BY LAUREN MAULDIN
I’ve never been one to cry in movies, especially when I was younger. My late husband once challenged me to watch Life is Beautiful without tearing up, and (although it was a challenge) I kept a dry eye. But what’s the movie that will make me cry every time?
Of course it’s Black Beauty.
I cry when his first family had to sell the horses, and the little children say goodbye to Merrylegs. I dab my eyes when Ginger’s beaten down body is hauled away without ceremony. And I sob when Joe is reunited with a broken beauty at the end, and the credits roll with all the horses, fat and sleek, run happily through a big green field. It makes me emotional thinking about these scenes right now. I can’t even help myself.
So of course I was excited when I saw the new trailer for a 2020 Disney adaptation of Black Beauty. That was, excited until I watched it.
Okay, so it’s a modern adaptation versus set in the late 1800’s. I’m good with that. And Beauty is a mare, and “Joe” is a teenage girl. Totally good with that too. Let’s get some estrogen up in this story. But, but! That’s where it ends for me.
Beauty is a mustang? Rounded up from the west? Oh, no. The teenage girl is an orphan? She’s sad and alone at a “horse rescue” dude ranch, and has a “magical connection” with beauty? Barf. The non-educated non-rider that has “gotten closer with that filly in days” than the TRAINER has “gotten with her in weeks?” Nope. So much nope.
You might think I’m bitter and being too harsh. After all, it’s a feel good horse movie to entertain what is likely to be a teenage girl demographic. Why the intense critique?
It comes from the actual source material, the 1877 novel by Anna Sewell. A book that, in my opinion, should be required reading for any equestrian. It was one of the first books ever written from the perspective of an animal. I consider Black Beauty one of the earliest animal rights books, and an exceptional take on horsemanship. Sewell originally wrote it to be an informative literature for adults on animal cruelty with horses, but it’s now considered a children’s book. The section about the “bearing rein,” a part of a harness which forces the horse to hold its head high, created so much outrage that it was then banned in Victorian England. I routinely think about Sir Oliver, an older horse in Beauty’s pasture with a docked tail, and his rant about how cruel “Fashion” is with animals. For us who ride, take a look at this excerpt:
Oh! if people knew what a comfort to horses a light hand is, and how it keeps a good mouth and a good temper, they surely would not chuck, and drag, and pull at the rein as they often do. Our mouths are so tender that where they have not been spoiled or hardened with bad or ignorant treatment, they feel the slightest movement of the driver’s hand, and we know in an instant what is required of us. My mouth has never been spoiled, and I believe that was why the mistress preferred me to Ginger, although her paces were certainly quite as good.
Now read that, and tell me if it doesn’t ring true almost 150 years later?
Black Beauty is a work of art that shows the best and worst of horsemanship. Whether it’s a mare or a gelding doesn’t matter. It’s a story about a horse setup with the very best in life, and how quickly they can fall through the cracks due to no fault of their own. It’s a study of horsemanship and responsibility. A lesson to us to remember what these amazing creatures do for us, and why we always have to do what’s right for them.
For me, the ultimately Black Beauty film is the 1994 Warner Brothers’ adaptation. The preview below doesn’t capture how beautiful, and accurate, it is, but it’s a stark comparison to Disney’s 2020 update.
Will I watch the new movie when it comes out on November 27th? Of course I will. And I’ll likely roll my eyes as yet another sad teenager magically bonds with a misunderstood horse.
It’s not that I don’t believe horses can save us, or that special bonds don’t exist. They do. It’s why we live and breathe this sport. But there’s nothing magic about it. It’s created through years of devotion to the animal and education of the art. It’s exemplified in the pages of the real Black Beauty, not a tween horse girl fantasy. To over-simplify the dedication it takes to develop a bond like this is an insult to the true equestrian ‘magic’ we all aspire to.
About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.
Read More from This Author »