It’s Not Possible to Make a Completely Historically Accurate Horse Film and I, a Horse Person, Am (Almost) Totally OK With That


Frock Flicks note: This is a guest post by Mary Pagones, the author of the popular LGBT+ equestrian fiction series Fortune’s Fool, and also writes m/m fiction as Quinn Wilde. You can find her on Twitter at @marypagones and Instagram at @pagones721.


There was a recent, much-shared article in the Smithsonian Magazine about a recent archeological dig that revealed that medieval war horses were, well, a lot smaller than Hollywood or BBC prestige period television might lead us to believe:

“In the largest-ever study of horse bones to date, research by five English universities study examined the bones of nearly 2,000 horses. The specimens, which date from the 4th to 17th centuries, were recovered from 171 unique archaeological sites including castles and medieval horse cemeteries … Their work revealed that the majority of medieval horses, including those used in war, were less than 14.2 hands (4 feet 10 inches) tall from the ground to their shoulder blades — the maximum height of a pony today.”

So, I fully expect, now that this nugget of information has been revealed, to see fewer majestic medieval mounts like the one Tom Hiddleston is riding in The Hollow Crown (2012):

The Hollow Crown (2012)

And more shaggy little ponies, right?


Just cancel every single production-in-waiting about the Middle Ages and big, beefy dudes on Friesian horses. Not historically accurate.

Of course, I’m joking. I fully expect a Friesian-o-rama the next time I venture onto my favorite streaming services and watch a medieval film. Just as with costuming, when casting horses, telling a visually interesting story that is understandable to a modern audience is always the biggest priority for filmmakers.

Historical accuracy is limited by the horses that are available and trained to work on film sets, as well as the limits of the actors as riders. Yes, an actor might be able to fake being a king through sheer charisma and panache, but you can’t fake out a horse. Hence, the need for stunt doubles for serious riding scenes and also horses that are fairly tolerant of rider mistakes for close-ups.

Even if actors already know how to ride, or have tried to learn to ride for a part, films must use horses that are safe and available for a busy movie or television set, which might not be the most historically accurate breed horses. If there are medieval-style (cough, non-Friesians) available, horse selection is also often more based upon the likely prejudices of the typical, non-horsey viewer, versus historical accuracy.

A majestic, strapping beast with a full mane and tail screams king, lord, or badass knight versus the actual type of horse an actual knight may have ridden.

In case you’re wondering about the riding ability of actors commissioned to play professional riders, take a gander at this shot of Ben Whishaw from A Very English Scandal (2018).

A Very English Scandal (2018)

Now, Norman Scott, the historical personage Whishaw was portraying in the TV series, was an aspiring (and by all accounts, a very good) dressage rider. Thank God the filmmakers showed Whishaw mainly cleaning stables and having sex with Hugh Grant, rather than doing actual riding in the production. I am really not sure what’s going on with his pinky fingers there.

Note: I did not expect Whishaw transform into Carl Hester within a few weeks of taking riding lessons.

Carl Hester

But gazing at photo of Whishaw as Scott, I admit to getting physically twitchy at the desire to ask him to shorten his reins, KEEP HIS THUMBS UP, and to relax his leg.

Costumers did Whishaw no favors by not getting him an actual dressage saddle to ride in and not bothering to find him properly fitted helmet. Whishaw was great in the rest of the production, which you should totally go see if you haven’t already.

Perhaps I should give him some slack about the reins, no pun intended, because it’s likely that a horse on a set that can be ridden by a non-rider is taught to be ridden with zero contact (completely the opposite of how a dressage horse is trained). I’m willing to bet Whishaw was told simply to not touch the horse’s mouth at all, and just let the horse do his thing.

For more examples of actors who probably don’t know how to ride with insanely floppy reins, take a gander at this clip from HBO’s Rome (2005-07):

Rome is a good example of how strategic cutting and touches of realism (such as saddles without stirrups) can create the impression of period accuracy, even if there are the inevitable constraints of finding horses trained for film sets that can tolerate the stresses of the environment and the riding ability of the actors.

Truthfully, I wouldn’t want a purely historically accurate approach to filming horses. A historically accurate pony that is too tiny for a taller actor won’t make me enjoy a film more. As viewers, we must tolerate the (often more compassionate) modern bits horses can be ridden in safely, by non-riding actors. Excessive, ridiculous dubbed-in whinnying, now that I’m less a fan of.

Although, Pursuit of Love (2021), it would have been nice to have cut off the Velcro fasteners on those saddle pads for a movie set during the 1930s.

Pursuit of Love (2021)



Do you notice how actors ride horses in frock flicks? How do you feel about it?


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44 Responses

  1. Saraquill

    For me the most memorable “riding” scenes come from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I doubt coconut halves were accurate to that time and place, but they made the scenes work beautifully.

    • Boxermom

      Thanks for making me laugh! I love that scene where they’re speculating about the coconuts “migrating” to England. In fact, that whole movie kills me. Cheers! :)

  2. Aleko

    In the matter of Ben Whishaw’s pinky fingers: in Britain it is considered proper, when riding at a slow pace with a snaffle, to have the rein running between the ring and little finger. (With a double bridle, the snaffle rein is still between the ring and little finger and the curb rein runs under the little finger; this allows for leverage on the bit.) So that’s what’s going on there, and it is 100% correct for a British-taught rider. When I was first lifted into a saddle aged 2 that’s how I was shown to hold the reins – I have the photo to prove it – and have done so ever since.

    (It’s also true that I was taught to keep my elbows in and my toes pointing forwards, which Whishaw is signally failing to do. But what would you? They probably reckoned that so long as they got him sitting reasonably steady and comfortable on the horse – and I think you’re dead right that they told him not to do anything and the trainer was giving the horse its cues – that was as good as they were going to get. Shouting ‘Keep your elbows in!’ and ‘Don’t stick your feet out like that – knees into the saddle!’ would just have stressed and confused him.)

    • Anna LB

      I learned to ride in the U.S. and this is also how I was taught to hold the reins! Even if you only have a snaffle rein, it’s easier to communicate via the ring finger than via the pinky, IMO.

    • Mary L Pagones

      Ah, I’m the author and hopefully it’s not to creepy to follow up! I should have been much more specific and said that my “pinky issue” was that the pinky fingers are level with thumbs, versus the thumbs being turned up. At least in the US, this riding flaw is called “piano hands.” And, as you very rightly noted, when the thumbs and pinkies are level, this causes the elbows to chicken wing out, and breaks the line of connection from hand to bit. (Not that it bothers this gorgeous saint of a grey horse one little bit). I will fess up that I can often do this myself if I’m not being mindful! And I can’t even play the piano!

      • Anna LB

        OMG, just had a flashback to my childhood trainer shouting “PIANO HANDS!” at me! Now I see what you mean…

  3. Gwyn

    A mis-spent (and expensive) education with a degree in Equine Science (seemed like a good idea at the time) means that most of the time there’s a little bingo game running every time someone is on a horse. Except Viggo Mortensen, who actually CAN ride and has lovely rapport with many of his mounts.

    There’s a LOT of judging and side-eye, but thems the breaks. Modern horses that are trained for films are rather like Faberge eggs. Not many, and they are distinctive.

      • Deb

        Came here to say that. I had to pause Watchmen when he was riding to see if it was really him. Nice seat oh and he’s a good rider too. ;)

      • Allison Rabenau

        Speaking of ‘Rome’, I seem to remember hearing that the actor playing Titus Pullo was such a good rider that they had to insert some dialogue explaining it, since a foot soldier would not have had those skills.

    • Katie

      As I recall, when filming LoTR, Viggo Mortensen exercised and cared for his horse as much as possible, on the grounds that some of the scenes would be scary for the horse, and he wanted to build a rapport.

  4. mmcquown

    I remember someone on this site who was very knowledgeable about horse trappings. If I had to ride, I would prefer the 17th-century to many that I’ve seen. The discussion about the size of horses brings to mind the assertion about people all being smaller in earlier periods. One of my 17th century friends actually did some deep research on this and found that average height fluctuated over the centuries. Anyone who ever saw the Napoleonic exhibit when it was on tour will have seen some dresses that were clearly meant for women above average height. But that didn’t stop a woman in front of me confiding to her friend that “they were much smaller then.”

    • Jaisan

      Currently I’m loving the riding in 1883. Yes it has problems, but for actors who for the most part don’t ride? And they were also apparently on 1880’s style saddles. They did impressively well with less than a month of cowboy camp. I was also impressed with how they approached driving wagons.

    • B. Durbin

      The surviving garments are the ones that got outgrown before they wore out, for the most part. If they based historical height on my kids’ surviving clothes, they’d think we averaged 3-6 inches shorter than we end up, because that’s the point where they shoot up like weeds…

      • Aleko

        Actually that’s not so much true of clothing, because you routinely expected to have to let garments out using the seam allowance and the ‘grow tuck’ you had put into the petticoat (a regular feature of children’s dresses in the past). And even when you couldn’t enlarge a garment any more, because the practice when dressmaking was to fold unwanted corners and inches of fabric to the inside or into tucks or the seam allowance rather than cut them off you could unpick it and have an entire oblong width of stuff to use for something else. (I own the bodice of a 1770s child’s gown which had been not only let out but darned under the arms where the strain had caused the fabric to fray, till it was just too frail and shabby to be worn any more. At that point somebody had simply removed the skirt – which would certainly have been complete loom widths, not cut about at all – from the gown and used it to make something else, and tossed the bodice, whose individual pieces weren’t large enough to make something new, into the rag-bag to keep in case they ever needed to put a patch into whatever they were making the skirt into.)

        But it is true of plate armour. A good armourer could do a fair amount of panel-beating to allow for an adult who got a little stouter with age, but when the wearer grew upwards as well as outwards he just needed a whole new one made; so his old one just got left in the armoury till it fitted another boy in the family, as the various pieces were too small to be easily cannibalised as spare parts for an adult armour. And, of course, it was relatively rare (though far from unknown) for growing boys actually to have to fight in serious battles, so their armour didn’t suffer hard knocks and had a much better chance of surviving than full-size suits. The Royal Armouries’ curators get tired of pointing out that this is the reason so many of their exhibits are so small, so a few years ago they created an entire summer exhibition of their juvenile armours, which they titled (wait for it) “The Knight is Young”.

  5. AD

    At least with the flick Beowulf & Grendel because they filmed in Iceland they used Icelandic ponies which are so very pretty. But it was weird seeing really tall actors on such compact mounts and with the unique gait it sometimes seemed like the heroes were standing on a segway and not sitting on a horse.

  6. Lise

    Viggo Mortensen rides very well and is a great horse lover. He bought both his horse friend from Hidalgo and from LOTR after the filming ended. And he bought the horse used for Arwen Evenstar’s wild ride for the stuntrider who did the scene. A movie I cannot watch is “Charge of the Light Brigade” where they, allegedly, used trip wires to make the horses fall in a large battle scene – they had Russian cossacks as stunt riders, my husband tells me.

    • V

      That was the 1930s version with Errol Flynn. But the 1968 version by Tony Richardson is much better in that respect: the scene of the charge was shot near Ankara and the Turkish Presidential Guard lent 600 of their horses, which obviously couldn’t be treated as disposable!

      At least one version of the DVD of the Richardson has as an extra an 12-minute-long 1912 silent version of the Charge, filmed in Wyoming using genuine US Cavalry. It’s fascinating because on the one hand you can see that these are real practical horse soldiers to whom cavalry manoeuvres (the same manoeuvres in the British cavalry drill book) aren’t just a parade-ground exercise but the means whereby they do their job on rough terrain. On the other hand, although the drill is the same everything about the horses and the riding style is so blatantly American Western and utterly not-British-Army it’s quite comical. And because at that time American cavalry horses were taught to lie down on command and have their riders fire over them, in the ‘scene of carnage after the charge’ shot all the “dead” horses are clearly just lying down, and their riders are pretending to be dead but whispering in their ears “Just lie still a bit longer, Dobbin, and then you can get up and I’ll give you a carrot”. It’s very sweet.

    • Lmaris

      John Wayne was notorious for having brutal equine stunts – the running W cord running from one front pastern to a ring on the girth to the other leg then up to the rider’s hand to pull feet out from under the horse while it is galloping. The rider can jump free and land in sand but the horse crashes head first.

      It is easy to spot a trained, controlled fall. They’re safe for all involved.

  7. Emma Bull

    Oh, the gratuitous whinnying. As if to tell people listening from another room that there are horses in the scene.

    • Cheri

      I’ve mentioned before, and not just gratuitous whinnying; courting stallion noises and mare squeals. Why does every movie with horses insist on adding copious amounts of horse smexy times to the sound track? Who can we contact to get the pony pron removed?

      • jeanie jay

        My mother grew up on a cattle ranch in eastern NV and has the EXACT same complaint about a lot of horse movies. And her family didn’t even have that many horses to begin with! XDDD

    • jirelofjoiry

      Oh lord, yes! That makes me roll my eyes every time. Horses don’t whinny constantly! They communicate in many different ways. One of my pet peeves.

    • LKJ

      Ridden for over 30 years. Never. Not once. Has a horse I’m riding run up to a specific spot, stopped, and whinnied. Ever. 😊 But I’m preaching to the choir. I’m also a sound engineer who has done some post – production sweetening
      (adding sound effects, music, and mixing) so I do find this particular convention super annoying.

  8. Elyse

    The comment about the Velcro straps on the saddle pads made me giggle far more than it should. I never use them and have been known to remove them with a seam ripper.

    • Mary L Pagones

      I was thinking about it, and I actually don’t know anyone who uses their Velcro straps on their saddle pads. I do wish tack companies would stop making them that way. Alas, I so think Uncle Matthew would have some choice words on the subject.

      • Lmaris

        Loads of us use them as they do keep the pad in place. Cut them off if they offend thee ;-)

  9. Katie

    I am LOVING these horse posts! I’m not a horse person but I AM a knitter, hand embroiderer and machine-sewer, and watching most actors bungle through any of these things in period films drives me up the wall (and makes me LOL). Keep these comin’!

    • Mary

      They should have “hand stunt doubles” for the closeups of things like that! Hey, that would be a super cool job description!

  10. EA Gorman

    I understand the need for accuracy, but I would rather the horses be as comfortable and safe as possible on the shoots. So if modern gear keeps them safe and comfortable, I’m willing to overlook it.

    • Lmaris

      There are ways to camouflage the differences between modern saddles an historic ones, but the 19th Century McClellan saddle was designed for equine comfort, not human. In Roman era movies I’ve seen riders using black stirrup irons to hide the fact they’re using stirrups (not a thing in Rome), and in scenes when riders are mounting or dismounting, the saddles clearly have the 4 horns of the period saddle. But not while riding.

  11. Anna LB

    I spit out my tea at that photo of Ben Wishaw. What were they DOING to that poor actor??

  12. Deb

    Great article!! I also throw a side-eye at the horses used in movies but understand that it’s next to impossible to find period correct horses unless a lot of films want to use something like Icelandic ponies for earlier periods.

  13. Al Don

    Were the horses in Útlaginn (Outlaw: The Saga of Gisli) (1981) not correct? I wouldn’t know about specific horse breeds but the actors looked just fine on those horses even if they’re smaller than what we’re used to.

    Also I’m curious about what is known about reign holding styles the further we go back? Napoléon, who rode purely for function and not form, apparently had an odd “loose rein” style that his instructors couldn’t talk him out of, so showing him with “correct” form would be incorrect. But that’s one highly specific example. For an analogy from an area I’m familiar with, a lot of historical films use modern (20th century or later) Olympic fencing stances and techniques, which are dead wrong for films about say… the Middle Ages. Movies taking modern institutions, however sensible, and retrograding the technology results in these ahistorical techniques. I’m sure there are surviving riding manuals from later periods, but what do we know of, for example, Medieval or Roman styles? I’ve seen careful recreations of Medieval saddles, but how can be learn about the riding techniques themselves? I’m curious about that.

    • Cheri

      There are some good resources if you don’t mind wading through reams and reams of illuminations. I’ve spent quite some time pouring over them. Another resource is Antoine Pluvinel’s book published in 1623, and I don’t remember the name. But if you googs it, it should pop up. I have a reproduction of it, somewhere,…. And then some.

      The short of it is, the farther back you go, the looser the reins, and held in one hand. Neck reining isn’t a Wild West invention. It came to us via the Fertile Crescent and Spain. Also, reins and saddles fit the jobs. For example, the English saddle is fairly recent in the whole of horse riding history. Before that saddles had horns, and pommels and cantles. The super high, leg enveloping saddles were for jousting and fighting from. Regular saddles looked a lot like Portuguese saddles. Everyone rode astride unless they were an old priest or a heavily pregnant person. Stirrups are only about 1000 old. Possibly thought to aid in War. It’s easier to get a good swing behind your arm when you can brace. Speaking of stirrups, Romans didn’t have them. Their saddles had 4 horns; one at each ‘corner’. There’s some thought that the style was adapted from the Celts. But references are scarce. Saddles are basically two panels of wood with padding on the bottom side and a fork and cantle holding them together. String a rope around that and the horse, toss a pillow or blanket on top, and there ya go. Steppes saddles are a great example. Everything else is just being fancy, xD Bits haven’t changed much in 2000 years either. There are some horrific ones, but in general they are mostly ye old curb or snaffle.

      Just pick a culture and google their art. You’ll see lots of things in the nooks and crannies.

    • Aleko

      You might try chasing up videos and articles by Toby (Tobias) Capwell. He’s not only the head of arms and armour at the Wallace Collection, which is one of the most significant non-national armour collections in the world, but he’s also one of the leading international jousters. His focus tends to be more on the equipment than the riding techniques because that’s where his professional focus is, but you obviously get to see how it’s done. One excellent one is a documentary of how he equipped and trained a young man with the exact same scoliosis as Richard III to fight in full armour on horseback:

  14. Lmaris

    I judge westerns by how well the protagonists can ride.

    One surprisingly accurate horse-related movie is the comedy “Norsemen” on Netflix. The horses are Fjords and similar cobby types with the occasional Islandic horse thrown in.

    I’ve posted before that I generally loathe fictional movies or series about horses becuase the horse usually doesn’t really resemble the horse named, and the people do not act as a horseman would. Secretariat was one of the worst movies I’ve seen.

    One improvement of horses in movies would be to ban Fresians from any roll in period pieces other than in harness. They were primarily carriage horses, after all. Iberians would be better replacements, if you need a flashy steed.

  15. Lmaris

    One final peeve: National Velvet was a crap movie.

    Not because of the riding, or the tack, the plot, costuming, dialog or anything else. It is crap because the horse in the movie was a chestnut. The horse’s name is “The Pie” because it was piebald (black & white). Unforgivable.

    In the 1980s Miniseries “Lonesome Dove” one of the horses was called “the Hell Bitch” because she was mean as sin. She was described in the book as a grey mare. The horse cast in the role was a grey gelding (neutered male) but anytime anyone, horse or human, came near he pinned his ears in anger and even snaked his head and attempted to bite on occasion. Only a horse person would notice his gender, but he played the role perfectly. Well done.

    • Mary L Pagones

      Actually, that was done for a very practical reason–it’s almost impossible to double a piebald horse that has a major role in a film, since almost all animal “stars” (especially horses) have doubles for certain scenes. It might be possible today, with CGI (although that would add to the expense of the film and even then might not be worth it for a low-budget film). But back when National Velvet was made, impossible.

    • jirelofjoiry

      It’s a shame because I love the book National Velvet. I wish someone would make a book accurate series out of it.

  16. Lily Lotus Rose

    Thank you for reminding of Ben Whishaw as a stableboy. Thank you for the pic from Rome. And thank you for the GIPH of Jeremy Irons.

  17. Roxana

    And then there are those of us who go ‘Horsie!’ and just admire a good looking animal with no idea of it’s breed or historicity. 😄

  18. Jessica A

    This isn’t a comment about actors riding horses so much as it is about the horses themselves. I don’t know if anyone’s seen Beowulf and Grendel, the indie flick with Gerard Butler as Beowulf. One of the things I noticed that was that the horses, actually I think they were ponies, were extremely tiny compared to the burly hairy men who were riding them. I know the movie isn’t exactly a bastion of historical accuracy, but I was wondering if that was a more accurate portrayal of horses for that era than is typically portrayed.