TV Dramas with the Right Amount of Horse Fantasy: Free Rein and Heartland

Horse people have to find good horse-themed movies and TV where they can, and mostly they have to put up with errors that aren’t evident at all to the non-horse person, but to them as knows horses, are painful to watch. Some things can’t be helped, particularly when multiple horses play a single role—we can spot the drastically altered conformation, the weirdly messed-up markings, the distinctly different gaits. A film or a TV show that gets it right, or manages to do so most of the time, is pure horseaholic gold.

Last time I watched two Australian films that get it right to a remarkable degree, though Thowra in The Silver Brumby isn’t really the right color (film-Thowra is a pretty golden palomino instead of a cremello) and might not be the right gender (as far as I can tell, the adult “Thowra” appears to be a mare). Still. We take what we can get. And those are very fine films.

Last summer while I was reading and rereading favorite horse books, I was also binge-watching two horse series on Netflix: the first two seasons of a new series, Free Rein, and a long-running hit show, Heartland. I had great fun with both, and both work hard at getting the horses right. Free Rein is aimed at horse kids in general and horse girls in particular. Heartland has a larger audience in mind, and based on its ratings and the fact that season 12 just wrapped, is hitting it: horse kids for sure, but also people who enjoy family drama.

What’s fun about Free Rein is that if you grew up as I did, reading riding-school adventure series, this is the television version. The show is British but features two American sisters exiled for the summer to their maternal grandfather’s house on an island off the coast of England. Neither sister is a horse person when she arrives—the younger one emphatically so; she’s a Disney Channel kid all the way, all about fashion, social media, and smartass comments. The older sister is a classic alienated mid-teen who falls in love with a horse named Raven whom no one else can handle or ride.

The fantasy element is there from the start: the gorgeous horse of a rare color (played by a Friesian cross, and he really is stunning), the girl who never rode before but is soon soaring over fences and competing in difficult equestrian challenges, the girl gang including the Mean Girls and the Sweet Geeks, the riding stable that will have to close unless the girl gang saves it, and of course a handful of boys who can, of course, ride. Because if a boy can’t ride a horse, what use is he?

It’s kid-TV, not too heavy on the emotional complexity, though there’s parental marriage drama several times over, lost treasure, a haunting or two, smugglers, horse thieves, and a Cruella de Ville type who wants to take Raven away from our plucky heroine. Everything centers around the riding stable. We get to know the horses as individuals, including the oddball who belongs to the geek girl and her wisecracking brother: a very hairy spotted cob who turns out to be the heart of the herd. (In the US he’d be a megabucks “Gypsy Vanner horse.” Here he’s the joke of the riding school, except when he turns out to be the one who helps save everything.)

I admit I cracked up when I saw some of the equipment the kids were using. I recognized the brand, and dang, I don’t have some of those colors. (Yet.)

Heartland is a Canadian series, set in and filmed around Calgary in Alberta. Where Free Rein is very English-riding-oriented, with hunters and jumpers and dressage, Heartland is chiefly about an “annoying little cowgirl” who rescues horses, her rodeo-cowboy father and grandfather, and life on a cattle ranch. For the general audience there’s family drama, romance for all ages from teens to grandparents (and multiple kickass older women running their own businesses and telling their own stories), and people rescue as well as horse rescue. The young romantic lead is a parolee from the city, dropped off at Heartland to straighten his life out; later on in the series, as the original cast ages out of its teens, an incorrigible runaway shows up to take over the role of teen horsegirl and kid sister.

But the heart of the show, and the focus of most episodes, is horses. The actor who plays the protagonist is a horse person, and she can really ride. She has the body language and the posture; she knows what she’s doing and it shows. When she’s training, she’s doing it well enough that I picked up some tips for working with my own horses.

Oh, there’s some fantasy, of course. She magically cures more than one horse’s severe emotional trauma in a few minutes, and she does the “only person who can get near wild horse” thing because that’s THE trope of the genre. There’s a whole long sequence about how she’s a “horse whisperer,” but it’s nicely subversive; it warns about fakes and frauds, and shows how the process really works. She doesn’t always succeed, either, and it’s not always easy.

And yes, there’s one Very Bad Dye Job late in the series, with the mysterious wild stallion who shows up at key points as a sort of warning from the universe. The original horse who plays the role is a striking leopard Appaloosa, but apparently the wranglers for the show lost access to him, because the late version is a nice Iberian-style grey who seems to have been colored in with a Sharpie.

But overall and through the ten seasons we in the US have seen on Netflix plus two more in Canada, this show gets the horses right. The horse people, too, from barrel racers to rodeo cowboys to dressage queens to international show jumpers to trick riders to the odd genre of natural-horsemanship trainers who show up in your town and compete with each other to train totally unhandled horses from halter-breaking to full-on riding in a couple of days.

You can learn a lot about horses and horsekeeping from watching this show. Little things like the nightly barn check, what happens when a horse gets into the feed bin, why you really want to make sure you shut every gate every time, how some horses are happier in stalls but others need to be outside, and what it’s like to say goodbye to a deeply loved old horse (I cried for that one, having just done the same here—and he was a chunkadelic grey like my mare and sorry, the screen is getting blurry all over again). I was hooked by the first couple of episodes, and I’m waiting for the new seasons to show up down here.

It is just so rare to get a show that focuses on the horses and does it right, and manages to avoid most of the standard mistakes. This is a show by and for horse people, but it makes sure to draw in the rest of the family as well. Come for the horses, stay for the characters and their lives and adventures. Not to mention the mountains and plains of Alberta in all weathers and all seasons.

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. She’s even written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Her most recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.

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