Following in the footsteps of the original Blade Runner, the new sequel Blade Runner 2049 is full of symbolism. And while plenty of the old symbolism and themes are as present in the film as Harrison Ford's returning Rick Deckard, some did not make the 35-year time gap. Most notably, there is no unicorn in Blade Runner 2049, however, there is a horse. And if history is any indication, this means that fans are going to be debating one question for the next three decades: what does the horse mean in Blade Runner 2049? Major spoilers ahead!
In Blade Runner 2049, K (Ryan Gosling) is consumed by the memory of a toy horse. In the memory, he gets bullied as a child as he's playing with a small, wooden horse. He hides it from them in a small corner of a fire place. As an adult, K can't get that horse out of his head, and even though he knows he is a replicant, the memory feels real. Increasingly curious, K goes to the fire place and finds the horse, taking it as proof that he might not be a replicant after all — he might be part human. The horse, then, represents K's a childhood he could not have had as a replicant. In short, it's proof of his humanity.
The horse in Blade Runner 2049, however, ends up being a bit of a red herring. It turns out — again: major spoiler alert — that the memory K holds up as proof of his humanity is actually not his. It is an implanted memory that actually belongs to Dr. Ana Stelline, a memory maker. The memory was actually given to K as a safeguard, an attempt to hide Ana's true identity as the daughter of Deckard — a human (maybe) — and Rachael — a replicant — which makes her the target of a potential replicant vs. human war. The horse, then, is a symbol of humanity, it's just not K's.
Fans of the original Blade Runner will recognize the horse in Blade Runner 2049 as a nice callback to the unicorn in the first film. A recurring symbol in the movie, the unicorn is both a symbol of Deckard's humanity and of his potential replicant status. Appearing multiple times throughout the film, and in a bonus dream sequence director Ridley Scott later added to the movie in one of his two Director's Cuts, the unicorn has come to be a key detail in the debate surrounding Deckard's true nature. Is it proof that Deckard is a replicant and that the image of the unicorn is nothing more than an implanted memory? Or is it just an image Deckard himself can't get out of his head?
Symbolically, the unicorn in Blade Runner and the horse in Blade Runner 2049 are very similar. Adding to this similarity is the physical object of the horse as a small toy. Blade Runner famously ends with Deckard receiving an origami silver unicorn. Though slightly bigger than an origami unicorn, the wooden horse is similar in size and shape. The horse, then, inherits the responsibility of being a sort of Blade Runner talisman for humanity.
That said, the horse is also symbolic of K's status as a replicant. In a trailer for the film, replicant maker Niander Wallace ominously declares "Every civilization was built off the back of a disposable work horse." This quote just makes it all the more heartbreaking that K holds onto a horse as hope for his humanity. What he sees as a symbol of potential human heritage is actually a representation of what he is to a majority of mankind: nothing but an animal meant to serve them.