Scientists estimate that horses and ponies have been domesticated for over 5,000 years. Since then, horses have been our food, our fellow brothers (and sisters) in arms, plowed our fields, pulled our weights, carried us on their backs and delighted us with their speed. The least we humans could do is write songs about them. Here are our top ten songs about horses that try to stay more or less on the subject of horses, instead of just mentioning them briefly.
# 10 – Let the Big Horse Run – John Stewart
A biography title of the 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat by Lawrence Scanlan said it all: The Horse That God Built. Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by an astonishing 31 lengths, where even track announcer Chick Anderson was astonished. “He’s out there almost a sixteenth of a mile away from the rest of the horses!” Certainly, a horse like that deserved a song. And got one from John Stewart on his 1975 album Wingless Angels. The beginning of the song uses a bit from “My Old Kentucky Home” which is played during the post parade of the Kentucky Derby. It also references a few other racehorses. This song was actually written in part to protest Secretariat’s retirement to a lucrative stud career during a time when it was expected that racehorses would run until they went lame.
# 9 – Lyle Lovett: If I Had a Boat
Lyle Lovett has said that this song was inspired by a wild stunt he tried as a kid, trying to ride his pony across a not-very-deep pond. Listening closely to the lyrics, it does sound as if this was written from a young boy’s point of view. The pony here is what horse people call “bombproof.” Unfortunately, the pony doesn’t show up a lot, but there is a respectful nod to Roy Roger’s famous horse, Trigger. The mood is wistful and the tune is incredible. This is the introductory track to Lyle Lovett’s 1987 album, Pontiac.
# 8 – The Rubberbandits: Horse Outside
Trust an Irish band to figure out what women have wanted all along from men – a horseback ride. The horse described sounds like the best wingman a guy could have, despite his looks. WARNING: This song has a lot of swearing and rude gestures, which only adds to the comedy, really. The video has been changed since it originally came out in 2010 to include graphics from RTE, Ireland’s National Public Service Media. So, consider this song as a public service and it’s all good. Released right before Christmas, it was pipped at the post for the number one Christmas single in the UK (which is a really big deal) by X-Factor winner Mark Cardle. More importantly, the single sold out by Christmas. The song was included on the 2011 album Serious About Men.
# 7 – Michael Martin Murphy: Wildfire
This was a huge hit for co-writers Michael Martin Murphy and Larry Cansley back when it was released in 1975 and was a constant on radio stations for years to come. It was gorgeously arranged with a sad solo piano intro and ending. Wildfire himself plays a small but pivotal role in this tale of a ghost horse and his beloved mistress. The song was inspired by a dream Michael Martin Murphy had, which in turn was inspired by a tale of ghost horse his grandfather told him. In a 2019 interview with The Tennessean, he said he still doesn’t fully understand the song. It is clear that “Wildfire” touched a deep chord in many listeners.
# 6 – The Strawberry Roan
The origins of this cowboy ballad about a horse that couldn’t be ridden are complicated, to say the least. The words are from the 1915 Curly Fletcher poem, “The Outlaw Broncho” (yes – he spelled it like that). The tune is attributed to Edward William Hargett, better known as Tamale Joe Hargett. Somehow, the song ended up being sung by a cowboy in 1931’s “Green Grow the Lilacs”, which would later transform into “Oklahoma!” Legend is that Tamae Joe Hargett happened to be sitting at a piano while Curly Fletcher was doing a public reading of his poem. The pianist began banging out a tune set to the rhythm of the poem, which annoyed the poet to no end. The most popular version was done by Marty Robbins in 1959. No matter what the true origins are, this is a great song about a stubborn horse.
# 5 – Marvin Rainwater: Albino (Pink-Eyed) Stallion
Yes, we know that it is genetically impossible for a stallion to be albino. Although horses can be born white, they still have pigment. Any foal born lacking pigment also always lacks a complete digestive system, so it dies. However, none of this was known in 1955, back when this song first appeared as a single. There are also no horses born with pink eyes. However, this horse is supernatural, and so it all makes a kind of sense. That, and it’s a catchy tune. The single version is slightly different from Marvin Rainwater’s live performance here, but sadly, no one has placed the single version on YouTube. The horse described here is the quintessential wild horse. Double points for neighing during the song. It’s also known as “Albino Stallion”.
# 4 – Dan Fogelberg: Run for the Roses
Way back in 1980, ABC used to be the station that showed the Kentucky Derby. For their broadcast, they commissioned Dan Fogelberg to write a song about the Derby. He delivered a hit and a classic. One aspect that has made the song so appealing through the years is that it never mentions if the thoroughbred described ever won the Derby. In 1994, as his horse Go for Gin was running through the stretch on his way to win the Kentucky Derby, trainer Nick Zito began screaming, “Run for the roses as fast as you can!” This song can be found on Dan Fogelberg’s 1981 album The Innocent Age. Nick Zito’s unofficial cover version can be found during ABC’s broadcast of the 1994 Kentucky Derby.
# 3 – Stewball
“Stewball” was originally called “Skewball”, which was the name of a real racehorse, foaled in 1741. A song about him appeared in the UK after the horse won a big race in Ireland in 1752 (yes – the horse was 11 when he won). It migrated across the Atlantic with Irish and English immigrants. However, when in America, the song changed somehow to “Stewball”, which is (let’s admit) easier to say than “Skewball.” It was a call and response work song sung by African Americans. The song we know today changed in both tune and lyrics, depending on what artist covered it. One of the oldest recordings of the song is the 1953 version by Cisco Houston. Notable cover versions were done by Lead Belly, The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez. Different versions also appeared in France and Czechoslovakia.
# 2 – Jimmy Driftwood: The Tennessee Stud
It seems about a hundred artists have covered this song since it first appeared in 1959 as a single by Jimmy Driftwood (also spelled sometimes Jimmie Driftwood.) The most notable covers were by Johnny Cash and Doc Watson. The song’s been covered so often because it’s just that good. Even better, it features a charismatic sun-colored stallion. Although there is a breed called the Tennessee Walker, it is unclear whether the Tennessee Stud was actually a Tennessee Walker. Since he wins a major horse race, it’s rather unlikely. The original song has more verses than many of the cover versions. Green-eyed horses are extremely rare, but do happen in very light-colored horses like a very pale buckskin. So, unlike the Albino Pink-Eyed Stallion, the Tennessee Stud could exist.
# 1 – Fred Small: Heart of the Appaloosa
The Appaloosa was a breed developed originally by the Nez Perce Native American tribe. They were unusual in that they did selective breeding. The resulting horse was superior to those of the U. S. Cavalry, so, of course, Appaloosas were slaughtered by the thousands, along with the Nez Perce. The heart of the Appaloosa is a metaphor for Chief Joseph, who tried to win his people their freedom. That the breed is now one of the most popular in the world is a testament not only to the greatness of Appaloosas, but that something of the Nez Perce survives despite tremendous persecution. Fred Small is a highly underappreciated folk singer and songwriter. This song came out on the 1984 album Heart of the Appaloosa.
Top 10 Songs About Horses article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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