This was recommended to me during the aforementioned Twitter discussion, and I’m glad it was. What’s interesting is that the reviews I’ve read online make much of the social commentary aspect of this movie, but to me that part of the storyline felt very muddled – I wasn’t sure if they were trying to push gender equality or the contemporary anti-war stance, because for me neither came through as strongly as it could have… then again, it’s a Disney movie, so perhaps as a piece it was generally confused and trying to achieve too much. But back to the horse angle: again, it’s an underdog story, and another with a happy ending, though it still failed to move me somewhat. Perhaps it’s that racing isn’t really what does it for me.
International Velvet (1978) – I’m going to skip National Velvet, I’m afraid (time for another confession: I’ve not read it, and I don’t think I’ve watched the movie all the way through!), but I adore International Velvet. Yes, it’s a little dated. And yes, as pointed out by someone I follow on Twitter, it’s a tad unrealistic:
The joys of unfeasible equine films. Take International Velvet. “Jump that 2ft cross-pole. Great! You’re on the Olympic team.”
— Victoria Spicer (@VickySpicer) March 9, 2014
But again, it’s a faithful adaptation of a book I very much enjoyed, and it covers what is possibly my favourite sport. Dubiously straightforward qualification for the National team aside, common popular criticism of the film is the aeroplane scene. Sadly, the fact that I’ve never successfully cleared a two foot cross pole in the presence of a National selector means that I’m not qualified to comment on the matter, but a bit of drama in a fictional piece doesn’t put me off. Because who hasn’t then dreamed of waking up to a fantastically talented newborn foal appearing in their garden and carrying them to Olympic glory?
Buck (2011) – finally, my most recent viewing experience. Unsurprisingly, given that it’s a documentary, this is the one which has taught me the most in real world terms. There were a couple of parts which I found utterly shocking (in a sense that I couldn’t quite believe that one part wasn’t censored more, and another explaining a technique I’d never heard of but which makes even rollkur look a little tame), but having reflected on it, I think this documentary is brilliantly made. There are some tough words spoken to some owners, but the truth is delivered fantastically. Whether you teach riding, horsemanship or something else altogether, it’s an interesting look at how someone goes about their business. And, for me, it was a reminder that you don’t have to subscribe completely to the methods someone uses and wish to emulate them absolutely – it’s acceptable to disagree with some elements whilst finding a person in general to be admirable or inspirational. It’s not an instructional DVD which you’ll watch and come away from being able to hypnotise any horse, but it is an interesting look at the life and methods of one of natural horsemanship’s current leading trainers.
As with many physical skills, it’s difficult to accurately represent riding on screen without obviously using doubles, CGI or other forms of trickery, or compromising somewhat (for example, by using quieter horses who aren’t truly capable of winning Olympic gold medals or internationally-renowned races, but who do look pretty on camera). As I mentioned, there’s the extra element with animal performers that they must be cared for on set and used ethically, things which could hold production and accurate representation back somewhat. There will always be some degree of sacrifice in the name of budget or entertainment, but I feel that, in general, equestrianism is fortunate to provide good source material and enjoyable results.
My top tips are: Secretariat and Black Beauty are perfect for families (just have the tissues ready for when Ginger rolls past on the cart…), whilst The Horse Whisperer and International Velvet (if you can get hold of a copy: criminally, it’s never had an official DVD release) are great for teens who need some positive inspiration. Buck is definitely more of an adult viewing experience (without spoiling it too much, one horse gets incredibly aggressive).
Do you, like me, watch horse films with a critical eye? Which are your favourites?