6 Horse Myths Westerns Teach Us

6 Horse Myths Westerns Teach Us

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.

Wild West Myth:

Horses can gallop nonstop for a long time

Rider on galloping horse
Speed by Niko Dimitrov – ecobo, on Flickr

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.

Wild West 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
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
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.

32 thoughts on “6 Horse Myths Westerns Teach Us

  1. Like yourself, I am a lover of westerns and of horses. However growing up in the city I rarely saw a horse other than in the movies or on tv. But I always had a love for the animal. I love to read, so I learned a lot through books. However, as you know, one has to interact with horses to truly gain a knowledge of them. Horses are herd animals, but tend to have distinct personalities. All the horses in movies and television are trained. I noticed several things in movies that horses don’t naturally do or ( Do ) It seems every cowboy drifter has a wonderful beast. How could he afford it? A cowboy runs out of the saloon or bank and mounts the nearest horse. Most horses will not allow strangers near them, let alone ride them out of town. Speaking of town, the streets are ” always clean ” no droppings. The cowboy actors routinely walk behind horses, not a good idea! Then there’s the myth that everyone owned and liked horses. Many people in the old west did not own a horse, especially those who lived in town. Most ” Cowboys ” did not own a horse, but was given a loan of one by the person they worked for. Then there’s the army, most of the horses provided to recruits were ” Hammerheads ” raw wild mustangs ” recently captured and not fully broken. There are so many myths about horses the the movies present, that I could write about them all day and not cover them all. One I must mention: The rider gallops for a long distance, then comes to a lake or stream and immediately lets the horse drink because the posse is close behind. Ernest Brown

  2. I grew up on westerns and enjoyed them as a child . As an adult and as a former combat infantryman , the western phantasy is so unreal it leaves me feeling I`m watching a child`s Superman film .
    The ” horse chase ” scenes that last far beyond the endurance of any horse have already been mentioned .Also mentioned is the difficulty of firing from a moving horse and hitting another moving target [ often on horseback ] with the inaccurate weapons of the day. Never , in the films I have seen , does a stray round hit the huge horse instead of the smaller rider , and bring the horse down and leave the rider horseless and maybe injured from the fall. Shooting a rider`s horse is also a good way to save your own hide and leave another man stranded without the ability to quickly attack or retreat—but we never see horses shot— intentionally or accidentally .That would be too much realism for a fantasy western. During a ” stagecoach chase ” scene if the chasing party hits only one of the horses pulling the coach , the remaining team winds up pulling the coach and dragging a dead horse . Quite an effective brake ! Horses may have been valuable ” back in the day ” but a horse has no value to you if you`re dead . A man trying to save his own life will kill his adversary`s horse in a heartbeat .

    1. All great points. Not sure I’d want to see some of that realism so I guess we should be glad they don’t include it!

  3. What led me here is How in the westerns, they catch and break a ferral horse in one day (High Chaparral, Bonanza, Virginian, Big Valley) I wonder how easy it was to throw a saddle blanket on or halter lead on a horse the first time there was a crowded arena of hooping hollering cowboys.. Also, in one show I seen a cow poke break one “the way Indians do” by having it stand in water (creek, river, pond, etc) so it couldn’t buck as quick and high, I wondered if there was any truth in that, as it would make a little sense if works.

    1. Ah yes, I missed that one. I wouldn’t try to throw a saddle or blanket on an unbroken horse in that scenario.

    2. Good point. It takes weeks of dedication to “break” (getting them used to saddles, halters & people on their backs, then to get them to do what you want them to do) a horse. Also, there are some horses who will only allow one chosen person to ride them. My father’s horse “Flash” refused to be ridden or even touched by anyone other person but him. Flash would immediately buck anyone else off.

  4. In western I’ve seen people ride off sometimes several without any supplies. No food for self or horse maybe a. Canteen. No gear at all in case of any sort of needed repair. Running horses across prairie like areas at full gallop. Wouldn’t it be dangerous to run them across those places? Holes or obstacles? Horses are alive and require care. The streets are free of manure whether they run a herd of horses or cattle through them.

    1. Good ones! We consider our horses today more as pets deserving of special care and protection so we are probably mindful of potential dangers like holes or obstacles to preserve our furry friends. I believe horses were considered more farm animals or travel devices in the past and maybe less like pets, though the survival of the rider was much more tied to the survival of the horse in the wide expanses of the west so I’d guess they paid more attention in real life than the riders in western movies and television shows.

  5. I love how cowboys in movies would jump from around floor on to horses.back and take off I could.only imagine what a bucking fit the horse would give if you were to try this or if you landed on the horn.

  6. Another good one is how all Indians can ride barebacked. Lol here and there you will see the outline of a saddle under a blanket but , cudos to those that grab mane , swing up, and gallop off…

    1. Its not just a saddle under balanket, its stirrups flopping beneath the boanket. The blanket over the saddle is so stupid, because anyone that has been riding horsesnfor a long time doesn’t have to have a saddle. They can easily ride bareback!

    2. Jodi Chevalier:
      The blanket over the saddle tries to look like the Indian is riding bareback, but it is so stupid. You can see the stirrups flopping around. It drives me crazy too, because any exerienced horseman
      can ride bareback!

  7. Re : Your comment about shooting a pistol or rifle while riding —or at someone riding a horse. Yes, most rounds would miss the intended target and many would hit and drop the horse [ the larger target ] –injured or dead . This is NEVER shown in western fairy tales . Chasing a stagecoach , the pursuers NEVER target a horse or two pulling the coach , and the horses are never accidentally hit , thereby bringing the stagecoach to an immediate stop. When pursued by Indians [ native Americans ] the besieged pioneers never shoot the Indian horses , leaving pursuers riderless and on foot .
    Yes, I understand not maiming horses during a film shoot . However , we don`t kill or injure the character actors themselves in these films—we write it into the script . For the sake of reality , it could be written that horses were killed during a galloping gun battle without harming any horse flesh. Real historical battlefield accounts tell of the great loss of horses.
    Westerns were fairy tales I enjoyed as a young lad . By the time I was in my mid- teens , I stopped watching these fairy tales as being no more realistic than Superman fantasies . By the time I finished 2 tours as a grunt in Southeast Asia , I found the whole western film genre to be nothing more than silly childhood fantasy.

    1. Has any stagecoach anywhere ever, in the history of the world, tried to outrun individual riders?

  8. I remember all those old westerns we all loved watching back in the day. My grandfather, who used a horse for work (with cattle) used to comment on the poor riding ability of some of the stars. I know some of them could ride and even had ranches, but many were just actors who knew nothing about horses and it shows!

  9. One question always bothered me about westerns: Why does the horse fall over when the cowboy gets shot?

  10. just found your site and had a new comment. I’ve been riding for 28 years and , like you, enjoy the old westerns. Since I’ve learned to ride and handle horses my biggest peeve in these films and TV shows id how rough these riders are on the horses mouths. They are always yanking on the reins, which with those shank bits is abusive.

  11. I love old movies from the 20’s to the 50’s, including westerns. I grew up on a cattle ranch, & have ridden horses since a small child (because I was the only 4 yr old around, my dad would put me on the colts so they could get used to something on their backs. Unfortunately I usually ended up on the ground after they bucked me off lol.)
    It’s always bothered me in westerns how they run the horses. It’s impossible to run a non race horse at the duration & speed the movies show. That would kill a horse pretty quickly. There was a ranch hand that actually did just that. He was an mean man showing off for another ranch hand. My father almost beat him to unconsciousness before firing him.
    It’s always worried me that these movies give a false impression of how a horse behaves, and there will be other mean idiots who will kill a horse, trying to copy what they’ve seen.

    Great article !

    1. They just do many takes I would guess but I’ve often wondered myself. Being one trained many ” show horses” I also can appreciate the unreal training that had to go into these horses. Do you know HOW hard it is to get a horse to just JUMP into water?

  12. If you watch closely, in many of the old TV westerns you will see the guest stars hanging onto the saddle horn for dear life, especially when they aren’t the main focus of the shot.

  13. I am wondering about the scenes where they are out tracking down a criminal. Everyone is dusty and thirsty, running low on water. Yet the horses seem just fine. Can a horse truly go without water like that?

  14. I cannot understand how a white man on a saddled horse can outrun an Indian riding bareback In the western movies.
    Surely the extra weight of the saddle would slow the white man down,

    1. The Indians were good riders but didn’t take the greatest care of their horses, according to J. Frank Dobie.

  15. Great article! What also bothers me is how the pursued are way in front of the pursuers, going the same speed and yet they somehow catch up to them, even though they have to stop and track them.

  16. My husband and I also love westerns and watch them every time we can. We often wonder how in the world they keep their hats on while riding 90 miles an hour. Ha ha.

    Does anyone know the trick to keeping those hats on while they are flapping in the wind?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.