War Horse, a movie based off a famous play that makes use of seriously epic puppetry, tells the story of a horse who’s swept up into World War I. As a film, it falls short in several places and does well in others, but I’m no movie critic and I won’t pretend to be. However, I am a horseperson, so it behooves me (haha. get it?) to point out the movie’s major incongruities with reality when it comes to horses. War Horse is certainly not the only movie guilty of misrepresentation, and horses are not the only misrepresented characters in film. Nevertheless, here are a few of the things that War Horse gets wrong – and a few things it gets right – about horses.
What it gets wrong
1. Horses love it when you’re all up in their grill.
I spent half this movie waiting for someone to get their nose broken or their toes stepped on. Try this social experiment: Casually reach out and caress a new friend or coworker’s nose. Rest your face against theirs and tell them what a pretty boy/girl they are and how you’d like to feed them a carrot. I know from personal experience that Most strangers find that to be rather off-putting. Horses aren’t wild about it, either.
Horses have monocular vision. That means that while their peripheral vision is exceptional, they do have a few blind spots. One is behind them. Another extends in a cone-like shape for three feet in front of their face. If a horse can’t see you and you’re whispering sweet nothings into that blind spot at the wrong moment, you’ll get clocked in the noggin. While many horses appreciate having their faces rubbed by a familiar friend while they’re relaxing, it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea to be nose to nose with their strange human visitor.
2. Horses understand and respond to arbitrary phrases in the human tongue.
“Come on girl! I believe in you!”
Camera focuses on horse’s eyeball as she processes this statement.
Horse wins race/saves family from bankruptcy/pulls little Timmy out of a well/etc.
One bright Saturday at my first dressage competition with my old horse, I watched as competitors hung blue ribbons on stall doors and placed prize mugs out on display. I didn’t care about the ribbons. But deep at the core of my teenaged being, I had a primal need to win that mug. I looked my little horse dead in the eye and said, “Mr. Pooches, let’s get that mug.” Later that day, I marched into the registration office with a big grin on my face to collect my precious winnings.
I swore up and down that my horse won that mug for me because I told him I wanted it. It’s not true. We won the class because he did his job and I did mine. And the class was small. And someone fell off.
3. Horses are humans, too!
In one of many scenes in the movie that express our faulty hope that horses decipher complex situations like humans do, Joey, the film’s equine hero, witnesses his injured buddy being harnessed to pull heavy artillery up a steep hill. Joey gallops up to take his place, obviously aware that his pal’s life is in danger if he’s unable to pull the heavy load. This is certainly a romantic notion of equine behavior, though it doesn’t do horses any favors.
When we make the mistake of expecting our horses to think like humans, we don’t give them a fair shot of understanding us or being understood by us. Instead, we take it personally when they don’t understand a lesson, fail to respond to our cues, or spook at something that we think is abitrary.
Horsemen and women must never forget that horses don’t think like humans. They think like horses.
4. Riding/Training horses is so easy, a caveman could do it!
The entire theatre must have been populated by horsepeople, because we all let out a collective snort of bemusement when this little untruth reared its head a few times. Many a horse has been untrained at best and traumatized at worst by people who don’t know what they are doing. Learning to be a good rider takes years. Learning to be a great rider takes a lifetime.
5. Horses are Chatty Cathy’s.
Movie makers and audiences like to imagine that horses excercise their vocal cords. Uh-lot. While some talk more than others, horses are generally quiet animals. Don’t be sad when every horse you meet doesn’t greet you with a welcoming nicker. It doesn’t mean they’re not happy to see the treats you brought them you.
Horses communicate largely through non-verbal cues. Pinned ears, a wringing tail, and a gaping mouth all suggest that they’re not entirely enthused about their rider’s technique or saddle fit, while a soft eye and a lowering of the head tells you that they feel comfortable and safe in your company.
What it gets right
1. Horses inspire us.
During Joey’s career as a war horse, he makes his way through the lives of several different characters, all of whom are touched by his beauty, courage, and power. He’s referred to as both “remarkable” and “miraculous”.
Horses have faithfully accompanied human civilization throughout the ages. Their legacy is indeed both remarkable and miraculous, apparent in almost every aspect of cultural advancement from empire building to food gathering. Reverred by early native americans as the “sacred dog” and forever immortalized in art as old as 16,000 years, the horse is permanently etched into the history and hearts of humankind. Shakespeare described them as a source of both power and humility. The sketchpads of youth around the world are filled with images of them. Horses have always enchanted us, and always will.
2. “A horse is at least human, for God’s sake.”
J.D. Salinger’s quote rings true. Juxtaposed against the imagery of humans stumbling around in the muddy, bloody wreckage of war, reeling from the horror they’ve witnessed and caused, the warhorses quietly endure. They sweat, bleed, die, and mourn their lost companions. The poet Ronald Duncan articulates the humanity of horses in “In praise of the horse”:
“Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride,
friendship without envy, or beauty without vanity?
…He serves without servility; he has fought without enmity.
There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent;
There is nothing so quick, nothing more patient…”
Anyone who has spent any length of time with horses can tell you that even the worst behaved of them exhibit signs of intelligence, compassion, and patience that humans often fail at.
3. The ladies love them some horses.
It’s true. We do.
4. Horses and emotions don’t mix.
Verily, I say unto you: whosoever approaches a horse with pride or anger in his heart shall repent or else be condemned to the total destruction of their ego.
Horses are excellent preparers of humble pie, as demonstrated in a scene in which Joey’s teenaged owner tries to take still-green Joey over a formidable stone wall to impress a girl. (see #3) Pat Brown wrote, “A horse can lend its rider the speed and strength he or she lacks … but the rider who is wise remembers it is no more than a loan.”
Sometimes, that speed and strength is demonstrated by how fast you sail through the air after parting ways with said horse and how hard you hit the ground when you land.
5. Horses and barbed wire also do not mix.
In one tragic scene, Joey is spooked into a frenzied gallop by the chaos of trench warfare. He makes a wild dash to escape, futiley plunging through several stands of barbed wire until he finally becomes so entangled that he crashes to the ground, unable to rise from the mud.
It doesn’t take trench warfare to spook a horse. As noted earlier, horses have a hard time seeing things directly in front of them. Something as thin as barbed wire makes it even more difficult for horses to spot it, particularly when they’re already moving at a high speed.
6. Horses are easily bribed.
Joey’s early training begins with a bucket of oats. No shame in that. Horses eat. In the wild, they spend over 60% of their time grazing or in search of grazing material. Food is a highly motivational tool for many of them.
7. Wrapping ropes, reins, or anything else around your body is a bad idea.
Joey’s owner makes the mistake of assuming horses think like humans (see above) and places the reins over his head to offer Joey some solidarity by showing that “he’s got the collar, too”. In silly rabbit’s mind, this will make Joey feel a little better about having to plow a field. When his owner cracks a whip at him, Joey bolts, dragging the overturned plow and human along behind him.
8. Dudes love horses, too.
Who doesn’t, really?
Movies with horses in them do not exist to instruct their audience on the true nature of equine behavior. They exist to tell stories with horses in them, and the art of storytelling would be far less entertaining without a little exaggeration here and there. In any case, thank God for storytellers, and thank God for horses.
Author’s note: Hollywood is notorious for driving equestrians crazy with misrepresentations of horses in film. Any movie or scene in particular that you got a bone to pick with? Share it in the comments below.