Disability scholar and adult horse girl Stevi Costa emailed this re-view to me as “How to Train Your Horse…I Mean…Dragon.” Here she is to talk about how the first HTTYD film is a horse movie.
How to Train Your Dragon is a “horse movie.”
How do I know this? Well, you see, I am an adult horse girl, but only because of an inside joke that spun wildly (re: kinkily) out of control because of my obsession with the film War Horse.
In her brilliant illustrated review of the classic film War Horse, fellow horse girl/Tuca & Bertie creator Lisa Hanawalt defines the “horse movie” genre like this:
“In case you’re unfamiliar with the genre, EVERY horse movie is about a plucky young person forming a special bond with an otherwise difﬁcult and unruly horse. Because that’s the dream, for a wild creature to totally trust you and become your buddy. It’s the ultimate ﬂattery. It’s also the ultimate disappointment when you take riding lessons and your horse doesn’t care about you and tries to rub you off on a tree.”
By Hanawalt’s definition, that’s precisely the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. Hiccup is our plucky young hero, forming a bond with the most terrifying of all dragons: the Night Fury. This wild creature does indeed come to totally trust Hiccup and become his buddy, and vice versa. It performs the genre admirably.
But I like How to Train Your Dragon because it does more with the structure of “horse movie” than most. (Even my beloved War Horse is mostly about a bunch of people making sexy eyes at a horse and saying, “That’s a remarkable horse.” It kinda maybe sorta says some stuff about the loss of our agrarian past when War Horse faces off with a tank, and it certainly makes a supposition that by loving animals we become more human, as when a German soldier and a British soldier call a truce and cross No Man’s Land to free War Horse from the barbed wire he’s trapped in. But this review isn’t about War Horse, though you better believe I will be re-viewing that when it turns ten NEXT YEAR.) How to Train Your Dragon uses the “horse movie” structure to rewrite the narrative of human dominance over the natural world—a worldview that is unsurprisingly, inherently patriarchal and, tangentially, capitalist and ableist.
Our plucky young protagonist and narrator, Hiccup, lives in Berk, which is a remote island populated by very burly Vikings who train their whole lives to slay dragons, which they perceive to be fearsome, nasty pests who fly in and raid Berk’s food supply by snatching the sheep and fish the humans have cultivated for food. (Vegetables don’t really grow in Berk; it’s quite rocky.) Hiccup wants to participate in his legacy, but as a skinny young lad, his father (and the rest of the village) have deemed him inadequate. A frequent refrain of Hiccup’s when someone critiques some part of his physique or personality is, “You just gestured to all of me,” signaling that the way Hiccup embodies the world is entirely not right. Although women and girls are also allowed to train to hunt dragons, the implication here is clearly that Hiccup is not masculine enough to do so. (The female teens who get to train are named Astrid, a warrior name, and Ruffnut, a name that certainly implies she’s tougher than a kid called Hiccup.) Instead, he works as a blacksmith’s apprentice and is quite good at making weapons, but is never encouraged to use them himself for fear that he’ll get hurt or hurt someone else.
When Hiccup finally convinces his father to let him train to hunt dragons, he manages to take down a Night Fury. No one believes him, of course, because how could a screw-up like Hiccup do the thing that no other Viking could do? Once Hiccup tracks down the Night Fury, he is prepared to kill the beast to prove his worth. But he can’t. He realizes the dragon is toothless, literally and figuratively, and would only try to harm a human if it feared for its own life. (Like all animals.) He also notices that he has caused Toothless harm: The dragon can no longer fly and is now trapped in the forests of Berk. Hiccup takes advantage of this situation at first. With a captive dragon, he can study this elusive creature and record its behavior to prove that dragons aren’t as terrible as people think. He trains Toothless. He feeds him and cares for him. In the process, the boy and the dragon learn to trust each other. (This is exactly like the scene in War Horse where young Albert trains Joey the War Horse to plow a field to save his family farm from ruin.)
Because of this trust, Hiccup can get close enough to Toothless to outfit him with a prosthetic tail that will allow him to fly. There’s a moment where the two of them look at each other before Toothless takes to the skies and they both know this is the end; Toothless is free to go back to the world of dragons and forget his time with the boy who saved his life. He no longer has to submit to human-led conditioning and can go back to wildness. Only he can’t because Hiccup has failed to design a prosthetic that can function for sustained flight, and it needs external pressure to stay open. Hiccup engineers a solution: If the dragon has a rider, the rider’s foot can operate a lever that opens and closes the tailfin. So Hiccup becomes that rider, and the boy and the dragon fly together and are truly living the ultimate horse movie dream of symbiotic freedom.
If you don’t spend a lot of time with animals—dogs or horses, let’s say—it’s easy to assume that animals can be dominated. But training is actually an exercise in consent. An animal will not do anything it doesn’t want to do. We coerce that consent when we train animals by offering them rewards. Sugar cubes. Raw fish. A bone. We can also abuse that consent by abusing the animal, or by refusing to respect when it tells us no by bucking, roaring, or biting –all clear signs that we are crossing the animal’s boundaries.
I went to an early-morning panel at MLA once called “Metaphors of Horsemanship.” It was, as you might guess, a small room filled with other horsepeople. You could tell because we all got up before 8 a.m. on the last day of MLA to go to this panel, which shows our dedication. You could also tell because literally everyone in the room was wearing something equestrian-inspired in some subtle or unsubtle way. (Subtle: the young scholar with the tiny horseshoe tattoo on her hand. Unsubtle: me, in a blazer bearing a rhinestoned horsehead lapel pin and riding boots over my jeans.) A central inquiry of this panel was how horsemanship, i.e. the relationship between horse and rider, is metaphorized in narratives. What do stories about horses and riders tell us about power? About economies? About erotics? I had to shove my little hooves in my mouth listening to Dr. Kate Marra’s incredibly racy paper on lesbian readers responding to the erotics of that metaphor in Equus. Too hot for 8 a.m. at MLA. But I digress.
Many of the scholarly papers given that day approached the relationship horse and rider as symbiotic, a give and take, a negotiation for mutual benefit. The idea that humans dominate animals comes from our capitalist need to employ their labor to benefit us, and such a system can abuse animals as much as it can humans. But horse narratives are about individuals, not systems. In fact, they show, as How to Train Your Dragon does, how individual actions can change and disrupt systems. By reframing his relationship to the dragon as one of mutual respect and mutual benefit, rather than fear and dominance, Hiccup begins to change the very culture upon which Berk was founded. He learns that you can train dragons, rather than maiming them. He begins to impress the whole village with his ability to soothe these savage beasts by giving them dragon nip, and scritches, and distracting them with mirrors, rather than hurting them. (Here, dragons more closely resemble cats than anything else.) His closeness to Toothless leads him to the Dragon’s Nest, where he learns that the dragons are only attacking Berk to appease their dragon overlord, who eats all the sheep and fish they bring to keep him from eating them. The film’s climax takes place in this Dragon’s Nest, which the rest of the Vikings eventually learn about and capture Toothless to lead them there, hoping to kill all the dragons they can and rid the earth of these creatures they fear. But when Hiccup falls and Toothless saves him, Hiccup’s father, Stoic the Vast, realizes that dragon’s aren’t the monsters he thought they were; both humans and dragons were only following centuries-old traditions without ever questioning why—something which has cost them all both life and limb. The film ends with the citizens of Berk embracing the dragons, training them, feeding them, and riding them just as one would a horse. The dragons, it turns out, like companionship and access to resources without the threat of scarcity, and so both human and dragon live happily ever after.
Given the film’s continual framing of Hiccup as emasculated, such an ending suggests a reversal of patriarchal order. If patriarchy operates on the centrality of men, it also supposes man’s dominance over all realms that are not man, including the animal world. Not only does Berk reorder the world to adjust to Hiccup’s more symbiotic viewpoint, but also casts off its older, more patriarchal leanings as it welcomes Hiccup and Toothless as leaders in this new world. As a film set in a pre-capitalist world, I can’t argue here that How to Train Your Dragon is also arguing for an anti-capitalist stance on human use of animal labor. However, Berk’s crisis and fear of dragons comes from the possibility of a loss of resources in the first place. Their entire worldview is driven by scarcity. So, too, is the dragon’s. At the end of the film, New Berk is instead a world of abundance, gained and cultivated through a symbiotic relationship between human and dragon. That’s…sure different from capitalism, isn’t it?
Because Berk was never a capitalist world, it was always a world inspired by creative accommodations of disability. This viewpoint is beholden to a world that does not determine a body’s worth by how it fits into capitalist notions of time or ability. I have always liked this about this film. It’s imbued with disability logic from the beginning, as Hiccup is a young smith in training and is learning to make both weapons and prosthetic devices for the people in his town. The smithy recognizes that what destroys the body can also become the body itself. We see a character with multiple prostheses in the first five minutes of the film: Hiccup’s mentor at the smithy, Gobber the Belch. As his silly name implies, Gobber is a comic character, and we initially laugh at the pointed use of one of his prosthetic limbs. But the film doesn’t trade in making jokes about disability. It gives us 30 seconds to stare, and then it quickly becomes the status quo. Because that character and disability are so normalized in this world, it is no big deal for Hiccup when he realizes Toothless is disabled. Toothless learns to trust Hiccup not just because he isn’t a threat, but because the boy offers the dragon an accommodation by making him a prosthetic tail fin. When Hiccup himself becomes disabled at the end of the film, he only has a passing moment of sadness when he realizes his leg has been amputated, and then, with the assistance of his disabled pet, embraces his complex embodiment as part of how he navigates the world. I think it is possible to read the mutual disablement of Hiccup and Toothless as a kind of supercripping of both of them, since they now fly better and faster together because their prostheses align, making them leaders of Berk’s new human-animal order. But I think the film wants to emphasize their mutual disablement as the thing that allows them to truly work together to move from the margins to the center. After all, the world is wider and better with the two of them working together, a relationship that is only possible because of their symbiotic relationship as disabled dragon and disabled rider.
I love the How to Train Your Dragon films but re-watching this first one reminded me that the series only gets better from here. The sequel and the final installment in the trilogy, The Hidden World, deepen the series’ engagement with less patriarchal and less anthrocentric worldviews. The ending of this film makes me cry, as do several parts of the sequel, but when I saw The Hidden World last year, I started crying at the beginning of the film and then I didn’t stop. This also happens if you ask me to describe the plot of a dogsled racing novel I read in third grade, Stone Fox. Perhaps I, the adult horse girl who has been a vegetarian for 22 years, am more attuned to the emotional bond between companion animals and human beings than most. But I hope that anyone who watches these films and has an animal in their life immediately gives that animal a pat on the head and a treat. And if you have a horse, you better give that beautiful beast a sugar cube. Right now.