“She Chipped”: Five Problems With Horses on Screen

Further evidence that Hollywood needs to employ more equestrian consultants.

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Stock Photo Rider
Average schooling session, as imagined by Hollywood movie producers.

I can keep my horsey side down to a dull roar when necessary. I try not to chew uninterested laypeople’s ears off about breeches, I graciously exclude my husband from tack shop trips (unless it’s on the way, of course), and I only have three horse photos in my office (full disclosure: they’re the only photos in my office). But when it comes to watching horse scenes in films and on television, you can forget about the suspension of my horsiness and expect a Judge My Ride meets Siskel & Ebert-style takedown of each and every actor who touches a horse on the screen. Any of the below cardinal sins is bound to draw a complaint from me:

Bad Riding

Oh, the riding. I know. It’s not usually a critical element of the story. And sure, not all riding scenes are as painful as the climactic jumping class in Something to Talk About (the plopping on the horse’s back, the floppy reins, the sloppy turns…), but for us horse people, these scenes are cringe-worthy. When I was young, Centerstage came out and tortured young ballerinas everywhere by marrying a storyline irresistible to pre-teens with objectively awful ballet. And as we left the theater, I remember rolling my eyes as my ballet-loving friends picked on the terrible dancers, because, of course, that’s not the point of Centerstage. And that’s probably how my husband felt when he asked me to repeat myself while re-watching the end of Something to Talk About for the 99th time, and I repeated, through a mouthful of food, “She chipped.”

Bad Clothes

Happily for us, the equestrian world has progressed beyond thick wool coats, ill-fitting tall boots, and black velvet helmets that perch cockeyed on your head and strap the heat of the sun directly to your brain. Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone’s told Hollywood, because they seem to think it’s a permanent ensemble. I can’t fault the period pieces, but I can fault the rest of cinema, and I will.

Bad example: just what in the name of Georgina Bloomberg is going on in the pre-bridal shower scene in Bridesmaids when Kristen Wiig is being transported on what appears to be an albino mustang pony walked by someone inexplicably wearing such a helmet? Better example: Vincent Cadby in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.

Bad Writing

Okay, Charlotte York, if your favorite horse, Taddy, was “brown,” I’m willing to bet you weren’t such a serious horseperson before your Sex and the City days. And while I understand it’s an easy way to convey a little extra information, on exactly no planets do horse show ring announcers/commentators say things like “Pilgrim moves with absolute confidence at the command of Miss MacLean” (The Horse Whisperer) or “…riding Silver Bells, affectionately known to most of you as Possum” (Something to Talk About).

Just as worthy of a wince is the fact that in The Horse Whisperer, we’re led to believe Grace is riding Pilgrim, a chestnut with a star, in the video she watches in her room—though the horse she rides in the video is a bay. Whatever, it’s still “brown,” right? *Palpitations*

Not Telling Me Enough

Maybe the point of your film has nothing to do with horses, but are you honestly going to just casually drop the fact that someone has a pony or is going to a horse show and not tell me more? You’re not going to share what’s up with the horse poster in the main character’s room (kudos to Bob’s Burgers for repeatedly backing up Tina’s horse-obsessed bedroom)? Are we ever going to know why Clarissa Darling has a riding helmet next to her bed on Clarissa Explains it All? I NEED ANSWERS.

No Helmets

I get it. I’m asking too much. It’s a movie (and it’s nearly every movie with horses, from National Velvet to The Parent Trap). But what I’m about to say is not controversial. Helmets are lifesaving devices. Are they extremely sexy? They could be, if Hollywood would update its wardrobe. But I’d rather see a cockeyed black velvet helmet than no helmet at all.

Are any of the above about to stop me from watching all of these movies and scenes, just because they feature horses? Absolutely not. Do you have pet peeves about horse movies? Tell us below! You know what misery loves.

18 COMMENTS

  1. I think TV/movie directors ask if there is anyone on set who knows anything about horses, and if there is, they are immediately fired. Here’s a good one: Champions – true story of Aldaniti and his jockey for the Grand National, Bob Champion. Aldaniti appears as himself – a real treat.

  2. When the horses don’t act up, like I understand most don’t act up, but they have bad days, and when those actors are tugging and ripping at that poor horse’s mouth? If I were a horse, I’d buck them right off.

  3. When the horses don’t act up, like I understand most don’t act up, but they have bad days, and when those actors are tugging and ripping at that poor horse’s mouth? If I were a horse, I’d buck them right off.

  4. My pet peeve is when the horse stunt doubles look nothing like each other, and even the riders stunt doubles are very obviously not the actor. The dated and unrealistic riding clothes are another pet peeve. Or when they zoom in on the rider supposedly galloping and it’s really just the actor jiggling around in front of a green screen and looks very very fake.

  5. All spot on. It drives me nuts to see actors walking the horse on the wrong side and other handling problems, like putting on a saddle with the stirrups down.

  6. All spot on. It drives me nuts to see actors walking the horse on the wrong side and other handling problems, like putting on a saddle with the stirrups down.

  7. This article is so true. I still watch horse movies, but I have learned not to voice my opinion. Though it still bugs me that Liz Taylor did not ride a Piebald in National Velvet. The horse was named “The Pie” for a reason.

    • They went for a thoroughbred who’d been an actual steeplechaser, but today they probably would use dye or CGI to make either a black or a white horse into a piebald. And Velvet Brown also was a skinny, homely blond who wore braces! They were both underdogs who “didn’t belong” in such a tough race. I’d love to see a faithful adaptation of that book sometime.

  8. Agreed on all of these, but my favourite is Game of Thrones… I’ve been playing ‘spot the actor-safe pony’ all the way through and have noticed the same dark bay with a little star and ratty forelock travelling across continents in the show for actors to sit on. He must be a great horse, but it cracks me up endlessly that such an obvious little horse is used alongside the PREs and Friesians with their slightly more elegant manes and gaits.

  9. I love when horse movies (and books) try to have us believe that you can ride a horse at a dead gallop for hours on end. Or when they forget to give the rider even a basic lesson in proper riding position (heels DOWN!). Or when they use horses that are not accurate for the time period or setting (a Friesian in the desert in Prince of Persia? Are you kidding me?).

    But that said, I do keep a collection of cheesy horse movies because I love a good laugh. When I have my own lesson barn, my plan is to assign homework to young riders where they have to bring me a list of all the bad riding habits they can find in these cheesy movies. It’ll help reinforce what NOT to do, and it’ll be fun to boot.

  10. I like Heartland but I cringe every time they are supposed to be cantering a show jumping course and it is obvious they are trotting and the jump is 2 ft. Also bugs me that they never wear helmets when riding Western and often get on a horse and gallop away. No such thing as warming up.

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