What is the summary of the short story "The Rain Horse" by Ted Hughes?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Rain Horse" is a 1947 short story written by Ted Hughes. The setting is not specific and here are only two characters in the story--and one of them is not a human. The human is a man who is never named, and the animal is a great horse.

The story begins on a miserable, soaking rain kind of day. A young man is walking through the rain and in the mud, and he is miserable and miserably wet. When he gets to a familiar place, he looks down into the valley and sees the place he had not consciously been looking for but is familiar nevertheless.

He remembers this scene exactly, though it has been twelve years since he has seen it or been there. Now all he sees is a terribly barren fields, soaked and rain-filled after having been rained on for weeks.

When he sees it, he is surprised that he does not feel anything, as he had expected to feel something. He keeps look and waiting for some sensation to creep over him, but again there is nothing. Nothing except anger.

The man is angry because the rain is making him miserable and ruining his new suit and shoes, and he is angry because he does not want to be here in this place, remembering things he would rather forget.

From the corner of his eye he sees something.

Over to his right a thin, black horse was running across the ploughland towards the hill, its head down, neck stretched out. It seemed to be running on its toes like a cat, like a dog up to no good.

The man stops and the horse disappears for a bit, but the man sees the horse again as he is looking for some kind of shelter from the rain. As he continues, he sees the horse again on the ridge and then it disappears. 

The man begins making his way to the farm house located over the hill when he sees the horse again, only this time he can see that the horse has been waiting for him. The man picks up several stones and keeps walking.

This horse seems to have every intent of attacking the man, and the man naturally assumes that something must be wrong with the creature because this is not how normal horses act. Perhaps it is the infernal, never-ending rain, or perhaps the animal is sick. In any case, it seems to be stalking him.

Eventually the horse does attack:

[t]he black horse was standing under the oaks, its head high and alert, its ears pricked, watching him.... [T]his last attack had cleared up one thing.... It was definitely after him.

The man throws several stones and misses the horse; the horse keeps coming and the man ineffectually throws a few more stones. The horse keeps coming and the man finally hits him with several stones. He tells the animal that if he will stay where it is, he will not get hurt. The horse seems to understand and does stay put; the man continues to the farm where he sits in desolation, his head in his hands.

The memory of the encounter with the horse leaves him shaken and rather empty, just like whatever memories he has of this place.

We do not really know if the horse attack was real or something the man imagined, but it is clear that the horse is representative of something from his past which he was forced to confront. What that is or how this encounter will change him, we do not know.