Documentary Review: ‘Equus: Story of the Horse’ on PBS

Airing this Wednesday and next, Equus: Story of the Horse brings the evolution and both natural and artificial selection process throughout human history to your television in gorgeous storytelling. Biz Stamm previews and reviews.

Whenever a horse-centric piece of media is made for consumption by the general public, I can’t help but be skeptical. My mind immediately braces for something dumbed down and over simplified, rehashing basics that I’ve known since I was a Cloverbud in 4-H. When I first saw the trailer for the new PBS mini-series Equus: Story of the Horse, I really had no expectations of greatness. I suspected I might find watching it a boring, tedious endeavor, during which I learned nothing I didn’t already know. I thought I’d find myself zoning out, staring at my phone frequently over the course of the two hour total run time.

I got a chance to watch the two-part series over the weekend. When I first heard the “in a world”-style narration, the kind of narration that commonly accompanies epic movie trailers, I may have rolled my eyes a little, but it didn’t take long for my cynicism to melt away. It quickly became clear — and as a self-proclaimed crazy horse girl, I’m a bit embarrassed I didn’t see this from the get-go — that horses are just as, if not more, epic than any big-budget Hollywood flick, deserving of such gravitas. I soon become fully immersed in the booming narration that guided me through an exploration of how the horse shaped human civilization through history, and how we in turn shaped the horse.

Episode one takes us back to the very beginning. We learn all about the first horse — Dawn horse — who would be unrecognizable to us today as any form of equine. Using state-of-the-art animation and the latest research, Dawn horse is brought to life right in front of our very eyes. From there, we go on an evolutionary journey to discover how Dawn horse transformed into the horses we have come to know and love today. Tapping into the latest research on equine behavior, we’re shown the nuance behind a horse’s facial expressions, and how their social behaviors have predisposed them to be capable of working with humans.

Screengrab from trailer

While episode one focuses more on natural selection, episode two looks at the impact of artificial selection of the horse, and how it led to the development of the hundreds of breeds that exist today. Utilizing true-to-scale models, and possibly the world’s coolest man, ever, we get to see how the needs and wants of humans transformed the morphology and temperament of horses over time. All of this historical information is put into context with heart-filled modern-day stories that highlight the relationship humans have come to have with horses.

The special bond between horse and human is a magical thing. Screen grab from preview.

When I was in grad school, I remember one of my professors telling me that a good speaker can describe a topic in such a way that it’s comprehensible to a kindergartner and thought-provoking for an expert. Equus: Story of the Horse is able to do just that, making it the perfect viewing experience for equestrians and non-equestrians alike. As a lover of horses, science, and beautiful things, I can’t recommend this mini-series enough. It combines all the best aspects of a skillfully filmed nature documentary, the insatiable curiosity of a show like Mythbusters, and of course, horses!

Be sure to tune in to PBS this Wednesday, January 16th, and next Wednesday, January 23 at 8/7 central to catch this wonderful series that I am giving 5 out of 5 carrots.

Go PBS, and go riding!

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