By Elias Savada.
A fine, upstanding look at the breed of feral steeds that have been an iconic symbol for the American West for centuries and, yes, it has a slow-build message.
I have never been a horse person. That was my sister, an equestrian who would ride from morning till night if she could. I’ve gotten on one of these majestic creatures for a jog up a trail or two, but my pet of preference is a cat. They’re easier – for most of us – to tame.
And there’s a lot of taming going in in The Mustangs: America’s Wild Horses, a must for horse lovers and for any reasonable soul who marvels at some of the fascinating varieties crossing the screen in this film. Most animal documentaries dramatically espouse a cause here or a problem there. This is one such excursion, but this 90-minute trail ride is closer to a well-informed educational feature about the herds of the titular animals, and some of the folks and groups who interact with them. It’s a fine, upstanding look at the breed of feral steeds that have been an iconic symbol for the American West for centuries and, yes, it has a slow-build message.
There’s a slew of celebrity executive producers attached to this well-stated and inspiring story, including Robert Redford (who also narrates the film’s front and back ends), Patti Scialfa Springsteen (a.k.a. Mrs. Bruce Springsteen), and USA Olympian Equestrian Silver Medalist Jessica Springsteen (their daughter, a show jumping champion). Steven Latham, the producer and co-director (with editor Conrad Stanley) has something to say about the tamed and untamed beasts, and how we need to come to terms on their containment.
About 90,000 of these kings and queens of the plains presently roam the American range. There have been a lot more and many less since their ancestors were brought to the New World by Spanish explorers in the late 16th century. How the government has dealt with the issue has been, according to Redford, an “epic battle for (their) survival in a changing world.”
One cornerstone of the film is the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act signed into law by President Nixon in 1971 (after passing both houses of Congress unanimously!). Yet, it was a 20-year effort by Velma “Wild Horse Annie” Johnston who witnessed some of the atrocities perpetrated on the wild horses near her ranch in Nevada, that got this bill enacted. The animal were being rounded up for slaughter in the name of pet food and fertilizer.
After Redford’s opening remarks, the filmmakers move to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Phillips to become the core storyteller. He covers the same concerns he wrote about in Wild Horse Country, and Latham showcases many pf the issues covered in the book, as well as the alternatives available in dealing with the crisis.
Most of the film covers the half-century on after 1971 law made killing a wild horse or burro on federal land a federal crime. It centers on the fascinating ways people have found to protect them beyond the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, which controls the horse population – which could double every 4-5 years if not properly managed. Options include too little fertility control, some joyfully therapeutic placement in private care, and perhaps too much “periodic removal.”
One of the programs emphasized is the Extreme Mustang Makeover, an annual competition presented by the Mustang Heritage Foundation, featuring wild mares and geldings gathered from BLM corrals (herd management areas) throughout 250 million acres of federal land in the Western states. Trainers get 100 days to tame and train their adopted horse, all of which are made available for purchase in several auctions held during the multi-day event. Mostly of the horses end up with non-profit organizations like Operation Wild Horse, which gets a joyful and tear-filled chunk of well-deserved screen time in the film’s middle third. Its cause provides incredible emotional support for Veterans with PTSD.
The filmmaker also rotates among Texas trainers Mary Kitzmiller and Brittany Johnson as they train their wild horses, particularly Remington, Mary’s mustang that has a striking white face. As referenced by Ann Souders, the foundation’s Community Engagement Coordinators, the horse was previously documented, in the Wyoming wild, by several of the group’s photographers, including Pat Doak. All four women become strong voices in the film.
The film’s last third starts with a bunch of grandmas living in the northwest corner of Colorado, where they traipse across 160,000 acres of sagebrush, bunchgrass, saltbush, piñon-juniper woodlands, and a lot of sad-looking dirt. Since 2014, these SWAT (Sand Wash Basin Wild Horse Advocate Team) members use PZP (Porcine Zona Pellucida) darts to block fertilization in the remote area’s 300+ wild mares. Volunteers all. Economically, this is a more feasible approach in dealing with the issue ($30 a shot vs. about $50,000 per horse lifetime holding cost). Like most covid vaccines, it’s a double dose, and an annual booster is required. Hard work indeed.
The final segment, offering some the film’s most powerful moments, gives Neda DeMayo an opportunity to talk about Return to Freedom, which she founded in 1996. It offers wild horse conservation by offering sanctuary to over 500 animals in numerous California locations, educating folks about the issues, and offering solutions to this human-based problem. “Protecting wildness” is her motto.
Musical interludes from the likes of Bruce Springsteen (“Chasin’ Wild Horses”), co-producer Diane Warren (with Blanco Brown singing her original song “Never Gonna Tame You”), Emmylou Harris performing Leonard Cohen’s “Ballad of a Runaway Horse,” and Willie Nelson warbling “Ride Me Back Home” over the end credits.
The film, currently in limited theatrical release (check for screenings at https://themustangsfilm.com/), premieres on VOD on November 23rd. The Mustangs: Americas Wild Horses offers a noble human voice for those who cannot speak.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).