There’s something very special about a horse movie. These majestic animals are perfect for the big screen and you don’t have to be a horse lover to appreciate their elegance and power. Of course, if you are already an admirer of horses, it’s even better!
Amongst this movie genre, you will find classics, epics, war movies, action movies, and some great horse racing movies. The important thing is that the horse is the star and is treated with respect. In the best storylines, it is the horse that saves the day and teaches their human companions some important lessons.
If you are new to horse moves, we’ve narrowed down the field to what we think are the best horse movies to watch. Let’s see what you think!
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1. Black Beauty
The story of Black Beauty is regarded by many as the single most iconic horse movie of all time. It is based on a best-selling book that was published in 1870 and which was the first fictional animal autobiography ever published. It has given rise to many film adaptions – the first being in 1921 and the most recent being Disney’s remake starring a voice-over narration by Kate Winslet. This changed the gender of the original horse character.
The plot follows the life of a horse who starts off as a carefree foal on an English farm but endures great hardship throughout their life. It includes both cruelty and kindness and has several interwoven lessons on morality and kindness. At the core of the movie, is the relationship between the horse and an orphaned teenage girl. Watch as many film adaptions of this evergreen plot as you can and choose your favorite.
2. National Velvet
National Velvet is another iconic horse movie, released in 1944 and starring Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor. It is worth watching just for Taylor’s first assigned starring role – at the tender age of 12 years. But the character that steals the show is The Pie (short for The Piebald) – the gorgeous horse. This is also based on a novel, this one was written by Enid Bagnold, and focuses on the themes of dreams and ambitions and what happens when they don’t come true. Although not many people realize that the book was loosely based on a true story which makes it even more poignant.
Taylor plays the role of Velvet, a young girl who dreams about winning the Grand National – England’s most prestigious horse race; described in the movie as a “large dream for a little girl”. In some ways, this is a novel for our age because it highlights how ordinary women and girls can accomplish great things, even when the world is against them. As long as they have a fabulous horse on their side of course!
Whilst we are on the subject of horse races, we have to give a mention to Seabiscuit. This is another tale based on a true story. Starring Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges, the action is set in the middle of the Great Depression. The movie was released in 2003 and is all about the underdogs making it good in the end. The plot follows businessman Charles Howard who is trying to rebuild his life after the death of his child and end of his marriage. The movie works because of the strong characters. This includes Tom Smith, a horse trainer, and of course Seabiscuit.
Seabiscuit is a small thoroughbred horse and has a limp with, it seems as first, no chance of winning anything. But then jockey ‘Red’ Pollard arrives on the scene, with his own set of physical and psychological issues. He is too large to be a jockey, has had a difficult upbringing and is an angry young man. Tom, Red and Seabiscuit have all been labeled as outsiders by the traditional horse racing community and the plot follows their efforts to win against the odds. Eventually, we find out that Seabiscuit becomes one of the most successful thoroughbreds of all time. But more importantly, this horse inspires a whole nation just when they need it most.
Continuing with the historical theme is Warhorse, set during the first World War. This movie was produced by DreamWorks Pictures and became both a box office and critical success with sell-out audiences and many positive reviews. The American Film Institute named it one of the top ten best films of 2011 and it was nominated for six Academy Awards.
This is yet another movie based on a novel. Warhorse is a novel published by the famous writer Michael Morpurgo in 1982 and has also been adapted for the theatre. It follows the fortunes of a bay Irish Hunter named Joey, purchased by a Devon farmer who forms a close bond with the son of the farm. Even though he is not a natural plow horse he learns the skill and saves the family farm from financial ruin. However, the family are eventually forced to sell Joey to the army and he is captured by the Germans.
A young German soldier takes the horse with him when he deserts the army and Joey eventually ends up in the care of a young French girl called Emilie. After a series of tragic events, we learn of Joey’s final fate. This is a tear-jerker and an emotional roller coaster that reflects on man’s inhumanity to man and the futility of war. The main character, however, is always Joey the warhorse.
Starring Diane Lane and John Malcovich, Secretariat is a feel-good movie from 2010 that is another version of a racehorse winning against the odds. But this winning formula has a feminist twist in this movie as housewife Penny guides her wayward racehorse to glory. The action takes place in 1973 and, once again, the plot is based on a true story.
The action follows the Denver Housewife and mother as she returns home to run the family stables after her mother’s death. She acquires Secretariat as a foal who is initially very unsuccessful and she ends up in debt and having to syndicate the horse. To make the deal a success, the horse has to win the Triple Crown which has not been done in 25 years. This movie has a happy ending and what happens next is no secret – it is part of US horse racing history.
As with many other horse movies, this has a theme of outsiders beating the odds to achieve success and serves as an inspiration to underdogs or should we say ‘underhorses’ everywhere!
6. Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron
This is the only animated movie of our collection and very much focuses on the horse’s point of view. It was released by movie giants DreamWorks in 2002 and was a box office success as well as being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Since its launch, Spirit has gone on to found a successful media franchise with computer animation and a Netflix series called Spirit Riding Free. A spin-off from this original movie was released in June 2021 and is called Sprit Untamed.
Spirit, the stallion, is the main character of the plot and is so wild that he could only really be portrayed in animation. His voice is narrated by Matt Damon through inner dialogue. The story follows Spirit who gets captured by the US Cavalry during the American Indian wars but is freed by a young Lakota brave with who he forms a strong bond. Unlike many other animated horse movies, the equine characters here communicate through sounds and body language just like real horses. We share Sprit’s adventures to try to save his homeland and find love. There’s plenty in this movie to touch your heart but also enough action to keep you on the edge of your seat.
7. The Horse Whisperer
This 1998 Western movie is the first that Robert Redford both directed and starred in. It is based on a novel by Nicholas Evans also called the Horse Whisperer. The author carried out extensive research into horse training methods for his book and there was a horse trainer adviser on set. Even so, there was still some controversy over the methods employed.
Scarlett Johansson plays Grace, a young girl recovering from the trauma of a tragic horse-riding accident in which she is severely injured and her horse, Pilgrim, is traumatized. It seems that there is no hope for rehabilitating the horse but Grace’s Mom (Annie) refuses to give up on him and is convinced that if the horse can recover from the experience so can Grace. They travel to a remote ranch in Montana where they recruit Tom Booker – the horse whisperer played by Redford.
This movie is also a story about the developing love between Annie and Booker but the focus of the narrative is on the way in which Grace re-engages with Pilgrim.
8. Running Free
Running Free was released in 2000 but it’s reception was mixed. Many critics were not fans yet horse-lovers can still find something to connect to in this movie. It stars Jan Decleir and Chase Moore and is a visually stunning and ultimately inspiring tale of human and animal spirit.
At the heart of the plot is a friendship between a young boy and an abandoned young cold called Lucky. The action takes place in an African mining town in Namibia during World War One and follows the pair stand up to cruelty and make an escape to a life that they both deserve.
9. The Derby Stallion
Horse trainers are often quite complex characters in movies and have their fair share of unresolved issues. The trainer in The Derby Stallion is no exception to this! It stars Bill Cobbs as the trainer and Zac Efron as Patrick – a 15-year-old who is forced to play baseball by his Dad but hates it. Instead, he persuades his parents to let Houston, the trainer, teach him to ride. This movie has tragedy and love and enough horse racing action to keep equine fans happy. This is predominantly a family film that is suitable for children, but it does touch on the themes of race relations, class, alcoholism.
If you can cope with watching a horse get injured then you will fall in love with Dreamer. This movie is also inspired by a true story and stars Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning as the father-daughter lead roles.
Persuaded by his daughter, horse trainer Ben Crane agrees to adopt a severely injured horse and give the mare another chance rather than allowing her to be destroyed. In doing so, he loses his job. But with the help of his daughter, Cale, and his father, he gives the horse another chance at the racecourse.
There are plenty of cliches in this movie but the performances have been strong enough to earn it some positive reviews. At the end of the day, it is a heart-warming tale of how the love for a horse can heal damaged human relationships.
11 The Man From Snowy River
Released in 1982, The Man From Snowy River is an Australian Western inspired by a poem by Banjo Peterson of the same name. It stars Kirk Douglas who plays two characters. Walt Disney also released a sequel to the film called Return to Snowy River.
This is a coming-of-age movie about a young man who needs to prove himself. He starts a job at a horse ranch where he is treated badly by the older cowboys but the rancher’s daughter Jessica (played by Sigrid Thornton) falls for him when he helps her break-in a wild colt and saves her life. The plot follows his quest to prove his innocence when he is accused of losing an expensive horse and to prove that he is worthy of Jessica’s hand.
This, our last movie choice, is one in which the critics felt that the horses made the big difference and were ultimately responsible for the success of the movie. Sandra Hall, a critic from The Bulletin sums it up “the horses deliver the goods.”
Surely, that’s what we all want from a great horse movie!
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