En español | On Saturday, May 1, serious horse lovers will don their sartorial finery, mix up a mint julep or two, and settle in for the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby. The first leg of the fabled Triple Crown held every year at Churchill Downs is both an annual rite of spring and a sporting event fueled by thrills and occasional spills, pomp and pageantry. It’s also — let’s be honest here — over and done with just a few short minutes after it begins. But fear not. Because if you’re left hungry for more equestrian drama, we’re here for you with this list of 10 Classic Horse Movies that you can stream in your living room any time of year.
Concrete Cowboy (2020)
Idris Elba is one of our most compelling and charismatic movie stars. Maybe that’s why his name always comes up whenever there are discussions about who will succeed Daniel Craig as James Bond. But in this recent Netflix drama, he steps outside of his usual comfort zone to play an urban cowboy like no other. Based on a real-life community of riders in North Philadelphia, Concrete Cowboy tells the inspirational story of Elba’s Harp, who shares his home with a speckled horse named Chuck. He’s a crotchety guy. But when his estranged son (Caleb McLaughlin) comes to live with him for the summer, he gets to teach him life lessons through the care and tending of an animal — and soften up a bit in the process. Like a lot of horse stories, this is a tale of redemption, but thanks to Elba’s nuanced performance, it never feels corny or trite.
Watch it: Concrete Cowboy, on Netflix
The Mustang (2019)
Can a horse tame a man instead of vice versa? That’s the question at the heart of this terrifically powerful indie about a violent, short-fused prisoner named Roman (Belgian-born actor Matthias Schoenaerts) in the Nevada penal system. After a well-intentioned administrator (Connie Britton) helps get him into a program breaking wild horses that run free in the nearby desert, the horses and a grizzled trainer (Bruce Dern) manage to bring out a gentler side to a man who most had already written off as a lost cause. Schoenaerts is hypnotic, doing a lot by not saying much. And the sparse, magic-hour landscapes look like they could be out of an Ansel Adams photo.
War Horse (2011)
Steven Spielberg adapted Nick Stafford’s inventive stage play about a horse named Joey that is conscripted for use in World War I and the British boy (Jeremy Irvine) who follows his beloved animal into battle in an attempt to protect him from the German enemy’s bombs and bullets. Largely stripped of dialogue, War Horse could have just as easily been a silent film. And in a way, it kind of is. The haunting power and beauty of Spielberg’s movie comes from its almost poetic visual lyricism that at times feels like a waking dream. Through the death-choked haze of combat, Joey manages to touch everyone he comes into contact with, pulling out bits of humanity under the most inhumane conditions. John Williams’ first-rate score sells every emotional moment with beautifully stirring simplicity.
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Before director Joe Johnston went on to tackle spandex blockbusters like Captain America: The First Avenger, he helmed this intimate and rousing story about a half-Native American long-distance horseman named Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) who has hit the bottle hard trying to forget his troubles. But when Omar Sharif shows up to talk him into competing in an epic race across the Arabian desert, he figures he has nothing to lose. With his trusty horse Hidalgo, Frank gallops across the dunes chasing after victory while chasing away his demons. Hidalgo is a Disney product, so you know it’s going to veer toward melodrama, but Mortensen is as rugged and intense as the exotic, sunbaked setting he rides through.
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Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction bestseller, Seabiscuit is one of those stories that seemed ready-made to be turned into a movie. Fortunately, director Gary Ross doesn’t drop the ball with the sure thing that was handed to him. The title, of course, is the name of the Triple Crown winner that became a national sensation during the Depression. Why? Because the horse embodied the underdog spirit that Americans needed to believe in. If a scrappy nag like Seabiscuit could succeed, then maybe they could, too. Jeff Bridges plays Seabiscuit’s tragedy-befallen owner, Tobey Maguire is the longshot jockey who rides him to glory, and Chris Cooper steals the show as the taciturn trainer everyone has counted out.
The Horse Whisperer (1998)
With Robert Redford both behind and in front of the camera, you know that this retelling of Nicholas Evans’ novel is going to be easy on the eyes. And, man, is it ever. Redford plays Tom Booker — a combination of spiritual mystic, the Marlboro Man and, well, Robert Redford. Thanks to his special connection with horses, a mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) brings her recently injured daughter (a 13-year-old Scarlett Johansson) and her horse to Booker’s ranch, where he helps them through their trauma. On paper it sounds like a bunch of hooey. But on screen it works, showing us the soul-healing power of nature, mindfulness and, of course, a certain four-legged kind of four-legged animal.
Phar Lap (1983)
The story of the legendary racehorse Phar Lap is well known in Australia, but less so on this side of the world. I suppose we’re too wrapped up with Seabiscuit, Secretariat and Hidalgo. But as inspirational tales go, this horse is a tough one to top. Especially due to this wonderful movie import from Down Under. Directed by Simon Wincer, Phar Lap is a classic ugly duckling story about a horse without pedigree that is shaped by a trainer who refuses to listen to doubters and a stable boy who cares for the horse as if it were a brother or sister. With their love and belief, Phar Lap goes on to become a worldwide racing sensation. With its thrilling slow-motion races, this is like the Rocky of horse movies.
Watch it: Phar Lap, on iTunes
The Black Stallion (1979)
Maybe the most beautiful movie ever made about a boy and a horse. Director Carroll Ballard’s retelling of Walter Farley’s classic adventure yarn keeps the basics — a kid is shipwrecked with a horse on a desert island, they form a magical bond and then test that bond in 1940s New York after being rescued — but also reinvents the story by not worrying about words too much. This is a movie that’s designed to be a feast for all of the senses. Kelly Reno is excellent as the boy and Mickey Rooney (35 years after National Velvet) shines as the wise trainer who helps to turn “the Black” into a champ. A great movie for the kids.
The Killing (1956)
Okay, so this one is a bit of a change-up. Years before Stanley Kubrick became the artist known as “Stanley Kubrick,” he directed this lean-and-mean black-and-white heist caper set at a racetrack. Anchored by a bunch of scuzzy crooks, including Sterling Hayden and Elisha Cook Jr., The Killing brings off the thrillingly intricate robbery with an almost unbearable sense of white-knuckle tension. Assembled in the sort of jigsaw-puzzle pattern later used by Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction, Kubrick is throwing down the gauntlet, showing that he’s more than just a for-hire filmmaker — he’s an artist. The racetrack scenes (and the people who populate them) will ring true to anyone who ever spent a luckless afternoon at Aqueduct.
National Velvet (1944)
Just 12 years old when this classic film was released, Elizabeth Taylor was hardly the glittering star she would become. But the signs were already there in this, her Technicolor breakout. Here is a movie that is as sweet as apple pie and as wholesome, too, what with Liz as a butcher’s daughter named Velvet. Mickey Rooney’s caffeinated, wide-eyed, let’s-put-on-a-show excitability propels the film and is also the thing that gets young Liz to enter her horse in the Grand National race. Sure, you know how this story will end before it even begins. But it’s thrilling nonetheless, even if it was actually filmed at a Pasadena golf course.
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.