I’m a big fan of westerns. My favorites are the old black and white western movies and tv shows from the 40s and 50s. Sometimes it’s hard to find space on our DVR for modern shows because I fill it up with John Wayne, Gene Autry, Randolph Scott and The Virginian westerns. Since we acquired horses, my interest in westerns has increased but I find myself paying more attention to the horsemanship shown. If you have any experience with horses, it’s not difficult to point out the problems often seen in these movies and TV shows. I love them just the same but I couldn’t help but make a list of some of the top horse myths these old westerns (and new westerns, too) teach us.
Speed by Niko Dimitrov – ecobo, on Flickr
Myth: Horses can gallop nonstop for a long time
Reality: I have no doubt that the bad guys in these scenarios don’t care much for the horses they were riding but if you know much about horses you’ll realize that riding a horse hard for long periods of time will quickly wear it out; most are designed more for sprinting than endurance. But in the movies, the bad guys run out of the bank they’ve just robbed, quickly hop onto their horses and race out of town at full speed. They are soon followed by the good guys and sometimes a posse that seems to chase them for hours at full speed as they head towards Mexico.
Myth: Horses are either always saddled or can be saddled on a moment’s notice
This makes sense in movies because watching someone saddle a horse wouldn’t be very interesting and would take up valuable story time. but it always seems whenever someone needs to ride a horse, that horse is always pre-saddled.
Reality: In the days before cars, horses wore saddles more often than pleasure horses today, it’s true. But today’s riders unsaddle their horses when they aren’t riding them for a while and preparation needs to be done before putting a saddle on. Its back needs to be brushed and the saddle pad and saddle need to be checked for debris, thorns and spurs that could irritate the horse. The cinch needs to be tightened. These things aren’t done in seconds but minutes.
Cowboy Mounted Shooting – note the balloon distance and the powder spray.
Myth: It’s easy to shoot guns while riding a horse. Accurately, too. And your horse doesn’t mind at all.
Every single western shows this. The bad guys usually aren’t good shots but the good guys sure are.
Reality: Moving targets are difficult to hit with a stationary gun. Sitting on a horse bouncing up and down, trying to shoot a tiny bullet into a relatively small moving target far away from you is considerably harder. Cowboy Mounted Shooting has gained in popularity recently but the riders are shooting un-burned black powder at balloons roughly twenty feet away (see photo). I’m sure there was plenty of shooting from the backs of horses in the old west but not nearly as much hitting. Shooting in general also wasn’t as common as westerns would have us believe, so it’s likely there were some startled horses when it actually did happen. Today’s Cowboy Mounted Shooters train their horses to be desensitized to the sound of shooting.
Side-note: Cowboy Mounted Shooting looks like a lot of fun and I would totally love to give it a try!
Myth: It’s easy to play a guitar and sing while riding a horse. And your horse doesn’t mind at all.
Silly as they may seem to some, I’m a big fan of the Gene Autry westerns. I’d like to believe there were good guys who sang a happy tune, always did what was right and protected people from the bad guys. Gene’s westerns usually began and/or ended with him riding down the trail strumming a guitar, singing a cowboy song with a smile.
Reality: Champion was one well-trained horse but most horses shouldn’t be ridden without a reins in hand and you can’t hold reins and strum a guitar at the same time. It would be difficult to carry the guitar when you weren’t strumming it and I think many a horse would rather dump a cowboy crooner who couldn’t carry a tune. Gene could sing but I bet most cowboys who try, can’t (me included).
Myth: Riding horses is easy.
Everyone in westerns seems to ride well and it’s probably true that back in the frontier days, most people knew how to ride. It was a necessity. But not now.
Reality: Those who can ride well now either grew up around horses and have been riding all of their lives or took lessons. Many (probably most) of those amazing horse scenes in the movies or on television were done by stunt riders who are expert trick riders, not the actors themselves. Even if you’re new to horses, it’s pretty easy to spot someone who is faking. James Drury, most famous for his role as The Virginian on the television western series by the same name, clearly knew how to ride a horse. In contrast, some actors appearing in westerns just seem to have a rough ride. They don’t look comfortable in the saddle. Anyone can learn to ride a horse well but it takes practice and it’s easy to pick up bad habits if you’re not careful. You don’t just jump on a horse and ride.
Randolph Scott and Maureen O’Sullivan in The Tall T
Myth: The hero is always tall, dark and handsome and usually gets the girl in the end.
Hollywood westerns almost always have a famous and attractive protagonist who saves the beautiful maiden and marries her, followed by happily ever after.
Reality: In real life the good guys come in all shapes, sizes, ages and genders. Sometimes the hero is a young girl who has no plans for marriage anytime soon. Mikki is reading an historical fiction book by Nancy Turner called “These Is My Words” that’s based on the very real life of her frontier great-grandmother, Sarah Prine. She was feminine but tough as nails and occasionally had to be the hero herself. Sometimes the hero is old, overweight, a little person or just plain normal, whatever that is.
I’m still adding westerns to my DVR, even though they’re full of myths, but I’m careful to remember that real life requires more patience, preparation and realistic expectations.
Please comment and let me know if you’ve noticed other prominent Hollywood western myths that relate to horses.