How They Became Thoroughly Bred: A Review of PBS’ Equus Documentary

Reviewing PBS’ new documentary that explores the origin of the horse to today’s modern steed.

Updated: Feb. 7, 2019 • 11:45 AM ET


PBS' new documentary examines how horses may have more personality than we think.

Horses and people have a long history together — not to put too fine a point on it. I’m convinced we wouldn’t have moved as far, nor as fast, without them. We’ve needed them way more than they’ve needed us.

That’s the premise of a new two-part series that you must see. Produced by Nature for PBS, “Equus: Story of the Horse” is one of those original pieces of programming that reminds how important public programming is to us.

Watch it here:

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In our data-driven world of mechanized power, we forget that horse power drove agriculture, war, migration and of course, sport. “Equus: Story of the Horse” provides an anthropological examination of both the cultural and physical roots of the horse in our world.

Horses now have more than 400 breeds that encompass the globe, which is staggering to contemplate. As the show examines, they’ve lived in ice and snow, desert and sand, and have been isolated sometimes with only seals as company. Regardless, their majestic and wonderful prowess astound.

The show takes a thematic approach by examining origins, but it also spotlights how specific breeds adapted to their own environments with the help of nature and human assistance. Several segments outlined how the horse became the modern runner that we know today as the thoroughbred. They remind us, for instance, that they were bred for one purpose, to run.

As you may or may not know, only three original stallions comprise the bloodstock of all thoroughbreds. At the dawn of the 19th century, they were literally considered “thoroughly bred,” hence the name. The line halted, and the genes were immobilized.

Next time you visit the track, instead of focusing on the card and the tote, perhaps head down to the paddock and the rail. Once there, watch them amble, canter and run. What you can’t see is that horses can fly.

We learn that inside them beats a heart and a set of lungs that are geared for an unbelievable expansion. A thoroughbred will run as long as he or she can, almost to a breaking point of exhaustion. Handicappers, you might table that analysis that horses “on their toes” equate to being ready to run; not necessarily so, as they could be too amped up. But I digress.

As the show points out, their desire to run is an advantage that humans have exploited and why the sport has such a tainted hue. Nature, however, did a sound job balancing both sides of a complicated story. For instance, they interviewed an Irish geneticist, who admitted that horse racing is full of unknowns, one of which is the possibility of its unsustainability. When breeding becomes inbreeding, problems close in on one another.

The fact remains that horses not only showcase speed and power, they tap into a social network of cues. They understand us, possibly better than we understand them. They recognize facial features, eavesdropping on our world and making it theirs.

Public television continues to prove its value (that’s why we should support it), and “Equus: Story of the Horse” gives us a fascinating window into the world of the horse. If you choose to not watch it, perhaps burying your nose back in the form or staring blankly at the tote is the answer.

Just think of what you’ll be missing.