The Mustangs: America’s Wild Horses

American icons.

(2021) Documentary (Virgil) Robert Redford (voice), David Philipps, Stormy Mullins, Wylene Davis, Tom Hagwood, Mary Kitzmiller, Ann Souders, Pat Doak, Matt Manroe, Jimmy Welch, Ryan Beatele, Richard Durant, Brittany Johnson, Stella Trueblood, Neda DeMayo. Directed by Steven Latham and Conrad Stanley

An iconic image of the American west was the cowboy on his mustang, riding the range. But the mustangs aren’t native to the Americas; the Spanish conquistadors brought it with them. But as the century turned from the 19th to the 20th, the face of the American West changed. Farms and agriculture, towns and cities began to dominate the landscape as the open range became a thing of the past. Mustangs in the wild, no longer needed for transportation and work with the advent of the automobile, began to be used as dog food as they became nuisances to farmers. Their numbers dropped in the wild to under 10,000 by the 1950s.

That all changed with the advent of Velma “Wild Horse Annie” Johnston, an ordinary secretary who while on the way to work one day saw the inhumane way wild horses were treated. Outraged at the sad mistreatment of an animal that symbolized America at its finest, she went on what started as a one-woman crusade to save the wild mustang. Her campaign gathered steam, supported in large part by America’s children. Eventually, the Bureau of Land Management set aside land for the mustangs to roam free and an agency was set up to manage them. The legacy of Wild Horse Annie is that the number of mustangs in the wild has grown to more than 80,000.

In fact, that’s where their modern troubles have begun. The land that the mustangs inhabit cannot sustain that many horses. Horses have no natural predators and left to their own devices their population will double roughly every four to five years. Several advocacy groups have been tackling this problem in different ways, from a group of women who travel the inhospitable range in Wyoming and Nevada to shoot darts into the mares. The darts contain a fertility inhibitor that keeps the mare from ovulating. This is the most cost-effective way to handle the problem at about $30 a dart. One of the other means of controlling the population is rounding up groups of horses and keeping them in a BLM enclosure, costing the taxpayers roughly $50K every year per horse.

Then there is the Extreme Mustang Makeover, in which 100 of the horses that have been rounded up are given to 100 horse trainers who are given 100 days to train the equines to get used to working with humans. We follow two of the trainers – Mary Kitzmiller and Brittany Johnson as they take the wild horses who are often fractious around humans and in the hundred day window not only get them used to a human presence but even make them partners. It is a competition, and the horses – all of them – are auctioned off to the highest bidder, win or lose.

One of the winning bidders was Operation Wild Horse, which is a ranch in Illinois that pairs veterans with PTSD with horses, helping the vets to regain a sense of purpose and worth. It is a moving segment, one which in addition to tackling the issue of wild horse overpopulation, also takes on at the same time the problems of vets returning home after serving in hellacious circumstances.

The movie is only an hour and a half long, but the pacing is maddeningly slow. Still, the viewer is treated to breathtaking cinematography of horses in the wild, running in herds and protecting their colts. This is a documentary which falls under the category “the same, but different” in that it articulates an issue that has ramifications on the survival of the species, utilizes gorgeous images to tug at the emotions of the viewers and talks about efforts underway to resolve the situation, but different in the sense that we’re not talking about dwindling population numbers so much as dwindling available resources. Horse lovers should glom onto this one sooner rather than later.

REASONS TO SEE: Some beautiful images of horses in the wild.
REASONS TO AVOID:T he pacing is a little too deliberate.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of animal cruelty.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Among the producers for the film are Redford, Bruce Springsteen (who also contributes a song to the soundtrack), his wife Patti Scialfa Springsteen and songwriter Diane Warren, who wrote a song for the soundtrack.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Kino Now, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.