Black Beauty is a book that quite literally changed history. Anna Sewell’s fictional biography of a gentle, beautiful horse in 19th century England was a blunt parable on animal welfare, and its depictions of animal abuse — described from a horse’s perspective — led to reforms and an increased awareness of horses’ intelligence.
The novel was adapted several times in the last 100 years, most notably by Edward Scissorhands and Secret Garden screenwriter Caroline Thompson in 1994 as a period piece. Now 33-year-old Ashley Avis (Adolescence) has taken up the challenge of telling the classic story in a modern setting. Her adaptation of Black Beauty — which she wrote, directed, and edited — comes out on Disney Plus on Nov. 27.
The film transposes Beauty’s story to the United States, where the titular horse grows up as a wild mustang before being captured and shipped east, separated from her herd. Initially resistant to being tamed, Beauty meets Jo Green (Mackenzie Foy), a wounded young girl who wants nothing to do with horses — until she meets Beauty. It’s the ultimate horse girl story.
As a young girl in Florida, the Black Beauty novel kicked off Avis’ own lifelong relationship with horses. She was an equestrian long before she was a filmmaker, and now she’s making a career out of combining those passions. Her next project is Breyer Hollow, a horse-centric children’s series from Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment based on the Breyer horse toyline.
“There’s a quick and fast way that you can train horses. And there’s the right way to train horses,” Avis told me. She was set on using Liberty Training for the film, a method that emphasizes the bond between humans and horses. Essentially, she wanted the horses to want to perform in the movie, rather than perform out of obligation. The trainers had 10 weeks to turn four Thoroughbred mares, fresh from the track, into Black Beauty.
“We were able to achieve stunts that we weren’t sure were going to be possible, like Beauty actually racing the river,” Avis told Polygon. The scene is a retooling of one from the 1877 book, where Beauty saves his driver by refusing to cross an overflowing river. In this take, Beauty runs alongside the river in an attempt to rescue her rider, who has been swept away. “All of that’s real,” said Avis.
But the stunts were just one of the production’s challenges. With the release of Polygon’s Horse Girl Canon, we sat down with Avis to find out what it was like working with the twenty (twenty!) horses that played Black Beauty, and how she reworked Anna Sewell’s story for a modern world.
Polygon: There was a renaissance of horse movies when we were growing up — The Silver Brumby, Black Beauty, The Horse Whisperer, Seabiscuit — but it feels like there are fewer now. Did those classic horse movies make an impression on you?
Avis: When I first met with Jeremy Bolt — who’s the wonderful producer of Black Beauty — we were talking about movies that inspired us growing up. And I mentioned loving the [beach] scene in The Black Stallion, the one that was done in the ’70s, between Alec and the Black — it’s just the relationship that’s being built between a human and a horse. And the cinematography is stunning. The visuals are stunning. And the emotion is stunning. It was sweeping, but emotional, and it had horses. I didn’t realize that at the time, but as I went down the path of becoming not just a writer, but a filmmaker, I was very impacted by that film.
I think finding the authenticity is extremely important, and that’s what the Black Stallion did so well. That scene on the beach, that encapsulates so much. And so the beach scene in Black Beauty, between Jo and Beauty, where she’s galloping, putting up her arms like she can fly — it’s very much an homage to how The Black Stallion made feel a long time ago.
In your film, Beauty is a mare, and Jo Green is a girl who plays a much larger role in Beauty’s life than Joe the stableboy in the book. What was the intention behind the expanding Jo’s presence in the story?
We’re in a world where new voices need to rise up and be represented, and we thought that it was a really good time to have Beauty be female. And we expanded upon the relationship between Beauty and Jo Green, which is organic to the novel, but there’s such a big chunk of time in the book where they’re separated. We really wanted to have the story be about the bond between Jo and Beauty, and the bond between a human and a horse — the healing power of that. So we just felt like it was the right time to make that change. And what a beautiful relationship to have, between a girl and her horse. That’s just something that I think rings very true.
I don’t know if it’s just a Horse Girl thing, but there is something that genuinely feels so magical about it. I’ll start to tear up when I see shots of horses running on the plain. What do you think it is that is so appealing about them?
It is so magical. It’s this connection to something that is so powerful, and that’s so big, and so thunderous … a horse in motion is one of the most beautiful things I can think of on this earth. I was reading a study the other day, about how when you’re bonded with a horse, that your heart either beats the same rhythm or they start mirroring one another. And they did a study where they paired a horse and someone the horse was not bonded with, and the same thing did not take place. So whether you own your own horse or not, I feel like there’s this deep connection.
Maybe it’s because humans and horses have always had such a long bond. I mean, horses built our world on their backs. And humans have always had horses in their lives, until recently. So perhaps there’s some kind of residual bond — from a time not lost, but a different time where we yearn to be around horses.
You decided to make Beauty a mustang and highlight the Bureau of Land Management’s round-ups of wild horses. What’s the relationship between your interest in that cause and the story of the film?
I came to the wild horse issue by starting to figure out what Beauty’s origin story would be. Even as a Horse Girl, growing up in Florida and spending every waking moment at the stable, I didn’t know that wild horses were being rounded up in our country. I felt so guilty that I didn’t know that was happening — and then that made me take pause and think, well, if I didn’t know, as a horse person, how many people don’t know that this is happening?
The issue has a lot of layers to it, but the way that they’re being rounded up and kept in mass holding, and these sterilization experiments — I mean, as an animal person, you can look at that, and to me, that’s extremely black-and-white. It’s just wrong. Horses are being stampeded. We show that very carefully in the film. A six-year-old could watch that and be impacted by it, but we did it in a very elegant way.
I recently launched a nonprofit called the Wild Beauty Foundation, where we’re going to be trying to illuminate through education, and through messages and films, the issues horses are facing today. I heard a crazy statistic the other day that only two percent of people in our country will ever actually be in the presence of a horse. And I’d like to up that statistic if we can, because it’s such a powerful relationship.
The film covers years of Beauty’s life, from her birth in the wild, through her many careers with different owners. Tell me everything about the horses you worked with for this film.
I really wanted to film a live birth. And so we had these two black mares that come from a particular breed down in South Africa, where it was very much predicted the babies would be black. The two of them were due around the same time. We had two weeks.
At just a regular old dusty training facility, we built this idyllic meadow with real grass, and real ferns, all around a tree. The horses were in corrals, and it was a perfect place to actually lay down and give birth. And for two weeks, the crew was on standby to get a call at any hour of the night when there was going to be a birth. And so we finally get the call, and we rushed to set and everyone’s excited! ...and the mare was not giving birth. They were actually weeks late, both of them. So, that was dubbed the “Night Mare.”
We had to strike the equipment — productions always have challenges, and we just couldn’t afford to keep that going. And then the very next day we actually had a birth — not on set, but at a farm nearby. A little colt was born in the likeness of Beauty, with the perfect star and a little sock. And we hadn’t struck the set yet. So when we were able to, we brought the mare and the colt over. That little colt just trotted around this beautiful little meadow, and we captured the opening moments of the film that way, which was like a little gift.
Over 20 horses played Black Beauty at different ages, and then four main Beauties, when Beauty is at her central age. But two of them are in 90 percent of the film, and they were called Jenny and Spirit.
Jenny was true black, she was the horse that really bonded with Mackenzie, doing the scenes with her as Jo. And then my favorite horse was Spirit. She was actually bay, but all the horses were dyed with horse-safe henna. And their stars were painted on every morning, and we had mane and tail extensions, and all of that — forelock extensions! Spirit primarily portrays the wild Black Beauty, and she was really something else. So intelligent, and so loving.
We had one horse that was nicknamed Bad Ginger. You want the horse to want to do the work, and to love doing the work. And Bad Ginger was so beautiful — this gorgeous chestnut Thoroughbred — but she didn’t make the cut! She was just very fiery-tempered. She really embodied the original Ginger very well.
So you couldn’t cast Bad Ginger, and had to ditch the live birth idea — what to you was the thing you absolutely wouldn’t sacrifice from this production?
I really wanted to elicit that mystical relationship between a horse and a human. I really, really hoped from the beginning that the actors would be not only willing, but would want to have that authentic relationship, and to build that authentic relationship.
Jo riding on the beach, actually doing the stunt herself — I really wanted her to be able to do the stunt herself, and to not have that be blue screen, on a mechanical horse. She did the stunt! She galloped down the beach, with tracking vehicles. And she was only allowed to do it once! We were all in the tent, just hoping that nothing went wrong.
To have the authenticity was extremely important to me. And Mackenzie and Iain [Glen, who plays John], they wanted to be part of that. Iain got into the round pen with — not a completely wild horse, but a horse that had never done Join Up before. And we milked out a hair and makeup test day to be able to film that for two hours, because we knew that our shooting schedule would not accommodate two hours of Iain in a round pen trying to see if this thing would work. And it did, and he’s delivering his dialogue as you’ve got this paint horse coming up to him. That’s real. And Cody, our Liberty trainer, it was the first time I saw him cry. And he turned away — he was behind a tree! And he was just so touched that it had actually happened.
How did Mackenzie get on with the horses on set? Is she a Horse Girl too?
She’s turned into such a passionate Horse Girl. When we were in South Africa, any moment that wasn’t a costume fitting or a meeting [...] she was at the stable, and she was just learning everything she could. And then we actually both took two horses into our lives. I adopted a horse: a dapple-gray Lusitano, who sadly has cancer, so we’re trying to trying to heal him and eventually he’ll be an ambassador horse for the Wild Beauty Foundation. And Mackenzie brought a horse into her life from the same place, and her Instagram now has so many beautiful images of them. So she’s been she’s been bitten by the horse bug for sure.
Black Beauty premieres on Disney Plus on Nov. 27
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