Watch on Netflix
Season 3 drops July 6
It’s easy to overlook a show like Free Rein, especially if you’re over the age of thirteen. This delightful, racially diverse family drama about equestrian life in England has received exactly one Rotten Tomatoes review since its debut in 2017. Free Rein picked up two Daytime Emmys following Season 1, yet virtually no critics reviewed Season 2.
And now along comes Season 3, debuting two days after the third-season premiere of Stranger Things. I suppose the Netflix recommendation engine might suggest Free Rein to viewers watching Stranger Things, since both are watched by younger audiences... but I doubt it. I suspect they're going to recommend more thrillers.
Speaking as a human recommender, I find this exasperating. The first season of Free Rein, after all, has everything I look for in quality series, including satisfying storylines, writing that values my intelligence and attention, and a talented cast.
The series takes place on a picture-perfect island off the coast of England, where two L.A. girls — 15-year-old Zoe Phillips (Jaylen Barron) and little sister Rosie (Navia Ziraili Robinson) — have been dragged by their mum Maggie (Natalie Gumede), a native of the island, as she spends time at home, sorting out problems in her marriage.
“This place smells of cow,” Rosie complains, pulling her luggage roller down a dirt road. Later, in the cottage of their English grandfather Frank (Geoffrey McGivern), she asks, “Why isn’t the wi-fi working?”
“What’s a wi-fi?” Frank asks.
Big sister Zoe, however, quickly makes friends down at Bright Fields, the nearby horse farm and riding academy, which takes the place of a high school in the teen-drama template. Two boys begin competing for her affections — handsome Marcus (Bruce Herbelin-Earle) and shifty, mysterious Pin (Freddy Carter). One rider, Mia (Céline Buckens), tries to co-opt the new girl, but Zoe declares her loyalty to Jade (Manpreet Bambara) and Becky (Kerry Ingram), whom Mia looks down upon.
What elevates Free Rein above its genre limitations is Zoe’s bond with Raven, the stable’s most prized horse. A black beauty whose lineage is shrouded in mystery, Raven has been a handful for almost every human who’s come near him. In a power move, Mia informs Zoe that the horse belongs to her, yet when she reaches for his bridle, Raven resists and, in one of the all-time great takes, turns his ass to the camera and drops a load. Though equestrian viewers have faulted the speed with which Zoe and Raven form such a close connection, it's in their relationship that the show finds its true magic.
Over the course of ten easy-to-binge first season episodes, Zoe falls for both boys, helps Bright Fields compete for a championship, and rescues her beloved horse from various baddies. That she effortlessly manages these challenges while coping with her parents’ estrangement and her annoying little sister — all without the assistance of wi-fi — is a testament to the winning talent of Jaylen Barron, who plays Zoe.
In Season 2, the ongoing love triangle between Zoe, Pin, and Marcus continues, and Raven’s status remains as fraught as ever. The series also introduces new characters and intrigues, many of which revolve around Holloway, a snooty rival horse academy that's introduced as Bright Fields’ chief rival at the end of Season 1.
While I found the second season changes interesting, they mae for less plausible storylines than in Season 1. Also, whenever the focus shifted away from the stars of the show — Zoe and Raven — I was less motivated to keep watching. So I’m recommending you watch Season 1 and bookmark the name Jaylen Barron. You’ll see her again, and I’m betting it won’t be on a show as family-friendly as Free Rein.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.