A Brief History of the Animated Horse

Christopher Hart continues his series of six tips on how to bring animated characters to life.

Animators have been horsing around with equine characters for quite some time. In fact, horses have been one of the staple (or rather, stable) characters figured in a great many animated films, with varying degrees of prominence and personality. There will probably be some neigh-sayers regarding the movies we have chosen or forgotten to highlight here, but perhaps you can forgive us as we pass over My Little Pony, or Gumby's pony pal, Pokey, too. Saddling ourselves to some of the well-known features of North America, we glance back over the shoulder of animation history in this nostalgic review of the animated horses of yesteryear.

The earliest known photo, circa 1825, is a reproduction of a 17th century Dutch engraving. Courtesy of France's National Library.

The earliest known photo, circa 1825, is a reproduction of a 17th century Dutch engraving. Courtesy of France's National Library.

Hold Your Horses

We begin with a historical aside. Interestingly enough, the earliest known photographic image happens to be of ... that's right, a horse! More specifically, the photo, by French chemist Joseph Nicephore Niépce, circa 1825, is the heliographic reproduction of a 17th century Dutch engraving. (Heliography is a technique where light is used to project an image on to a photo-sensitive surface.) The historic photo recently sold to France's National Library for $443,000.

Moving forward to the 1870s, photographer Eadweard Muybridge was hired by former California governor Leland Stanford to settle the controversy of whether a trotting horse had all four feet off the ground at any point in time. (Answer: yes.) Muybridge cleverly set up a line of cameras with mechanically tripped shutters, thereby capturing the individual moments of a horse's run. In lecturing around the United States and Europe, Muybridge made use of the zoopraxiscope, a primitive motion-picture machine he had developed to project images in rapid succession. His famous work detailing animal locomotion, containing over 100,000 photographs, was published in 1887, and is still used as reference today.

Eadweard Muybridge's galloping horse, 1878. © Dover Publications.

Eadweard Muybridge's galloping horse, 1878. © Dover Publications.

Fifty years hence, with animated films in full swing, horses would come to fall into one of a few categories of animated beast. In most stories, the horses will serve a very peripheral role, as background characters, almost as props; in other stories, horses will assume a greater and meaningful presence, becoming more stylized; until, lastly, horses hoof their way to the forefront of the action, becoming central characters with inclinations and personalities all their own.

Salvador Dali's conception of a horse. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Salvador Dali's conception of a horse. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Evolution implies change, not necessarily progress. In cartoon terms, we are often fortunate to see both. Over the years, in addition to their increasing narrative relevance and emotional intelligence, one might also contend that a stronger aesthetic design has been adapted to the animated horse. (It is important to note that not all evolutionary lines pan out. Some, of course, peter out. In corralling together his own ideas for a surreally imagined animated horse, Salvador Dali's development work for a Disney film was ultimately reigned in, never to see the light of screen.)

The following is by no means an exhaustive survey of the horses of animated films, but merely a brief recapitulation from "then" until "now."

Winged horses from Fantasia (1940). © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Winged horses from Fantasia (1940). © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Horse Play

In Walt Disney's original Fantasia (1940), during the performance of Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony #6," the viewer is introduced to a mythological countryside wherein plays a bevy of yellow, pink, blue, orange and black baby Pegasus. (We also watch as tiny blue and pink unicorns frolic like dogs, licking the face of a boy.) Above, the majestic white and black Pegasus parents gracefully cut through the clouds, with legs extended forward and backward in a soaring glide. Descending to the lake below, the adult Pegasus move through the water like overgrown swans, with their playful kids entering the water like cannonballs. Soon, the family is joined by an entire herd of winged horses. Following some rainbow puddle splashing fun, the scene culminates with a different set of horses, with manes of fire, drawing the burning chariot of Helios, god of the sun, across the evening sky.

In Disney's Melody Time (1948), a feature-length collection of short films, we see a spectrum of horse development and character. In "Johnny Appleseed," the horses are nondescript and faceless, essentially irrelevant to the story. They are merely beasts of burden helping to carry westward the early pioneering settlers. In "Once Upon a Wintertime," the horses are illustrated as very thin and proper, without any eyes, but only blinders. Again, they are there only to pull carriages and sleighs though, by story's end, there is a brief heroic moment for the horses in saving a young woman from a waterfall.

Pecos Bill and Widowmaker from Melody Time (1948). © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Pecos Bill and Widowmaker from Melody Time (1948). © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

More engagingly, in "Pecos Bill," Roy Rogers tells the cowboy folklore of Pecos Bill, with his horse Trigger neighing for him to remember Bill's own cartoonish horse, Widowmaker. Rogers assures Trigger that he wouldn't possibly forget Widowmaker, and indeed he couldn't. Widowmaker who yodels with big fat lips and toughly hops around is an integral part of the story, sharing fully in its protagonism. When Bill finds a potential love in sweet Sue, a regular female buckaroo, Widowmaker gets teary-eyed and flustered, and sets out to foil the union. In a comical turn of events, tied down and not wanting to be ridden by Sue, Widowmaker rolls and cartwheels and tries to throw her from the saddle. Sue, unruffled, nonchalantly continues to powder her nose. Eventually, however, the mischievousness of Widowmaker prevails, and his friendship with Bill is left unimpeded.

Disney's Cinderella (1950) brings together the two kinds of horses we have already seen the emotive, cartoonish character, with the more stylized, functional beast of burden. The film opens with a relatively well-rendered horse, dutifully and typically pulling a carriage. This contrasts with the stable horse, who is less realistic in his design, but who shows a general "background" concern (e.g., sadness) for Cinderella's plight. The expressiveness of the stable horse is seen again, as incredulity, when the fairy godmother chooses the mice over himself to become the ornately dressed white horses drawing Cinderella's magical pumpkin stagecoach. But the stable horse's momentary indignation is quickly forfeited, bippedy boppedy boo, as he is called upon to serve as Cinderella's coachman. As with Melody Time, the stable horse is allowed one small (though forgettable) heroic moment, in stirring to action the sleeping dog Bruno, who subsequently chases away the meddlesome housecat Lucifer, so that the mice can get Cinderella the key which unlocks her bedroom prison. By the movie's end, we see the two kinds of horses (stylized carriage horse and cartoonified stable horse) trotting together as one team, pulling the wedding coach.

The mice-turned-carriage-horses in Cinderella (1950). © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

The mice-turned-carriage-horses in Cinderella (1950). © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Animal Farm (1954), produced by deRochemont Films, featured Boxer the horse, a more complex and layered character than any previously animated. Though his design is very simple, Boxer is a character of integrity, strength and intelligence (why, he could read the alphabet!); and he is a source of admiration among the other animals. As the narrator of the film explains, while Boxer worked hard under his former caretaker, Mr. Jones, when he was working for the collective good of his comrades, he was like three horses in one. Through his tireless effort and commitment, Boxer sweat and wept to build the success of the animal-run farm, and to oust and defend against their human oppressors. Unfortunately, as the pigs of the farm became more greedy and privileged, they began to accuse the other animals of treason wrongfully. Boxer angrily neighed his dissent. And though he continued to work with devotion, even with wounded hoof, to repair the windmill the humans had destroyed, by the time Boxer lay sick from an injury he sustained, the pigs tragically chose to sell him off to the glue factory. The sad irony is that, in originally mustering Boxer's support and enthusiasm for the revolution against the humans, the pigs had asked him, "When the last of your great strength is gone, what then?"

Samson from Sleeping Beauty (1959). © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Samson from Sleeping Beauty (1959). © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Disney's Sleeping Beauty (1959) arguably ushered in the era of the sidekick horse, complete with its own full-blown and full-grown intelligence, will, emotional life and distinguishing signature look. The prince in the film talks to Samson, his horse, and Samson not only understands and responds, but the animation strongly conveys his silent inner personality. Herein we see a marriage of the stylized, more physiologically accurate drawings of horses, with the expressiveness of earlier, cartoony characters.

Charlotte's Web (1973), produced by Hanna Barbera, is a nod to the past, in that its horses are mostly just background characters, pulling plows, standing around the stable or grazing on the hillside. (Though there was one song to which they "happily" contributed.)

Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1991) again puts forward a strong hoof in re-imagining the horse as an important and meaningful character within the film. Philippe is full-bodied, willful, uniquely designed and emotionally expressive.

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Philippe from Beauty and the Beast (1991) said more with his ears and facial expressions than some people do all day. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved. Pegasus from Hercules (1997), a unique half-bird, horse hybrid. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Disney's Hercules (1997) introduces us to Pegasus, again ... for the first time. Here, the flying horse continues the tradition of combining a stylized design with a strong personality. Through aerial acrobatics, bouncing around, head-butting, wrestling and high-fives to Hercules, we see a relationship reminiscent of the one between Pecos Bill and Widowmaker. The jealousy of Pegasus toward Hercules' encroaching love interest, Megara, is also echoed through the horse's playful and mischievous taunting of her. During one comical moment, Pegasus even blows out a flaming wisp of Hades' hair and yet, despite all of this, he also contributes heroically to the story. Pegasus is not merely a prop, but an integral full-fledged character.

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Disney's Mulan (1998) brings more of the same, with an elegant, angled design for the main black horse, Khan. Again, he contributes memorably to the story for example, spitting and stomping on Mushu the ancestor dragon on a couple of occasions. While the horses for the invading Huns were vicious and functional in their design, but not emotive, the stampede of the Hun army down the snowy mountainside is remarkable for being the first large-scale computer generated horse scene.

Bullseye from Toy Story 2 (1999). © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Bullseye from Toy Story 2 (1999). © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Pixar's Toy Story 2 (1999) takes the computer generated horse in a completely different direction, hearkening back to the earliest days of cartoon personality, with Bullseye having some of the characteristics (e.g., loyalty and slobbering enthusiasm) of an affable dog. By now it is well established that horse characters often can and do play a role in the heroism of the film, and in helping to rescue Woody and Jessie from the airport runway, Bullseye certainly does his small part to "save the day."

Altivo from The Road to El Dorado (2000) had some scene-stealing reactions. © DreamWorks SKG.

Altivo from The Road to El Dorado (2000) had some scene-stealing reactions. © DreamWorks SKG.

DreamWorks' The Road to El Dorado (2000) is one of the best character animated films yet made. While originally billed as a buddy movie, Altivo the horse can be considered a necessary third wheel for the duo of Tulio and Miguel. Stylized and intelligent, Altivo forwards along the story, for example, in chasing an apple over the railing of the Spanish voyage ship; in kicking the wall during the ball game, in El Dorado, to secure the winning goal for Miguel and Tulio; and in leaping to free the sail and thus the departing ship from harm's way, as a collapsing pillar closed the secret city of gold to the marching conquistadors. While most animated horses avoid the dreaded "Mr. Ed" syndrome, Altivo does take up human language on one occasion, joining his companions in awed, marveling chorus, when he says, "El Dorado..."

While Shrek's Donkey falls outside the immediate purview of this article, he is still notable for having such a prominent, heroic role in the film and for talking! It is interesting to note that by 2001, "the horse sidekick" is such a well-known element of animated features that when Shrek decided to break all the usual conventions, it punned the "mighty steed," turning the norm into a helpful but wisecracking, slightly neurotic, pushy donkey.

Lastly, then, our survey concludes with DreamWorks' newly released Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. The film begins with the birth of a foal, Spirit and perhaps this is fitting, in that the film also represents the birth of a new kind of animated horse. Unlike other films to date, horses are not just integral characters to the story, they are central to it. Through the first-person narrative perspective of Spirit, we glimpse inside the mind and motivations of the horse protagonist, explicitly. While voiceover helps to contextualize the story, careful attention and conscious manipulation of the details of the horses' body and behavior work to communicate thoughts and emotion. The animated horses within Spirit, including Rain, achieve a level of heroism and sophistication unmatched in earlier films; as well as successfully bringing to life the traditionally drawn and computer generated forms of the animal.

Without a spoken word, Spirit and Rain from Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002), kept audiences captivated. © DreamWorks SKG.

Without a spoken word, Spirit and Rain from Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002), kept audiences captivated. © DreamWorks SKG.

Wins By A Nose

Back in the day, when characters were more a bouncing bricolage of happy circles and hoses, animators didn't have to worry so much about all of the underlying business of muscle and bone. Nowadays, we see the gamut of characters everything from the plush design of Toy Story 2's Bullseye to the physiological accuracy of DreamWorks' Spirit.

Evolution, please remember, is not the plodding, purposeful march of creation, but rather a ramifying result of happenstance and circumstance. Different branches of an evolutionary tree can and do coexist as contemporaries, much like humans are contemporaries of chimpanzees, and one did not actually evolve from the other (as is sometimes the misconception).

As with theoretical biology, so too with animation history. The categories of animated horses do not imply or predict one another. Rather, they are all extant today, depending on the needs and circumstances of the story.

Greg Singer is the eohippus of the hippocampus, and recognizes that horses are better than wishes. He wishes he had a horse.

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