Since I began writing this blog about my life with my pets, I have really enjoyed taking the time not just to write about the realities of it, but also to share and enjoy exploring some of the stories which have inspired my love of animals most – from the pony and animal books I read as a child, through the Tom Cox columns and books about life with his cats, to Monty Roberts’ half-handbook half-autobiography which I’ve always leaned on so much as a horse owner. One of the animal-focused stories I love to turn to most on a day-to-day basis however is not a book – or not exclusively – but a TV programme.
CBC’s Heartland, based on the book series of the same name by Lauren Brooke, revolves around the Heartland ranch in Alberta, Canada, and the Bartlett-Fleming family who run it. I did read some of the original books as a child and did enjoy them – but in lifting the stories from their original Virginia and placing them at the foot of the Canadian Rockies, as well as altering, building upon and introducing new characters; the creators of Heartland have infused the show with something quite special. Part Gilmore Girls – with its strong female characters, complicated male roles, vibrant town full of personality and charm, mixed focus on teenage and adult life and documenting of the tumultuous journey between the two; and part The Waltons – lessons always learned round a wholesome family dinner table at the end of the day – it also has a quality all of its own in its emphasis on the workings of the ranch and in particular the focus on the horses it holds.
At the opening of the first season, the characters are gathering together following the tragic loss of Marion Fleming, the owner of the Heartland facility, where she provided refuge and rehabilitation to horses in need. Amy Fleming – then sixteen and injured in the same trailer accident which killed her mother, during an attempted rescue of a neglected horse – awakes in hospital; her older sister Lou, a finance executive in New York, returns home to help steady the business; their grandfather Jack, with whom they live, continues to try to support the family and run the cattle ranch; their estranged father Tim returns after a decade-long absence to a mixed reception; and young offender Ty arrives on a probation scheme to live and work on the ranch as part of a deal arranged by Marion before her death. From these tentative beginnings, often fraught with family feuds and difficulties to overcome, the Bartlett-Fleming family’s lives have now played out over ten sprawling seasons as life has moved on for them all in various ways, new chapters and new family members emerging along the way.
It’s a programme with so much heart across its variety of themes. Never afraid of tackling difficult family dynamics or tough life lessons, it does place significant weight on the lives of the people within it, both the core family and strong supporting cast of friends and neighbours. However, there is a huge focus too on the Heartland horses, and on their stories and development. Spartan – the black horse introduced in the opening episode as Marion and Amy brought him to Heartland for a second chance in life – has a huge role to play, becoming Amy’s own and remaining as vital to many plots and to every season as the human characters he lives alongside. Jack’s faithful cowhorse Paint, too, is a constant character on the farm; and none are more so than Sugarfoot, neighbour Mrs Bell’s miniature pony who has been a valued companion for decades.
It is through Amy’s rehabilitation work, however, that most of the equine stories of the series are told, as she takes up the role left by her mother with the “troubled” client horses who come to Heartland, working to discover the root of their problems and find a solution to help them move on. Heartland is full of real-life references to schools of thought and theories on horsemanship – Amy is a strong believer in Join-Up, Monty Roberts’ method of communicating with and starting horses in a round pen, and also follows her mother’s old diaries weighted heavily on alternative therapies and T-Touch. Amy’s peaceful approach to working with horses reflects many real-life theories and opens diaolgue with others she works with who have other ways of approaching challenging horses. In the course of the series, we see horses and characters involved in rodeos, barrel racing, bulldogging, cattle drives, racing, show-jumping, trail riding, carriage driving, liberty work and trick-riding; and the show provides a valuable insight into so many different disciplines and the relationships between them, whether in conflict or in synergy.
More than anything else, Heartland is a programme with a real passion behind all of the stories it tells, from the commitment of Amy and Ty to helping the horses who pass through the ranch to the tight bonds that pull the family together in the face of any challenges they face, big and small. It’s a wonderful representation of so many things that are important to me in my own life – family, relationships, animals, work, the landscape around us; and is a story I love to lose myself in continually and would recommend to anyone looking for a cosy and feel-good TV programme to sink into as the autumn nights settle around us.
Have a lovely weekend all. X