Frank Hopkins & Hidalgo – fact or fiction?

Backward Glance

Since the cowboy first pointed his gun in The Great Train Robbery in 1903, Western movies have entertained audiences the world over with their stories, landscapes and colourful cowboy characters. And thanks to the power of 2004 film Hidalgo’s visual imagery, audience interest in the genre has once again been captured. But, like my mum has always said, you can’t believe everything you see in the movies.

Bobby Lieberman started an article for the Los Angeles Times with the following superb description of an infamous scene from the movie Hidalgo:

“In the deep shadows of the stippled dunes, a solitary figure silently prepares for an epic journey that will begin at first light. Frank T. Hopkins has brought his plucky mustang, Hidalgo, across the ocean to compete against the world’s finest Arabian horses on their own ground. All around him, pale robes that shield the Bedouins from dust, sand and heat swirl like butterflies. But doughty Hopkins wears the clothes of the Old West: dungarees, jacket, boots and Western hat. Hidalgo carries a stout Western saddle and gear.

The horses line up across the sand, milling and shifting for position as the starter lifts his gun skyward. Hopkins and Hidalgo stand quietly, awaiting the ultimate endurance challenge. Bang! The writhing line of horseflesh springs forward. Hopkins allows Hidalgo to start slowly, settle into his stride. The rider is in no hurry. He knows the task ahead and just how much horse he has under him. He is confident of winning the 3,000-mile “Ocean of Fire” race across the Arabian Peninsula.”

But wait, hold up a sec. So according to Hollywood, Frank T. Hopkins was a legendary man who rode great distances on his paint mustang Hidalgo to prove the breed’s value. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you can just imagine the wonderful story, how incredibly visual and touching it would be for the audience. And all the marketing for the film touted it was indeed “based on a true story”. But was it really, or was Hopkins just a counterfeit cowboy and gifted spinner of Old West yarns?

According to eighty academic experts – from museum curators and history professors to Old West and Native American scholars – led by the co-founders of the Long Riders’ Guild, the world’s first international association of equestrian explorers, the only thing Hopkins ever galloped across was the vast plains of his imagination. Equine history buff Linda Merims says, “Everything about the story is complete fiction. There was no Hidalgo.” You see, the researchers had a hard time finding any dependable research, apart from Hopkins’ own writing of course, and as any good researcher would know, you have to look for multiple sources to back up factual material. But there weren’t any.

Hopkins tall tales ranged from riding a buffalo bareback to riding knee-to-knee with Teddy Roosevelt to starring in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Yet the curator at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming found no evidence whatsoever of Hopkins in her database of 6000-plus people who worked for Buffalo Bill. Experts even concluded there has never been an ‘Ocean of Fire’ race in the Arabian desert, ever!

Maybe it’s legend, maybe it’s created, but there’s no denying Frank Hopkins and Hidalgo live on as legends and still inspire people today. And I’ve got to admit, the movie Hidalgo which follows the story of Hopkins and his mustang competing against the world’s finest Arabian stallions in a 3,000-mile race across the Arabian Desert, makes for a damn good story with outstanding visuals and special effects. And I’m a sucker for a good ol’ Western.

What are your thoughts on Frank Hopkins and his mustang Hidalgo globetrotters? Is it fact or fiction?

Oh and if Hopkins and Hidalgo have inspired you and you fancy your own ride through the desert, you should definitely check out our Namib Desert Safari… an incredible adventure awaits!

Reference: The Long Riders’ Guild & Buffalo Bill Centre of the West

Image credits: Buena Vista Images and Pinterest

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