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Peter Jackson one-upped Tolkien by making Lord of the Rings into a Horse Girl story

Don’t de’neigh the truth

Photo montage of Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings movie with hand drawn hearts and stickers Illustration: Petrana Radulovic/Polygon

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings built the foundation of the modern fantasy genre. Dwarves, elves, orcs, wizards, kings, warriors, quests, dungeons, and yes, even dragons. But you know what it doesn’t have?

2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.

Even one single goddamn unicorn.

Though the three books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy have some fancy horses, and even a very prominent horse-loving girl, it never quite puts the pieces of a Horse Girl Story together — because Horse Girl stories aren’t just about horses and a girls.

They are a romantic fantasy genre of their own, about unbreakable, tantamount-to-psychic bonds between a wild or unruly or simply misunderstood animal and the one special person who takes the time to earn its trust.

Unfortunately, J.R.R. Tolkien was no Horse Girl. Fortunately, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Viggo Mortensen, Jane Abbot, and a small legion of local New Zealand equestrians changed all of that forever.

The Lord Of The Rings is neither horse-y nor girl-y

Gandalf (McKellen), clad in white and riding a white horse, approaches a city built out of the side of a mountain. Photo: New Line Cinema

It may seem strange to say that The Lord of the Rings lacks sufficient horse content, considering the actual text. Yes, it is indisputable that Shadowfax is a cool-ass horse. He’s descended in a direct line from Felaróf, the steed of Eorl the Young — the first king of Rohan — who, legend tells us, was able to understand the speech of men. That makes Shadowfax one of the Mearas, an ancestral line of Rohanian equines who are said to be like to horses as elves are like to men, and may only be ridden by a king of Rohan.

On top of all that, even the greatest of Rohan’s riders considered Shadowfax to be untamable, until Theoden (under Grima’s manipulations) ordered Gandalf to take any horse if he would only leave Rohan as soon as possible — no one expected the old wizard to trot away on the best horse in the country.

But here’s how Tolkien has Gandalf describe the most sacred tenet of the Horse Girl story, the golden and beautiful moment when a wild horse bestows a priceless gift — its trust — on a special person:

Never before had any man mounted him, but I took him and I tamed him...

That’s it. That’s the whole description.

Shadowfax is extremely cool — but he is really just a very fancy, wizard-only fast travel system, an answer to the problem Tolkien faced when he realized that Gandalf needed to get from one end of his carefully planned map to the other in a completely unrealistic timeframe.

So, Gandalf is surely no Horse Girl, but what about Éowyn? Éowyn is a girl, and as the princess (well, the niece of a king) of an entire Horse Girl nation, she is closely associated with horses. However, the books do not show her in a strong bond with any particular equine, making Éowyn’s Horse Girl status a purely semantic one. Windfola, the steed she rides to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, went mad with fear the moment the Witch-King of Angmar arrived, threw both his riders, and bolted not just away but out of the story entirely.

Sam says goodbye to Bill the Pony at the entrance to the Mines of Mora in The Fellowship of the Ring. Image: New Line Cinema

The biggest Horse Girl Energy in The Lord of the Rings is Sam’s relationship with Bill the Pony, who he nurses back to health after Frodo purchases Bill from cruel masters for much more than his actual worth. The underestimated and undervalued horse who just needs a special person (i.e., the main character) to reveal their true talent is perhaps the second-most common trope of the Horse Girl Story. (Why yes, you can view most Horse Girl Tropes as Gothic Romance on training wheels.) But while Bill and Sam do reunite in the end, the Fellowship sets him free before they enter Moria and he isn’t seen again for hundreds of pages.

There simply aren’t enough horses or enough people who form strong bonds with them in The Lord of the Rings for it to truly be Horse Girl culture. But that’s not to say that folks who were both Horse Girls and Lord of the Rings fans weren’t excited about The Two Towers hitting theaters 2002. If memory serves, I stitched a white horse to a green tank top to wear to the theater, a sartorial interpretation of the banner of Rohan.

And the people in the center of the Horse Girl and Lord of the Rings Venn diagram were rewarded. The transformative power of cinema to made Tolkien’s masterpiece into Horse Girl catnip.

Aragorn ❤️ Brego 5eva

Aragorn looking at Brego Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

The Two Towers served up a great horse/human romance: Aragorn and Brego.

You won’t find a horse called Brego anywhere in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In the books Eomer still loans Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli two horses, but the steeds are named Hasufel and Arod. Aragorn gives Hasufel back to the Rohirrim a book later, when Elrond’s sons show up shortly after the Battle of Helm’s deep with (among other things) Aragorn’s actual horse, Roheryn.

Aragorn and Brego were an invention for the screen, a bit of plot logic necessary to one of the trilogy’s weirder detours from the actual story of the Lord of the Rings books. The Two Towers has a tangent in which Aragorn is presumed dead after a fight with some warg riders and drifts down a river on his back while either vividly hallucinating, or psychically conducting, a conversation with Arwen. When he reaches shore, he is found by loyal Brego, the only creature in the world who had faith that he was still alive. Brego gently, tenderly lies down next to him, encourages him to mount up, and then ferries him back to the plot.

Now, in the scope of Horse Girl Media, Aragorn and Brego are at the same level as Sam and Bill the pony — it’s definitely there, but it’s not the driving force of the experience. However, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings isn’t just about what’s in the movies. It’s about what’s in the Extended Editions. It’s about who made the movies.

This isn’t just about Aragorn and Brego. It’s about Jane and Florian. It’s about Viggo and Uraeus. It’s about women wearing beards and deleted scenes of horse romance.

This is the most important thing that the Lord of the Rings films taught Horse Girls:

Viggo Mortensen is a giant Horse Girl

Fans who were drawn in by Horse Girl Aragorn and the opportunity to ogle many, many pretty horses running fast — whether it was Arwen’s steed, Asfaloth, horses made of water, or the steeds of the Rohirrim — did what any fans of the Lord of the Rings movies did.

They dove into the extensive and entertaining suite of special features on the DVD editions of the movies, and discovered a hidden treasure trove of information that retroactively imbues the Lord of the Rings movies with Horse Girl Content.

Here’s the thing to know about this bit: Actor Viggo Mortensen is absolutely gaga for horses, and it is obvious in every single scene he shares with the animals. Reader, I am begging you to examine the way Viggo Mortensen plays Aragorn like he is one hard cut away from making out with his horse at any given time.

The Extended Editions of The Two Towers only double down on Aragorn’s relationship with his steed, by revealing Brego’s tragic backstory. In the Extended Editions, we meet Brego in the stables of Edoras, absolutely wilding out on the two hardened Rohirrim riders trying to bring him under control. Yet it only takes Aragorn a few gently whispered sentences of Elvish to calm the savage beast.

That’s when Eowyn drops the Brego exposition: He is the steed of her cousin Theodred, the prince of Rohan who was killed just days ago in a clash with Saruman’s forces. That’s why Brego is flipping out! This horse has trauma! He is GRIEVING!!!!!!

But rather than claim Brego for his own, Aragorn knows that if you love something you’ll set it free. He tells the warriors to turn Brego out on the beautiful plains of Rohan, saying “He” — meaning the horse whose young master was cruelly slain — “has seen enough.”

The very next time we see Brego, he’s nudging Aragorn back to consciousness as the king-in-waiting washes up on a pebbly shore. How did Brego know where Aragorn was? How did he even know he was in danger? Psychic Horse Girl connection, baby!

Just like his character, Mortensen apparently had something of a way with horses on set. Asking a half-ton animal to lie down inches from the actual face of your film franchise’s face isn’t any crew’s idea of a good time. But as the folks behind the camera sweated their way through the scene where Brego coaxes a wounded Aragorn onto his back, Mortensen’s trust was rewarded with the shots we see in The Two Towers.

Arwen races away from the Dark Riders on the back of a beautiful white horse in The Fellowship of the Ring. Image: New Line Cinema

The actor so adored the horses he worked with on set that he bought three of them, and became friends with Jane Abbott, stunt rider and horse trainer on the production. As a part of the “Horse Department,” Abbot was tasked with helping to turn a handful of inexperienced animals purchased for bargain prices into actors that travelled well, wore odd costumes, and could execute commands in the face of yelling crowds, heavily costumed riders, smoke, rain, flaming torches, and every other strange thing that might crop up on a film set.

She was also one of two riding stunt doubles for Arwen, and in the process fell head over heels in love with Florian, the Andalusian/Lipizzaner-mix stallion who played Asfaloth in The Fellowship of the Ring. “He’s the dream horse,” she told New Zealand’s Scoop Independent News in 2001 “every little girl’s dream horse to play with and have fun.”

Unfortunately, she knew she would have to part with him at the end of production, since, as a fully trained animal actor, he was now worth more money than she could afford to give. That is, until Viggo Mortensen purchased Florian and gave him to her. The person who forms a strong bond with a horse they cannot afford and then through deus ex machina gets to own that horse anyway? This is also a core Horse Girl Story trope.

Viggo Mortensen isn’t just an honorary Horse Girl. He’s a Horse Girl ally.

Horse Girls built The Lord Of The Rings movies

Did you know that when you put out a casting call for New Zealand extras who own their own horses and are willing to camp out over night for the chance to be in a Lord of the Rings movie, you wind up with a lot of women?

Boom. Hey, Lord of the Rings-loving Horse Girls? Basically any horse-riding Rohirrim extra more likely to be a Horse Girl than not. Given the amount of time that waves of Rohirrim pour over the screen during The Two Towers and The Return of the King, that’s a significant increase in girlyness compared to Tolkien’s original work.

Just like the Lord of the Rings, a Horse Girl story uses a hefty dollop of fantasy to get going. But it took real horses and real horse-loving people on the production of the movies to transform Tolkien’s text into a pillar of Horse Girl culture.