What’s With All the Dead Horses?

Photo: Focus Features

The article below spoils a bunch of movies. We aren’t going to tell you which movies, because that in and of itself would be a spoiler.

Writer-director Cory Finley isn’t exactly sure why he decided to kill a horse in his debut feature Thoroughbreds, but equine murder was there from draft one. “I’ve wondered a lot where it came from, because it really was just one of those sort of subconscious bubblings up,” he says. “I think part of it was I was genuinely really traumatized by the horse head in the bed scene in The Godfather, which is probably like the godfather of all horse scare moments. I just remember that was so much more disturbing than any human violence in that movie — or almost any movie.”

Thoroughbreds — which centers on the murderously intimate relationship between two teenage girls, one of whom commits the violent act — isn’t the only film out this spring that should come with a trigger warning for horse lovers. Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete follows Charley (Charlie Plummer), who absconds with the eponymous racehorse. The boy — destitute and essentially orphaned — can’t lead poor Pete to a happier fate than the one he would have suffered if he had stayed on the Portland track. Then there’s The Rider, Chloe Zhao’s docudrama featuring real-life trainer and rodeo star Brady Jandreau as a lightly fictionalized version of himself, Brady Blackburn. Brady is recovering from a head injury that should curtail his riding career, but, as much as he tries, he can’t stay away from horses. For a large portion of the film, he works to tame a bay named Apollo; when Apollo gets his leg caught in a barbed wire fence and must be put down, Brady feels a shiver of recognition.

Thoroughbreds is a snappy piece of noir set amid Connecticut’s opulent mansions, where horses are wealth signifiers; the other films document worlds where horses are meal tickets for people on the fringes of society. Lean on Pete takes the shape of a dusty bildungsroman about a young man grasping for a sense of home. The Rider unfolds as a vérité portrait of a man trying to imagine what his life could look like without the one thing that defined him. But in all three, horses — and their pain — are crucial to understanding their hero’s journey.

So why all the dead horses? Perhaps it’s because they’re full of contradictions, perfect for poetically illustrating the human fallibility of their masters. (They also, occasionally, make for excellent jokes.) Horses are simultaneously status symbols, utilitarian objects, and pets. They’re romanticized in the popular imagination, but also reflect harsh realities. As Zhao puts it, a horse is a “dangerous, wild, 1,200-pound animal,” but also remarkably fragile. A maimed leg, like the one Apollo suffers, is a death sentence — and a signal to Brady of his own limitations.

Zhao met Jandreau on the Lakota reservation where she also made her previous feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me. She was astonished by his ability, but the story she wanted to tell only came into focus after he was hurt. During his recovery, Jandreau told Zhao the story of the real Apollo, and made the comparison between their situations to Zhao. “‘If any animals around here got hurt like I did, they would get put down,’ was something Brady said to me during one of my visits,” Zhao remembers. “And I wrote it down and said, I think that’s the theme of the film.”

“[Horses] are this weird mix of freedom — you imagine these horses rampaging across the plains — but also they’re contained in their worlds of horse racing,” says Haigh of why his story centers on a horse. “People have them in stables, and they’re keeping their freedom contained.” In adapting Willy Vlautin’s novel, Haigh was careful not to anthropomorphize Pete, but he did see the parallels between the creature and Charley. The comparison even factored into the casting. “I wanted a horse that felt to me like it was Charley,” he says. “We saw three horses, but he was the the one that was hovering back in the corner. He seemed to be the shy horse. He just wasn’t confident like the other ones.” Charley is a “skittish” creature, constantly suspicious of strangers no matter how well intentioned they are.

There’s only one unspoken solution when Pete can’t win at the racetrack any longer, and a euphemistic “trip to Mexico” is exactly how Charley views the legal and foster system that awaits him after his father dies. So instead, he steals the horse and heads out on the run in an attempt to find the aunt with whom his father cut off contact. Alone in the desert, Pete becomes his only source of solace, and the normally reserved kid pours his heart out. But that’s all cut brutally short when Pete, spooked, runs in front of a car. Suddenly, Charley is truly alone. Pete wasn’t protecting Charley by any means, but he provided the teen a tether to a world he knew, one from which he was moving increasingly far away.

Thoroughbreds opens with Olivia Cooke’s Amanda gazing into the eyes of her steed in close-up, before she reaches for a knife. The camera cuts away before we actually see what she does, but we hear about it later: It’s gruesome, but telling. Even though Amanda declares that she is completely devoid of emotion, her act was a mercy killing gone horribly wrong. The horse, however dead, is a glimpse into the humanity she otherwise seemed to be lacking.

According to Finley, the use of a horse perfectly captured the haunting nature of his story. “They’ve got a really creepy look to them. There’s something a little bit monstrous about the horse and something very very beautiful too and very noble,” Finley says. “But they’re pretty huge and they have these long dramatic, sort of mask-like faces and there’s a real eeriness to them too so they’re a fun messy symbol to play with.” Monstrous, beautiful, and eerie: all words that could be used to describe Amanda, who wears tears and smiles like a mask when she truly doesn’t feel anything.

Tellingly, all three movies deal with some perversion of the American myth. Thoroughbreds’ meticulously coiffed, overprivileged prep-school girls are actually monsters. The Rider destroys the idea of the macho, indestructible cowboy. Lean on Pete sees the promised land of the West as poverty-stricken and depressed. According to Haigh, horses represent a proto-American promise — which is why killing them is such a useful narrative device in stories that work to undercut that promise. “It’s such a quintessential American animal. It’s part of so many American stories — so many horses in Westerns throughout the years,” Haigh, a Brit, says. “They’re so vital to telling American stories. [Lean on Pete] is quite a small story, but at the same time, it’s trying to explore some wider issues that are affecting a certain part of America. A horse is perfect for that.”

These films certainly aren’t the first works of art to link horses and human trauma. Thoroughbreds has drawn comparisons to Peter Shaffer’s play-turned-film Equus (although Finley, a playwright, says it wasn’t on his mind). Equus follows a psychiatrist analyzing a disturbed teenage boy who — in a confused sexual and religious fervor — stabs the eyes of the horses at the stable where he works. As a psychoanalyst wrote in a (negative) take on the play in a 1974 New York Times story, “Oedipal fears have been skillfully transformed into the boy’s perverse passion for horses. The symbolism of the horse is fully exploited to represent virility and sexual freedom as well as servitude.”

The sensitive and intuitive cowboy aesthetic at the center of The Rider had been mined before in the not-so-naturalistic Robert Redford adaptation of the novel The Horse Whisperer. The melodrama finds a teenager, Grace, and her horse both searching for healing after a horrific accident that a friend and her mount did not survive. Both girl and horse are physically injured, but their mental hurdles seem even more insurmountable. Grace’s mom, Annie, takes them to a rancher with a gift that just might be able to solve their problems.

The heartstrings-tugging Horse Whisperer leans into the softer side of the horse movie canon, with its largely happy ending that sees both horse and girl sharing a restored faith in one another and in life itself. In general, the genre’s reputation is one of uplift rather than sorrow: Racing movies ranging from Seabiscuit to National Velvet find scrappy teams leading underappreciated horses to victory. The Black Stallion riffs on the tale of Alexander the Great and Bucephalus, centering on a shipwrecked boy taming the wild Arabian that helped him survive. In Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, a bay called Joey endures the hells of WWI — including an incident in which he is trapped in barbed wire in no man’s land — all leading him back to the young man who was his first companion. At least Spielberg didn’t have Joey narrate, as he does in the original children’s book. The same cannot be said of 1994’s Black Beauty, which, true to Anna Sewell’s novel, includes voice-over from the titular animal, who tells the story of his own life. Though by no means bad (or entirely cheery) films, these lean into the sentimental side of horses, playing on sometimes precious associations we have of the beasts as loyal friend and companion to man.

Haigh — and, by all appearances, Zhao and Finley — was purposefully trying to avoid a treacly version of a horse story. “It’s weird, because even when I tell people that I’m doing this story about a boy and a horse, you can see their eyes going, ‘Oh no, really?’ Because it could be a Disneyfied version of that kind of a thing, almost like you’re trying to make out that the horse is a human in its psychology, or whatever,” Haigh says. “For me, it was always just remembering that the horse just stands for what Charley needs in his life.” It makes sense, then, that Pete’s death happens with an entire act left to go in the film. It’s upsetting, but to Haigh, it’s just proof that the horse was just there to offer us a glimpse into the protagonist. As he puts it, “It’s not really about the horse at all.”

What’s With All the Dead Horses?