Black Beauty begins by describing his earliest memories. He fondly remembers the pleasant meadow and pond of his young days, under the care of his mother and a kind master. Gradually, Black Beauty matured from drinking his mother’s milk to eating grass, and with that change came more independence. Soon he was playing with all the other colts in the field, as they went galloping across the fields, kicking and biting. After one such day of play, his mother gave him life-long advice: be gentle and good in all things, work with a good spirit, and do not ever kick or bite. Black Beauty’s life would be a prime example of this advice put into practice. For now, though, he was just young “Darkie,” under the care of his mother Duchess and his master, both of whom took great care to provide him a good upbringing, safe from naughty stone-throwing boys and the like.
He could not be sheltered forever, though: around the age of two, Black Beauty witnesses a hunting chase for the first time. He sees the dogs go racing over the field, followed by swift horses and their riders. They chase a hare away and back again, following it even though they have to leap over a tall fence. Most of the hunters make it over the fence—forcing their horses to make the jump—but two horses fail to complete the jump. One rider and his horse survive, but the other pair, George Gordon—son of Squire Gordon—and his horse, Rob Roy, die from the accident. Black Beauty and his mother note: the hare has been caught; yet for what price have these men bought such a small prize?
Years pass, and Black Beauty grows to be quite a black beauty, with a dark regal coat interrupted only by a noble white blaze on his forehead and foot. Soon he is ready to be broken in, and Squire Gordon offers to buy him once he is ready. Breaking in, as Black Beauty explains, is to train a horse to bear a saddle and rider and respond to the rider’s commands. On top of all that, the horse has to learn how to handle having a cart or carriage trailing behind it, and how to handle all the equipment that comes with it. The worst part for Black Beauty is the bit, which goes right over the horse’s tongue and causes, as he points out, long-lasting discomfort. But with the kind words and encouragement of his trainer, Black Beauty is able to become accustomed to even that hardship.
After Black Beauty’s progress in this process, his trainer sends him to a neighbor’s meadow for further training. There, he witnesses for the first time a train, and though initially frightened by it, he soon becomes quite used to the noisy, flashing contraption. This proved to be of huge benefit to Black Beauty, as he was more used to railway stations and other features of city life than other horses. All in all, Black Beauty passes the breaking in process quite well; he attributes his success to the gentle and wise nurturing of his master. As his mother tells him, that kind of men is only one in a group of three; the other two are the cruel men who mistreat their animals, and the ignorant men who neglect them. These last kinds, his mother tells him, are the worst, as they spoil their animals terribly.
Soon after the training process ended, Squire Gordon moved Black Beauty to his estate, a pleasant and large land with big open stables and orchards. His stable room was large, airy and comfortable and as he stood there in the stables eating nice corn and oats, he saw for the first time someone who was to become a dear friend: Merrylegs. This little pretty pony regularly bore the young daughters of the Squire, and he and the other horse—Ginger—became like mentors to Black Beauty. Initially though, all is not well with Ginger. As Merrylegs explains, Ginger is a rather irritable and cold horse whose meanness she blames on the cruel treatment she received from her masters.
As Black Beauty soon learns, his new coachman—John Manly—is a sweet wise old fellow. His gentleness and skill shine the very first week, when he harnesses Black Beauty for a ride. In reciprocation of this gentleness, Black Beauty rides excellently, flying over the fields, neither disobeying the rider’s commands nor starting in fright from hunting dogs. John Manly points this out to the Squire, asserting that the reason for such excellence is Black Beauty’s good upbringing. The squire rides him as well and agrees whole-heartedly with the coachman. Following this outing, he presents Black Beauty to the lady of the estate—Gordon’s wife. It is during this encounter that Black Beauty is given this famous name of his, chosen by the lady.
At the end of this momentous day, Black Beauty overhears John talking to James Howard, the stable boy. John tells him that Black Beauty is actually Rob Roy’s brother, and so Black Beauty learns that the poor horse that died before his mother’s eyes was actually her son and his brother. His pain is multiplied by the fact that he had no idea that Roy was his brother. But time passes, and so his pain lessens. He grows very fond of John and James, both of whom treat him wonderfully, always taking care to brush him and feed him and even massage him. He breaks the ice with Ginger too, after pulling a double-carriage with her for the first time. Soon he meets the two other horses of the estate: Sir Oliver—an old favorite of the Squire’s—and Justice—a roan cob. With all these he became friends, and thus began his pleasant few years at Squire Gordon’s.
Immediately Sewell establishes the point of view and tone of the story: the narrator is Black Beauty, who is telling the story of his life. His tone here—and throughout the book—is that of a wise old fellow recounting his story. What makes this story unique though is that it is the story of a horse and a horse himself is narrating it. This anthropomorphism enables the reader to see directly what the horse sees, to hear what the horse says and, most importantly, to feel what the horse feels. As Sewell’s goal is to encourage kindness towards animals, her brilliantly simple way of eliciting sympathy for them is to simply put the reader in their shoes. She gives voice to these animals that are in reality unable to have a voice.
The imagery of these first few chapters is for the most part peaceful and pleasant. This is especially true in the first chapter, where Sewell describes Black Beauty’s early years spent in a beautiful meadow with trees and shade under his mother’s merciful love. This calm imagery is broken up only by one instance: the hunting accident. In the space of a few paragraphs, the young Black Beauty moves from enjoying his mother’s protection to witnessing death for the first time. With this rapid transition from light atmosphere to dark, Sewell highlights the importance of this experience; indeed, as Black Beauty notes, he was to remember that experience of the rest of his life. In the hunting incident, the hare is a symbol of the trivial gains which man desires so fervently, and which he is willing to do all sorts of crazy things to attain. One hare would not even be enough to feed the whole company of hunters, yet they all risked their lives and they lost a man and a horse in their chase. Through the story this motif of trivial gain persists. For the hunters it is the hare, later on for the high class society, fashion and style are there “hares”—as they are willing to pain their horses and themselves for the sake of aesthetics.
In this section Sewell introduces the story’s main antagonist. Interestingly enough, this character is not an individual but rather a moral framework. This framework and mindset of society encourages humans to harm and neglect the creatures under their power. While there are specific individuals throughout the story who could be termed antagonists for their sinister qualities, at the most a given individual will only appear in three or four chapters. The short duration of each of these characters is intentional; through that shortness Sewell is suggesting that the individual names and stories are not so important. Rather what is important is what groups of society these people represent. Further evidence that these characters are connected to general trends in society is the explicitly pedagogical purpose of Sewell’s novel. She is writing, as she says, in order to encourage sympathy and kindness towards horses.
There is a similar problem in identifying the story’s main protagonist. The only protagonist featured in more than two parts of the story is Black Beauty. Yet, his being the narrator causes some trouble in characterizing him as the story’s main protagonist; he does not see himself as the hero of the story—he sees himself as the storyteller. To him the heroes are people like John Manly, Mr. Thoroughgood, Squire Gordon’s wife and so on. What he is doing then by mentioning all these short stories of good people and bad people is providing examples of a general framework of good versus bad. He is showing that there tend to be two moral camps in society: those who neglect and abuse their animals and those who treat them well, with gentleness and wisdom. These two camps are what persist throughout the book and they are the real protagonist and antagonist of the story. The struggle between the two is the central recurring theme that Black Beauty mentions again and again.
What is completely unique about this chapter is that the reader sees Beauty in a free state for the one and only time in his entire life. His childhood is the only time he is not working under a human master. Following his breaking-in and transferal to Squire Gordon’s, Beauty says that he misses his liberty. Even amidst all the friends of his at Birtwick Park he still misses this liberty. The topic of liberty does not come up again in the book. This is really the only mention Black Beauty makes of this freedom. Sewell does not emphasize this point later on because she is not attempting to argue that all horses should be freed. One might wonder why she would have Beauty mention liberty at all then if she were not advocating their freedom. There is some rhetorical benefit to having him mention liberty; by doing so, Sewell again elicits sympathy for horses. Their whole existence, she suggests, is centered on serving humans; the freedom they are born with quickly becomes alien and remains so for their entire lives. So with such a life as that, is it not a shame that some humans will beat and abuse these helping animals? Thus in Beauty’s controlled mentioning of liberty, Sewell balances between generating sympathy for horses and avoiding advocating for complete horse liberty.