The upcoming release of War Horse is making me wonder – why are horse movies such tearjerkers? I cried just about all the way through the Horse Whisperer, and I didn’t actually like any of the characters in it, or the way the training was depicted. And then there’s the triumphant, overcoming the odds horse film – Seabiscuit, The Black Stallion, National Velvet – where the horse helps the little man (or girl) make it big.
I’ve loved horses since I was little. Many children seem to love horses. Is there something about horses and their magnificent vulnerability? Their ability to gallop us to glory or reveal our cruel side? Who could forget the moment in Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877) when the equine narrator, now fallen a little lower in life and pulling a cab for hire, meets his old friend Ginger (‘It was Ginger, but how changed!’)?
I said, “You used to stand up for yourself if you were ill-used.” “Ah!” she said, “I did once, but it’s no use; men are strongest, and if they are cruel and have no feeling, there is nothing that we can do, but just bear it — bear it on and on to the end. I wish the end was come, I wish I was dead. I have seen dead horses, and I am sure they do not suffer pain; I wish I may drop down dead at my work, and not be sent off to the knackers.” I was very much troubled, and I put my nose up to hers, but I could say nothing to comfort her. I think she was pleased to see me, for she said, “You are the only friend I ever had.” Just then her driver came up, and with a tug at her mouth backed her out of the line and drove off, leaving me very sad indeed. A short time after this a cart with a dead horse in it passed our cab-stand. The head hung out of the cart-tail, the lifeless tongue was slowly dropping with blood; and the sunken eyes! but I can’t speak of them, the sight was too dreadful. It was a chestnut horse with a long, thin neck. I saw a white streak down the forehead. I believe it was Ginger; I hoped it was, for then her troubles would be over. Oh! if men were more merciful they would shoot us before we came to such misery.
Pretty devastating for what’s generally sold as a children’s book. The novel charted the fall from grace of a beautiful black horse, passed from owner to owner, gradually becoming more physically damaged and going to worse and worse homes, who eventually ends up broken down, starved and scarred. At last he’s taken to a kind home and recognised by his old stable boy. It’s those recognition scenes that really get you. They’re a staple of the tear-jerking horse book. The pathos is almost unbearable.
Painful separation, triumphant reunion, abuse and solace. Children understand – at least in their imagination. They are also often powerless in a world of adults – unable to choose where they go, who looks after them, or what their immediate future will be. They dream of rescuing the horse and the horse rescuing them. Galloping them away, newly powerful and free to make their own way in the world. So that’s what it is with children and those sad, sad horse stories.