Horse in silhouette. Photo: iStockPhoto.com.

How ‘Black Beauty’ changed the way we see horses

Cross-posted from KERA News for North Texas
part of the NPR digital network

WRITTEN BY MICHELLE NORRIS

Horse in silhouette. Photo: iStockPhoto.com.
Horse in silhouette. Photo Credit: iStockPhoto.com.

NPR’s Backseat Book Club is back! And we begin this round of reading adventures with a cherished classic: Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

Generations of children and adults have loved this book. With vivid detail and simple, yet lyrical prose, Black Beauty describes both the cruelty and kindness that an ebony-colored horse experiences through his lifetime — from the open pastures in the English countryside to the cobblestone grit of 19th-century England.

Sewell wanted the reader to see the world from a horse’s point of view and so Black Beauty tells his own story in these pages. His wise observations and unvarnished candor reveal much about both human nature and animal suffering.

Black Beauty was born at a time when horse power fueled almost everything: wars, agriculture, transportation, construction and factory work. Horses pulled barges. They hauled coal and granite. And they were also seen as a measure of wealth; the way one rode atop a stiffly controlled horse could convey style and stature. All of this meant horses were both exalted and often pushed past the point of exhaustion.

To better understand how Sewell’s book became a children’s classic and an animal rights manifesto we turned to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley, who has written several books about horses herself. Smiley also rides and grooms horses and has re-opened the pages of Black Beauty several times in her lifetime. The book, she says, offers different lessons in adulthood than when she first picked it up as a child. But Smiley says the central themes of courage, perseverance and the power of kindness are timeless.

“Black Beauty helped people see animals in a new way,” Smiley says. “As soon as you say that an animal has a point of view, then it’s very difficult to just go and be cruel to that animal. … [It showed] readers that the world is full of beings who should not be treated like objects.”

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This is a great gift idea, especially for young horse lovers. — Ed.

3 thoughts on “How ‘Black Beauty’ changed the way we see horses”

  1. Jane Smiley is quoted throughout this article, saying wonderful things about Black Beauty and horses, but everyone should know that she is an ardent supporter of horse slaughter. She is a supporter of horse slaughter because she is a supporter of horse racing. Apologists of horse abusing and exploiting industries, such as Smiley, such as horse-racing, believe that the solution to the “excess” of horses is to slaughter them – never of course should we consider not exploiting them for our entertainment.

    Horse slaughter is morally wrong, loathsome and despicable no matter how talented a writer tries to portray it otherwise.

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  2. Believe it or not I have never read Black Beauty, despite my love of horses. I remember when I was a little girl a young woman who lived in the apartment below us came upstairs one day and asked my mom if she could read me a book. My mom approved so off we went to read. The book was Black Beauty. I really liked her reading to me, and she showed up a few more times to do this, but then one day she left and I never saw her again. We never finished the book. To this day I am afraid to read the book because (1) I know it’s sad and (2) I am afraid I will cry over the loss of that friendship from that young woman. I don’t know what ever happened to her. I don’t know what happened to Black Beauty either and am afraid to find out. BUT, I am now 54 years old and have been an AR activist for the majority of my life, so good things did come out of it.

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  3. My very first encounter with the Innocent Beauty that a Horse processes, I have seen this movie thousands of times, It is my manifesto, Black Beauty has lived within me all my Life !!!!! It was my first understanding of Horses …………………… An all time Favorite……………………. I met my real life Black Beauty 12 years ago……………. She changed my life and saved me from disaster. she enriched my very soul….. She is why I am here !!!!!!

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