Sonny Steele (Redford) is a washed-up rodeo star who was once a champion, but is now a drunk who is reduced to making cameos in a lit-up cowboy costume (earning his nickname) and hocking breakfast cereal. He is scheduled to appear in a commercial with Rising Star, a retired champion racehorse that the cereal company bought. When he arrives at the commercial shoot, he finds that they've shot the horse up with steroids to bulk him up, and drugged him to make him more docile on the set. Angry with Rising Star's mistreatment and disillusioned with the state of his life, he decides to take matters into his own hands. At a scheduled public appearance at a Las Vegas casino, he rides the horse right off the stage, down the Strip, and sets out cross-country, picking up Hallie Martin (Fonda) a reporter who senses the story of a lifetime.
The Electric Horseman contains the following tropes:
- The Alcoholic: Sonny
- Awesome Mc Coolname: Sonny Steele, of course.
- Cool Horse: Rising Star, a champion racehorse.
- Creator Cameo: Sydney Pollack briefly appears as a man who makes a pass at Hallie.
- Embarrassing First Name: Sonny's first name is actually Norman. (It's possible his last name isn't Steele, either.)
- Intrepid Reporter: Hallie Martin.
- I Shall Taunt You: At Hallie's and Sonny's first meeting, during a press conference, she deliberately tries to provoke him so she can get a interesting story. She points out that he's a three-time world champion cowboy, which he immediately corrects: "Five."
- New Old West: Most of the action takes place in the contrasting worlds of the modern West: the glitzy Las Vegas Strip and the unspoiled wild lands of Zion National Park in Utah.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Hallie figures out from a conversation with Sonny's ex-wife that he's probably taking Rising Star to Rimrock Canyon to release him. She calls it in to her news station, leading to a whole gaggle of press and cops waiting for them. She eventually comes to sympathize with Sonny and confesses to him, trying to convince him not to go because he'd get arrested. He decides to go through with it anyway. Ultimately subverted. He knew the whole time, and never planned to go to Rimrock Canyon. His real destination was Silver Wreath. However, he leads Hallie on even after her confession, just to mess with her.
- Not a Morning Person: Sonny, due to numerous injuries in his time on the rodeo circuit."Some parts wake up faster than others. The broken parts take longer."
- Plausible Deniability: The CEO, Hunt Sears, has this (either deliberately or inadvertently) when it comes to Rising Star; he oversees a very large company and couldn't possibly be expected to keep track of the horse's care personally. After Sonny and Hallie expose Rising Star's poor care, reporters are told that an internal investigation has exposed the responsible parties (which, of course, does not include Sears).
- Refuge in Audacity: How Sonny steals Rising Star. During a scheduled appearance he rides the horse right off the stage and down the Las Vegas strip. Most people think it's part of the show. (A cowboy and horse with Christmas lights all over them is strange, but not too strange for Vegas.)
- Scenery Porn: The scenes shot in Zion National Park.
- Somewhere, an Equestrian Is Crying: In-universe. The advertising execs decide Rising Star looks too skinny and give him steroids to bulk him up for the commercials. Sonny doesn't take this well.
- Suit with Vested Interests: Hunt Sears, the CEO of the business conglomerate that owns both Rising Star and the cereal company. Sonny steals Rising Star during a trade show on the eve of the conglomerate's merger with another company, and Sears worries that the bad publicity will jeopardize the merger.
- Throwing Out the Script: Sort-of, though it's thrown out in post-production rather than during the speech. Sonny makes a very passionate, heartfelt, off-the-cuff speech about Rising Star's mistreatment while he thinks Hallie's camera is turned off. When he thinks she's started recording, he stiffens up and stammers out a much less impressive one. The ad-libbed speech is the one she ends up sending to the network.