Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1198
Black Beauty opens with its main character describing his first memory as that of a “pleasant meadow.” The reader is told about his life as a colt, his mother’s advice on how to behave as a well-bred horse, and his master’s kind care. When Black Beauty is two, he witnesses the brutality of a hunt for a hare and the tragedy of one of the riders being killed in a fall from his horse. At age four, Black Beauty is broken in to the use of the saddle, bridle, and carriage harness. He describes how bad the bit feels as well as getting his first shoes. Then he is sent to a neighbor’s pasture near a railroad to get used to the sounds he might hear when out on the road and is thus prepared to start work. He is sold to Squire Gordon and is named by Mrs. Gordon. Birtwick Hall becomes his pleasant home for more than three years. Here he meets the horses Merrylegs, Ginger, and Sir Oliver, and the grooms James Howard and John Manly. He learns that Ginger got her ill-tempered nature from a hard life with previous owners, and that Sir Oliver got a shortened tail when a thoughtless fashion dictated that it be cut. Sir Oliver also reveals the painful practices of bobbing tails and ears on dogs. Merrylegs, a pony, is a trusted playmate of the Gordon and Blomefield children. Squire Gordon and John Manly are both known to take issue with those who mistreat horses. Stable hand James gets an opportunity for a better position elsewhere and leaves Birtwick, but before he goes, he drives the Gordons on a trip to see friends. At a stop on the way, the stable catches on fire, but James calmly and valiantly manages to save Beauty and Ginger. Little Joe Green replaces James. Joe does not know how to properly put up the hot and tired Beauty after an emergency run to get the doctor for Mrs. Gordon, and as a result, Beauty becomes very sick. Joe grieves over his mistake and thereafter devotes himself to learning horse care. He even testifies against a man he sees flogging two horses. Life changes, though, when the Gordons must move to a warmer climate for Mrs. Gordon’s health. Joe and Merrylegs go to the Vicar Blomefield’s, and Beauty and Ginger are sold to Earlshall Park.
The mistress at Earlshall insists on using the bearing rein, which is very painful for the horses, but the stable manager, Mr. York cannot object. One day Ginger rebels and goes wild. She is then used as a hunter. When the Earl and some of the family go to London, the Lady Anne takes to riding Beauty, calling him Black Auster. When she tries another horse on one ride and is thrown, Beauty races for help and is much praised. He thinks he has settled into a good home, but then the stable hand Reuben Smith gets drunk and takes Beauty on a dangerous ride that results in Smith’s death and ruined knees for Beauty. Ginger is also ruined by hard riding, but is given a chance to recover. Beauty, however, is sold to a livery stable. As a job horse, Beauty is subjected to being hired by people with poor driving skills and little knowledge of the care of horses. One customer, though, recognizes Beauty’s value and arranges for him to be sold to Mr. Barry, a gentleman who hires a groom for Beauty. The groom steals Beauty’s feed and has to be arrested. The next groom is too lazy to take care of Beauty and causes him to get thrush. Disgusted by all the trouble of keeping a horse, Mr. Barry sells Beauty.
Beauty is sold at a horse fair to Jerry Barker, a London cab driver, and is called Jack. His stable mate is Captain, a former cavalry horse. Beauty learns the ropes of pulling a cab in the busy streets of London. The hard life is made bearable by Jerry’s skillful and kind treatment. Jerry has a loving family with his wife Polly and children Harry and Dolly. He is a very ethical man who will not drink and will not work on Sundays or take fares that will needlessly overwork his horses. He will, however, take pains to do a charitable act. One of Jerry’s friends is a sensible and good-hearted cab driver called Governor Grant who serves as the elder advisor for the other drivers. While many customers are thoughtless, some are considerate of the horses. Similarly, some cab drivers are negligent of their horses because they do not own the horses, but work for shares. For these men, life is nearly as hard as it is for the horses. By chance, one day Black Beauty sees Ginger, who has become one of these leased cab horses and very mistreated. She is in such pain that she yearns for death. Later, Beauty happens to see Ginger’s body being carted away. Shortly afterwards, Jerry and Captain are involved in a carriage accident that causes Captain to be put down and replaced by Hotspur. At New Year’s, a couple of customers keep Jerry waiting in the bitter cold while they party. As a result, Jerry becomes very ill with bronchitis and cannot work. Grant helps out by giving the energetic Hotspur a half-day’s work each day and giving half the fares to Polly. When Jerry recovers, the doctor says that he can no longer work as a cab driver. However, Mrs. Fowler, Polly’s former employer, hires Jerry to be her coachman in the country and provides a cottage for the family. They go on to a wonderful new life, but the horses have to be sold. Grant buys Hotspur, and promises Jerry to find a good place for Beauty.
Beauty is sold to a corn dealer who is good to him, but the dealer’s foreman, Jakes, overworks the horses and uses the bearing rein. However, he takes the advice of a lady who advises that Beauty could work better if the bearing rein is removed. Jakes is so impressed by the lady’s concern that he is easier on Beauty after that. However, the dark stables nearly make Beauty blind, and he is sold to a cab business again. This time his owner, Nicholas Skinner, has several shabby cabs and a group of overworked drivers who take out their frustration over their hardships by abusing the horses. When a customer insists on the cab carrying a load too heavy for Beauty, the horse collapses. He is saved from being put down by a farrier who finds that Beauty’s wind is not broken. Beauty is taken to auction where he is bought by Farmer Thoroughgood and his compassionate grandson who believe that they can rehabilitate Beauty in their country meadow. They are successful and sell Beauty to Ellen and Lavinia Blomefield. Joe Green is still working for the Blomefield family and recognizes Black Beauty, who then settles into a long, happy life in his last home.