Running free

The Mustangs: America’s Wild Horses examines the history, modern presence and plight of wild horses in the United States. 

When people ask Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Philipps what his second book is about, he tells them “wild horses,” to which, he says, “90 percent of them reply, ‘I didn’t know there were wild horses.’”

Phillips is the author of Wild Horse Country: The History, Myth, and Future of the Mustang, America’s Horse (2017). Not only do wild horses exist in the Western United States, but we learn from him in the documentary The Mustangs: America’s Wild Horses that there are around 80,000 of them.

But their future, narrates actor, director, and activist Robert Redford at the start of the film, is far from certain. Redford is one of the film’s executive producers. If sustainable limits can’t be placed on the horses’ population growth, they’ll exhaust their resources and die off.

That problem is at the crux of directors Steven Latham and Conrad Stanley’s documentary, which delves into the history of the horse’s presence in America and takes the viewer on a journey from the past to the present.

After European settlers brought a variety of horses to the Americas in the 16th century, they began trading them with Indigenous populations for Native goods. But moving a herd from one location to another often resulted in some horses escaping and eventually forming new herds, which grew to vast numbers. Settlers crossing the Plains encountered herds so large it took hours for them to pass.

Throughout the 20th century, however, free-roaming horses were routinely rounded up, and many were destroyed for use as fertilizer. To ranchers, they were competition for the grazing cattle and were considered pests. Horses were slaughtered in inhumane ways, such as poisoning their watering holes. By the 1950s, the population was reduced to as little as 20,000.

Then came Velma Johnston, who became known as “Wild Horse Annie” and who petitioned the U.S. government to pass laws in 1959 designed to protect them.

Today, population growth isn’t being effectively managed, which makes the efforts of conservationists on America’s wild horse sanctuaries that much more difficult. They’ve been instrumental in reintroducing horses into the wild but are also engaged in fertility management through vaccinations programs. Ostensibly, these help prevent die offs that result from unsustainable growth. But to be effective beyond individual herds, such vaccine programs need large-scale implementation.

The Mustangs is an informative documentary that regards its subject and the efforts to save them in a way that’s matter of fact, but it also recognizes the horse as a symbol of freedom and strength — ideals that are often held as synonymous with America. The horse, it can be said, is a symbol of America itself.

As recently as 2018, thousands of wild horses were being considered for mass euthanasia. This film is a plea for alternate solutions that would ensure their survival without the need for such drastic measures.

It’s a sad testament of humankind’s impact on nature that wild animal populations must be aggressively managed. In the case of the horse, the quandary is how to do so humanely. The issues facing the wild horse, as biologist Celeste Carlisle says in the film, and which the film as a whole underscores, “is a completely, 100 percent, human-caused problem.”

This is a film that deserves to be seen by anyone who cares about animals but will likely be seen by a limited audience predisposed to concern over the issues it raises. But if it can generate greater interest, that’s a win for the horses. 

Documentary, not rated, 90 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts Cinema, 3 chiles

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