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Horse Returns Without Rider

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"The horse had a white face—Swan Circling's horse. Kaya caught her breath in relief. But as the horse came closer, out of the trees, Kaya saw that it was limping as though it was hurt—and that it had no rider."
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A character sets out on horseback; later the horse returns alone. Cue ominous music as both the audience and the other characters realize something terrible has happened to the rider. The most common fates include being injured, kidnapped, or killed, although those aren't the only possibilities.

One common add-on is that the horse serves as a walking crime scene bearing clues to what happened. The horse may be injured or its tack may be damaged.

Another common add-on is inopportune conditions surrounding the ride: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, Hostile Weather, or the natives are restless and a lone horseman is a good target.

The trope is most common is settings where horses are the standard mode of transportation, but it can equally occur where horseback riding is a recreational activity.

While it can become Somewhere, an Equestrian Is Crying if the scene is mishandled, the basic premise is accurate. A horse whose been on rides before knows the drill: you go out, then you return. At the stable there's food, water, and friends (horses are herd animals who bond with each other). And especially if the horse was spooked by whatever happened to the rider, they'll want to go home where they feel safe. In real life, the most common scenario is that nothing particularly "happened"—the horse was just Horsing Around or got spooked (horses spook easily), threw the rider, and ran off. The rider will return home on foot, bruised but relatively unharmed. In fiction, The Law of Conservation of Detail means that such mundane examples are uncommon.

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Compare other Stock Ominous Signs, particularly Ominously Cut Tether. If the horse is a Sapient Steed who can tell you what happened, then it's Sole Survivor instead—here the point is that it's ambiguous and thus ominous.

Overlaps with Invulnerable Horses since by definition something happened to the rider but the horse is basically okay.

Expect unmarked spoilers as to the riders' fates!


Examples

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: A recon team sent by General Olivier to investigate the huge tunnel the homunculus Sloth emerged from is attacked and massacred by a monstrous Living Shadow (later revealed to be Pride). The only survivor to return is an absolutely terrified horse with a severed human arm still clutching its reins.

    Comic Books 
  • Tintin: The Seven Crystal Balls starts with Tintin coming to Marlinspike Hall. He's greeted by Nestor, who tells him that Haddock is away for a horse riding session. Then Haddock's horse arrives without Haddock on its back.
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    Fanfic 
  • In Into The Forest (an Adam-12 fic) Pete and his girlfriend Jenny are taken prisoner during a ride in the woods. Jim starts to get worried when he doesn't hear from them. He goes to see if she's at the barn where she keeps her horses, and gets tipped off that something is wrong because he's told that Jenny's horse Trooper returned to the stable without her.

    Films — Animation 
  • Beauty and the Beast: While Maurice is riding his horse Philippe to the fair, the two are chased by wolves and Maurice ends up falling off, leaving him to seek shelter in the Beast's castle. Later, Philippe makes it back home. Belle realizes that something terrible has happened to her father and promptly takes off to search for him. This scene also occurs in the live action remake.
  • Frozen (2013): Soon after Elsa accidentally sets off an Endless Winter and retreats to the North Mountain, her sister Anna sets off riding Prince Hans's horse to find her, only for said horse to abandon her midway through her journey. When the horse manages to find its way back to Arendelle, Hans takes it as a sign that Anna is in danger and mobilizes a search party to find her.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Dragonheart: Subverted when the knight-turned-dragonslayer Bowen and a monk named Brother Gilbert first meet. Bowen, who was on horseback, was chasing a dragon that landed at the bottom of a hillside on the outskirts of a village Gilbert was passing through. Bowen engaged the dragon in a fight, but soon after the dragon grew silent and Bowen's horse returned riderless, leading Gilbert to believe that Bowen was slain by the dragon. The dust stirred up by the fight starts to settle a little when Bowen appears with a dragon tooth in hand, as a trophy and proof of his kill, and he promptly calls his horse a coward for running away so soon.
  • Gladiator: Subverted at the opening battle, where an emissary appears to be riding his horse back to the Roman lines, but once the horse arrived the emissary is shown to be missing his head. The Germanic chieftain of the Germanic army held the head then tossed it in the mud before the battle begins.
  • Played with in the 1976 comedy film Hawmps, about the actual US Army experiment in the 1800's to use camels instead of horses for transportation in the American Southwest. At one point the company commander heads off by himself to look for water for his men, and his camel returns without him. His men immediately conclude he's in trouble and set off to find him.
  • In Prey, the French trappers are attempting to trap the Feral Predator, and the scene focuses on two of them aiming their rifles at the ambush spot while there are others on horseback behind them. Suddenly, the horses start running past them riderless, or with the riders still on them minus their heads. Oh, Crap! ensues when they realize the Predator is right behind them.
  • The Princess Bride: Vizzini kidnaps Buttercup while she's riding. He invokes the trope by planting part of the uniform of an army officer of Guilder (who he's framing for her disappearance) on the horse, then sending it off.
  • Time Bandits has a slightly nonstandard example. When the armored knights attack Evil, he sprays out clouds of smoke. A battle between them goes on inside the smoke, ending with the horses trotting out of the smoke riderless. When the smoke clears, the knights are revealed to have been killed by being impaled on their lances.
  • The Valley of Gwangi: When the heroes are all riding out of the Forbidden Valley, Carlos the Mexican Roma is pulled from his horse by Gwangi, and the Allosaurus then eats him alive, thereby fulfilling the prophecy Tia Zorrina gave Carlos at the start of the film that Gwangi would kill him like his brother Miguel if he took anything from the Evil One ("anything", in this case, being the Eohippus Miguel stole from Gwangi and brought back to Carlos at the cost of his life). Tia Zorrina specifically mentions Carlos' horse when confronting the heroes to tell them about his fate.
    Tia Zorrina: In a dream, I saw it. The great jaws snapping, the riderless horse. He was doomed.

    Literature 
  • American Girls: Kaya: Swan Circling set out to find some medicine for a sick baby. When it's dusk and she still hasn't returned, Kaya starts to worry. Then her horse returns without her, and the chapter ends on that cliffhanger. Some people go out searching and find her body by a stream. It looks like her horse broke through some thin ice, stumbled, she was thrown off, she hit her head on a boulder and that killed her.
  • Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart: Kay—who is very incompetent—sets out with Guinevere. Soon after a Stealth Escort Mission sets out to follow them. They soon come across his horse, riderless, and showing signs of a struggle.
    And as they thus approached the forest, they saw Kay's horse running out; and they recognised him, and saw that both reins of the bridle were broken. The horse was running wild, the stirrup-straps all stained with blood, and the saddle-bow was broken and damaged. Every one was chagrined at this, and they nudged each other and shook their heads.
  • The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: The day after Ichabod Crane's encounter with the Headless Horseman, Gunpowder the horse is found near his master's home while Ichabod has mysteriously disappeared. Whether he fled Sleepy Hollow out of fear or was spirited away by the Horseman is left up to interpretation.
  • The Lord of the Rings
    • Shadowfax returns to Rohan on his own after Gandalf lets him, and Theoden interprets this as the wizard having died, as he says when Gandalf returns.
    • When Aragorn mentions having traveled with Boromir, Éomer asks about him. The last Éomer knew was that Boromir had set off on a long journey north, "and the horse we lent him came back riderless."
      Éomer: Long has Boromir son of Denethor been gone seeking an answer, and the horse that we lent him came back riderless.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Dollhouse: In "Haunted", Margaret's death is discovered after her horse returns without her.
  • Game of Thrones:
    • In season one, Benjen Stark is sent out beyond the Wall to investigate reports of troubling activity. Some episodes later, his horse returns in "You Win Or You Die", but the man himself is nowhere to be found.
    • Early in season 2, Daenerys Targaryen and her ragtag khalasar are lost in the Red Waste, forcing her to send out her Bloodriders to scout for water and friendly settlements. In "The Night Lands", Rakharo's horse returns minus its rider; his head has been stuffed into the saddlebag, courtesy of a rival Dothraki khalasar.
  • Outlander: Jamie, Roger, and several other men go hunting for bison. The group splits up with Jamie and Roger headed in one direction and the others in another. While hunting, Jamie is bitten by a snake and rapidly begins to succumb to the venom. The other men, having failed to find any game, return to the homestead. When Jamie and Roger aren't home yet, everyone assumes that they found a good hunting spot, are camping out, and will return in the morning. However, Young Ian realizes that something is amiss when Jamie's horse returns home alone. A rescue party is sent out to find Jamie and Roger.

    Theatre 
  • In Evgeny Schwartz'es play The Two Maples, a woman searching for her sons who ran away from home looking for adventures, tells her story to a bear she met. She says that a few days after the oldest son ran, the horse returned home, unfed and neglected. Said son, standing next to them transformed into the first of the titular maples, recalls he was too eager for a fight to care. Then she speaks of the second son. In his case, the horse returned forty days after the boy ran away, and dropped dead, crying. The son states this time, the horse had seen him transformed into the second maple.

    Video Games 
  • Fire Emblem: Awakening: Gerome's wyvern mount and Cynthia's pegasus mount are the same ones that their respective mothers used to ride. Both of them tell the past versions of their mothers how the future versions went off to war, and one day, the pegasus and wyvern returned alone, telling the children that Sumia and Cherche had died in battle.
  • Warcraft III: In the second mission of the Human campaign, Uther tells Arthas that he sent two of his best knights to parlay with the orc leader. Right on cue, two riderless horses run into the encampment.

    Western Animation 
  • Centaurworld: The plot of the first season revolves around Horse (an actual horse) having been separated from Rider (her rider) and is trying to return to her home dimension, hoping to find Rider again. However, Horse fears that Rider is already dead or, if she isn't, they won't remember each other by the time she makes it back.

    Real Life 
  • A tradition of military funerals is to have a horse precede the hearse, tacked out properly, but with no rider (only a groom on foot), and a pair of boots set in the stirrups, but facing backwards.
  • The horse Comanche was the only survivor of General George Armstrong Custer's detachment of the The Seventh Cavalry following the Battle of Little Big Horn, aka "Custer's Last Stand". He was found two days after the battle, badly wounded, by General Alfred Terry's forces as the first indication of the battle's outcome. (They would receive an official report from a native scout a short time later.) Comanche was nursed back to health and served as a regimental mascot for the rest of his life.
  • News stories
    • On January 26, 2019, a cowboy named Ben Tyner disappeared from a ranch near Merritt, British Columbia, Canada. His horse was found in full riding gear two days later. A search effort followed and found nothing, leaving Tyner's disappearance unsolved.
    • On March 9, 2022 in Scottsdale, Arizona, USA, a woman named Jillian Underschultz set out riding on horseback. Her horse returned alone two hours later. The following day the area was searched and Underschultz was found dead. A medical examiner said she died of blunt force trauma of the neck and ruled her death accidental.
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