From tales of the Old West to the absurdity of talking horses, TV shows are often a little off kilter when it comes to portrayals of equine companions. For every Gene Autry or Roy Orbison singing love songs to their steady steeds, there seems to be a spaghetti western that thinks of horses as cars with legs. The way our favorite shows portray horses is a large part of how people in the world think of our favorite animals, and some shows do it much better than others.
Gunsmoke (1955 - 1974)
Gunsmoke is the longest-running scripted television show of the 20th century. The adventures of Marshal Dillon, Miss Kitty and Doc are legendary among horse fans of all ages. The show’s creator, Charles Marquis Warren, famously stated many times that he wanted to create a western that wasn’t all about cowboy hats and pointy toes, heroes winning the day, getting the girl or singing ballads to the horses. As such, the result is a story that’s more about the relationships between the inhabitants of Dodge than it is about conquering the Old West.
- Considers the bond between horses and owners
- Punishes horse thievery and discourages animal abuse
- Understands the emotion associated with the loss of a horse
- Falling from a horse hurts and can have lasting consequences
- Shows people treating horses with respect, if not as living or thinking beings
- Makes it clear that survival in the wastes without a horse may be a death sentence
Got It Wrong
- Falls into the old trap of horses as tools instead of thinking creatures
- Exceptionally clean streets for a place where everyone rides a horse
- Only people seem actually require food and clean water to remain healthy, not horses
- Horses often unafraid of gunfire nearby or other loud sounds
- Automatically assumes any rider who is openly fond of his horse is all hat and no cattle
Mr. Ed (1958 - 1966)
Mr. Ed answers a question just about anyone who has befriended a horse has had: What if my furry friend could talk? The show is a comedy based around the hilarious misadventures of Mr. Ed and his attending human, Wilbur Post. The trick to getting Bamboo Harvester, the horse playing Mr. Ed in the TV series, to speak was originally a nylon string tied through his harness and mouth. Over time, Bamboo Harvester learned to speak on command without a harness tie. The incredibly intelligent gelding even started “speaking” whenever Alan Young, who played Wilbur, would pause for a trainer to issue the command.
- Mr. Ed is exceptionally well cared-for and treated as a family member
- Mr. Ed enjoys an exceptional amount of space in a stable clearly built for more than one
- Mr. Ed is clearly presented as a living, thinking and intelligent being
- Wilbur spends plenty of time chatting and engaging with Mr. Ed
Got It Wrong
- That stable is far too clean considering that Wilbur is almost never mucking it
- Mr. Ed never seems to spend much time running or exercising
- Wilbur doesn’t seem inclined to ride Mr. Ed throughout the series
- Mr. Ed wears sunglasses, skateboards and successfully pretends to be human at times
- Mr. Ed also talks, but that’s a bit obvious
Heartland (2007 - Present)
Westerns seem to have excellent legs, as Heartland is Canada’s longest-running one-hour TV series. The show goes to great pains to display horses, and horse care, in a more realistic manner than almost any TV series before it. The main story focuses on the continuing tale of a family in Alberta, Canada, that specializes in raising horses. The trials and tribulations of various family members across multiple generations make up the meat of the ongoing saga. Individual episodes involve many of the elements of a soap opera, but the care and love for horses is almost always center stage.
- Horses are treated as living, intelligent creatures that require taming and training
- Taming is intensive and difficult; failure to train properly has serious consequences
- Successfully tackles horse-specific issues, such as pesticide use in grazing areas
- Horses come in all demeanors: bold, skittish, aggressive, coquettish, etc.
- Horses require regular food and water to stay healthy and suffer greatly without
- Horses age and can change temperament over time
- Horseback riding can help relieve many ailments
- Tackles tough owner issues including kill buyers and soring
- Viruses and other illnesses affect horses and people alike
Got It Wrong
- Horses are almost too well-behaved considering the absurdity of the people around them
Our favorite shows have a lot to teach us and society as a whole about how to properly treat and think of horses. Whether it’s adventures in the Old West or heartfelt family dramas, the settings all share a love of horses and do a great job of showing their importance. Some shows could do a bit more demonstrating the bond between owner and equine companion, while others definitely take it over the top. All in all, the best experience to be had with a horse isn’t found on the small screen, and sharing your love of horses with others can have an impact far beyond what people see on TV.