Of Horses and Men is a 2013 Icelandic film (Hross í oss). The English subtitled version is widely available for streaming, or as a cheap DVD in all the usual places.
It’s a strange film. It opens with a man saddling his mare, and it’s clear from the interactions between man and horse that their relationship is new. The saddling is shot and edited as a seduction: the man is intent on going for a ride, but first he must gain her trust, and she must submit to him.
The subtext running through the film is simple enough: that humans and horses are both animals, slave to our animal desires, whatever they may be. We’re all dumb and self-destructive; we bring misery upon ourselves because we are unable to transcend our very simple animalistic instincts.
Our horseman, who is unnamed but turns out to be one of the film’s main characters, takes his mare to visit his girlfriend. As he woos her over tea, his mare is wooed by the girl’s stallion across a fence. As our horseman leaves, he is humiliated as the fence breaks, and the stallion mounts the mare with no regard for the human encumbrance on her back.
The horses have complicated the blossoming love affair between the two humans by bringing social shame to the man, and by baring their ultimate carnal desires for all to see. On returning home, our horseman shoots and kills his new mare in a calculated jealous act. His girlfriend castrates her stallion. This all takes about 15 minutes, and gives the viewer a very good idea of what sort of film they are watching.
Of Horses and Men is short at 85 minutes, and consists of a series of short vignettes, starting with our horse-human love quadrette. Most of the vignettes will end badly for all concerned, and the horse/human bodycount will grow. (In that way, it’s a bit like Kill Bill.)
The film is set in the remote Icelandic hinterland, a land of volcanic desert and dangerous extremes of climate. The scenery is beautiful, the people are stoic, and the humour is pitch-black: this is an undeniably Scandinavian film.
The obvious point of comparison for Of Horses and Men is The Black Stallion, or at least the first half where the boy and the horse are castaway on a deserted island. (I’ve written about The Black Stallion for [adjective][species] in the past.) In that film, the boy and horse become reliant on one another for survival and companionship, which grows into a close bond.
The Black Stallion‘s sequences showing the development of the relationship between the two is stunning. It highlights the beauty and remoteness of the island, and the best parts of the nature of both human and horse. Of Horses and Men is similarly stunning, and similarly focussing on horse/human relationships, but is much less positive about our shared, inherent animal nature.
The human characters do love their horses, but the relationship is a starkly unequal one. The horses are tools to be used, creatures to be tricked into bondage and discarded when no longer convenient. Any number of indignities are visited upon our horses, including an ocean swim to a Russian ship to buy black market vodka, and one poor creature is sacrificed in a cold snap to save the enterprising human, who uses the same trick as Luke Skywalker on Hoth, cutting open the beast’s belly for warmth.
The horses are entirely resigned to their fate, accepting the wills of their human masters. Undoubtedly this is a far more accurate representation of a real horse-human relationship than the partnership of equals imagined by The Black Stallion, but the cold pragmatism of the Icelanders is still bracing, particularly in the face of the flawed nature of their own animal instincts.
Of Horses and Men emphasises the animal nature of the humans by putting them on the same footing as the horses. So as our horseman from the opening vignette suffers the humiliation of being on horseback for horse-horse mating, a horse will later be tied to him as he and his girlfriend have sex.
The exploration of our fundamental animal nature in Of Horses and Men is, of course why I’m writing about it for [adjective][species]. For myself and for many other furries, I see my furry identity as an exploration of the interplay between my instinctual/animal and rational/human sides. Our animal side is something that gets short shrift in society, because our animal instincts are seen as being lesser. Our society places value on intellectual work, like writing or mathematics, and lower value on physical work, like horsemanship or parenting.
There is a sense that we should transcend our emotions and instincts, as if this would make us more worthwhile human beings. Basic requirements for life are often presented, in society, absent of their base, visceral contexts: food comes pre-made and pre-wrapped; porn comes absent of body hair and odour; sleep is a collection of lifestyle accoutrements rather than a basic act. The simple, animal truth of human need is obscured by a gentrifying, civilizing layer. And, for the most part, it’s bullshit.
There is freedom to be found in accepting your own animal instincts as a personal truth. Once accepted, they can be met in a way that celebrates the good, useful parts and controls the bad or unsocial parts. To put it another way, a gay man can try to deny his animal truth by marrying a woman anyway. Or he can embrace his sexuality, enjoy sex and love, and complain about the fact society values heterosexual marriage more than it does homosexual marriage.
My animal-person identity, my personal horse, is one that allows me to accept that it’s my animal instincts that make me human. I reject the idea that humans are a sort of anti-animal. I can accept and embrace my animal needs, and I can meet those needs in a way that serves my human society in a civil and appropriate way. My furry identity can meet these needs: I am a civil animal.
Every time I see furries presented in a way that mocks our community, I have the same immediate reaction: fuck you. What kind of animal shames another for expressing a shared animal interest—friendship, or sex, or whatever—in the way that suits them best? An uncivil animal, that’s who.
I know from personal experience and analysis of the furry data we collect here at [adjective][species] that furries are a social, happy, caring, tight-knit bunch. We get mocked because we transgress a sharp line drawn by society: that between sexual and non-sexual behaviour. Society places a higher value on non-sexual activity because sex is seen as animalistic. In the furry world, love does not need to be defined by sex, and vice versa. In this respect, we are the greater beasts.
I enjoy films like Of Horses and Men because they deal with the undeniable animal nature of human beings. Our rural Icelanders are in touch with the world around them, and their human relationships are uncomplicated. But the horses are stronger, and their relationships are even simpler. We can be better humans by being more horse, by showing our own strength and friendship and love in the simplest way possible.
If you’re looking for a film to explore your animal-person side then you could do worse than Of Horses and Men, but you can do better as well. It has a few problems, in particular a dodgy “action” sequence (involving a slow-moving tractor), and a couple of cinematic tropes that don’t hold up to even the slightest amount of logical scrutiny.
You can do better by watching Carroll Ballard’s four animal films, and his exploration of human nature therein (which include The Black Stallion; I’ve reviewed them all for [a][s]). Never Cry Wolf is probably the best even given a slightly dodgy opening act. I’d recommend starting there. But if you’re looking for something new, or if you just have a soft spot for Scandinavian deadpan, Of Horses and Men is well worth your time.