War Horse Captures Equine Behavior with Puppets

Most horse lovers have read Black Beauty, the famous novel Anna Sewell wrote to raise awareness of the mistreatment of carriage and other working horses in Victorian England.

Another English writer, Michael Morpurgo, accomplished a similar feat with War Horse, his 1982 novel of World War I told, like Black Beauty, through the eyes of an equine protagonist.

War Horse

The equine stars of War Horse are life-sized puppets designed to swivel their ears, spook, and act like real horses.

The horse, Joey, and the English boy who raises and loves him, Albert, find themselves on the front lines of the Great War--one in which 1 million horses were sent from Britain to the Western Front in France, and only 62,000 returned. (Many of those that did not perish on the battlefields wound up sold to French or Belgian slaughterhouses.)

In a creative leap of faith, British producers adapted War Horse for the London stage, using impressionistic backdrops and other effects to evoke the sights and sounds of war. Most remarkable, however, are the horses themselves: life-sized creations by the award-winning Handspring Puppet Company. Made of wood, wicker, metal, and other materials, and occupied by a trio of puppeteers, War Horse's horses are, well, real. Thanks to Toby Sedgwick, the production's director of movement and horse choreography, Joey and the other equine cast members snort, nuzzle, swivel their ears, spook, and act just like living, breathing horses. Sedgwick, not a horseman himself, did his research by spending hours at a farm observing its equine residents.

Joey and Albert's ultimately redeeming bond, and the horrors of war for man and beast, continue to move London audiences. American theatergoers will be able to share in the experience when the U.S. production of War Horse opens to general audiences at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City on April 14.

Morpurgo's book will be reinvented for a second time when famed director Steven Spielberg's movie version opens this December. Whether you see War Horse on the stage or on the big screen, get ready for a deeply moving experience.

About the Author

Jennifer O. Bryant

Jennifer O. Bryant is editor-at-large of the U.S. Dressage Federation's magazine, USDF Connection. An independent writer and editor, Bryant contributes to many equestrian publications, has edited numerous books, and authored Olympic Equestrian. More information about Jennifer can be found on her site, www.jenniferbryant.net.

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