The history books are packed full of award-winning films that chronicle the exploits of inspirational horses. This thriving genre includes beloved classics, epic adventures, biopics, screwball comedies and animated movies. The horses range from cherished pets to champion thoroughbreds, and in some instances, they manage to upstage their human co-stars. These are the top five moves in which a horse emerges as the absolute star of the show:
Michael Morpurgo’s popular novel was given the full Hollywood treatment when Steven Spielberg turned it into a movie in 2011. An all-star duo of Lee Hall (Billy Elliott) and Richard Curtis (Four Weddings & a Funeral, Notting Hill) put together a widely lauded screenplay, and an ensemble cast featuring Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Peter Mullan Niels Arestrup and Jeremy Irvine was assembled.
It was Spielberg’s first film set during World War 1, following a number of moves that tackled the Second World War. He brought in long-term collaborators like Janusz Kaminski and Michael Kahn to work on the project, and created a technically magnificent, sentimental epic.
War Horse really tugs on the heartstrings. Albert and his beloved horse, Joey, live on a farm in the British countryside, but it all changes when Albert’s father sells Joey to the British cavalry. Joey embarks upon a journey full of danger, joy and sorrow, transforming the lives of everyone he meets, while Albert searches for him on the French battlefields.
Joey is the real star of the film. He was actually played by 14 different horses, including two foals and four colts, all under the watchful eye of trainer Bobby Lovgren. The American Humane Association had representatives on set at all times, and awarded the film an “outstanding” rating for taking care of the animals, although that decision has since been disputed.
Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel is one of the best loved books of its time, so Warner Bros. knew it was onto a winner when it decided to create an adaptation. This film also stars Thewlis, who seems to have a penchant for equine-based movies. He stars alongside Sean Bean and Andrew Knott, but the leading light is the titular horse.
Black Beauty is voiced by renowned Shakespearean thespian Alan Cumming and played by a famous American Quarter Horse called Docs Keepin Time. He was a fifth generation descendent of Triple Crown winner War Admiral, and he also portrayed The Black in The Adventures of the Black Stallion. Docs Keepin Time’s son, Keepin Charge, later featured in the 2008 movie Appaloosa alongside Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen.
Black Beauty did not exactly light up the box office, but it garnered broadly positive reviews for its portrayal of the horse’s thrilling hardships and triumphs. Black Beauty was reimagined in 2015, with Luke Perry in the lead role, but it was widely panned.
Seabiscuit made an inauspicious start to his career as a racehorse. He did not pick up a single win in his first 17 races, and his owners were convinced they had a dud on their hands. It was all the more perplexing when they considered that his grandsire, Man O’War, was one of the greatest thoroughbreds of all time. Yet Seabiscuit had apparently inherited none of the old magic, and his owners eventually sold him off to trainer Tom Smith.
Smith saw something in Seabiscuit and used idiosyncratic training methods to get the best out of him. Seabiscuit eventually became a genuine contender for glory and then swept the board in 1937 and 1938, landing the Agua Caliente Handicap, the Havre de Grace Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the San Antonio Handicap and the Santa Anita Handicap, among others. His finest moment came when he beat War Admiral by four lengths in a special race at Pimlico, a triumph that saw him named American Horse of the Year.
Director Gary Ross assembled a fantastic cast featuring Tobey Maguire as Tom Smith, plus Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Gary Stevens and William H. Macey. The film is loosely based upon the exploits of Seabiscuit, who captured the public’s imagination during the Great Depression. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, which is actually one more than War Horse. Both were up for Best Picture, but Seabiscuit lost out to The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (which also featured some magnificent horses) and War Horse was beaten by The Artist.
The Melbourne Cup is the world’s most popular horse race. It has been held at Flemington Racecourse every year since 1861 and it has had an abundance of iconic winners over the years. Yet there will never be a more popular winner than Media Puzzle, who prevailed in 2012.
His jockey, Damien Oliver, was left distraught after his brother Jason died in a tragic track incident in Perth just a week prior to the race. Jason was also a jockey, and Damien wore his “J Oliver” breeches when he rode Media Puzzle in the Melbourne Cup. Damien pointed to the heavens as Media Puzzle won the race in one of the fastest times in history, and there was barely a dry eye in the house.
“Mate, Melbourne Cups don’t mean a thing to me any more,” he said after the race. “I’d give it back right now to have my brother back. But I know it was the right thing to ride. Jason would have wanted that.”
This tragic story was turned into a feature film called The Cup in 2011, starring Brendan Gleeson and Stephen Curry.
This 2004 epic biographical western is based on the legend of American distance rider Frank Hopkins and his trusty mustang Hidalgo. It recalls Hopkins’ exploits as he raced Hidalgo against Bedouins riding purebred Arabian horses through the plains of the Middle East.
Mortensen, who played Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, plays the role of Hopkins, while several American Paint horses were used to portray Hidalgo. The main stunt horse was called Oscar. Mortensen later bought RH Tecontender, another horse that played Hidalgo, and screenwriter John Fusco bought Oscar in order to retire him at Red Road Farm.
Legendary critic Roger Ebert called the film “bold, exuberant and swashbuckling”. He gave it three stars out of a possible four, and said it is “the kind of movie Hollywood has almost become too jaundiced to make anymore”. It follows Hidalgo and Hopkins as they compete in a treacherous long-distance horse race called the Ocean of Fire, with their lives and reputations at stake.