Opening March 7 in Houston at the Marq*E Theater.  Henry Ansbacher, producer/writer, will conduct Q&As after the 5/7 pm shows.

“I believe, as do so many of my fellow Americans, that the wild horse is an irreplaceable national treasure.”  Robert Redford

This is an excellent documentary making a well-reasoned case for preserving wild mustangs in their natural habitat.  After I saw the film, I talked on the phone with Ellie Phipps Price, the executive producer and an advocate for the preservation of wild horses.  Her comments will be inserted into the review that follows.  

American Mustang traces the origin of the species to North America millions of years ago, and reports that the animals crossed the Bering Land Bridge to Europe and Asia, thus spreading to other parts of the world.  Whether from the Ice Age or over-hunting, equus became extinct here, but was reintroduced in the 1500’s by Spanish explorers.  Biologists now refer to the horses as “native reintroduced species.”  The concern of many now is that the species is in danger of extinction again.

 Monty Miranda, the director of American Mustang, and his people interviewed various groups [cowboys, ranchers, scientists, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employees, and wild horse advocates] to get a full picture of the wild horse situation. The film holds interest by alternating factual information, as above; with poetic statements (“They have an integral place in the tapestry of landscape”) and a young girl’s musings; and advocating better treatment for the animals.  In this last respect, it reminds me of other documentaries like Buck (2011), who served as the horse training model for Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer and Blackfish (2013), an exposure of Sea World’s treatment of whales.  

Buck is about a humane, gentle way to train horses, and Blackfish exposes the maltreatment of whales for entertainment purposes.  Ms. Price points out that both whales and horses have a social structure in which parents and offspring live in family units, getting close and communicating with one another, and families exist together in herds.  Blackfish claims Sea World thoughtlessly splits up families when they capture them.  Apparently, this same thing happens when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), pressured by special interest groups, brutally rounds up herds of horses, disregarding families and placing them in “holding” facilities, where they are no longer with their herd or free to run, and they become listless.  The BLM brands the horses, reportedly to keep track of each one; however, there is evidence that many are sold by the truckload to private individuals, who sell them for profit.  The BLM claims that horses may be adopted out, but when the documentarians tried to trace a whole herd, it was an impossible task.  Taming and training a wild horse is a slow, painstaking process that requires patience, as demonstrated by the cowboy in the film, so it is unlikely very many of the searched for animals were adopted.

In addressing the cattle industry’s claim that horses are destroying grazing lands, statistics are cited of how many horses there are, compared to privately owned cattle (1:50) on public lands (256 million acres), how much it costs to maintain horses in holding facilities ($80 million/year), and the small number of wild horses (27 thousand) that remain free on these public lands.  The story is told about a courageous woman in the ‘50s, “Wild Horse Annie” (Velma Bronn Johnston), who advocated with Congress for more humane treatment of wild horses.  She was successful, and that is when the BLM was put in charge of them, which worked for a time.  However, their funding has gradually been reduced, and they have become susceptible to pressure from special interest groups to round up the horses with inhumane methods, using helicopters and traps.  

Ms. Price emphasized in our conversation that ranchers and the cattle grazing industry are not against horses, but want them to be managed, out of a fear that they will destroy grazing lands for cattle.  But, she says, when there are too many horses, the need is for a holistic approach, incorporating birth control; not rounding up the horses and taking away their freedom.  There is a preserve in California called Return to Freedom that uses this method, and she has a preserve of her own in northern California, where the neighboring ranchers and cattlemen are her friends.

American Mustang ends on an upbeat note, in telling us that a particular wild horse sanctuary has been created, with the purpose of showing the BLM how horses can be managed in the wild in a more humane, less expensive manner.  Birth control methods are used to limit the population, and the horses can basically take care of themselves and their families without depending on humans for food and shelter.  In the wild, they can be free and in balance with other wild life, which is an environmental issue.  

Ms. Price does not think the BLM will reform itself without help and encouragement from others.  A number of advocates who bring their case to the powers that be have surfaced, including a coalition called the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign:  This is a good place for people to go when they want to join the cause

 Grade:  A

By:  Donna R. Copeland