There comes a moment in nearly every film festival where you’re not quite sure what to expect when you sit down, but by the time the credits roll you know magic was captured on screen. For me, that moment happened after watching Wild Horse, Wild Ride at the Dallas International Film Festival. This powerful documentary follows contestants in the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge, an annual event held in Fort Worth, Texas, where a wild mustang is given to a trainer who has 100 days to tame and train the horse. The goal is for the horses to go up at auction and find a good home after a contest to show off how much they have learned, but the real lesson is how quickly friendships can form between horse and man. Thrilling, heartbreaking, and full of joy, Wild Horse, Wild Ride is that rare gem that reaches out to anyone with a soul and leaves an indelible impression. Hit the jump for the full review.
Every year, the Bureau of Land Management rounds up thousands of wild horses across America. Many of the untamed mustangs’ futures are unknown and that’s where the idea for the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge comes in. Trainers from all over the country are given a random horse with the goal of breaking and taming them within 100 days, with adoption in mind. Of course, to get the competitive juices flowing that often spur remarkable progress, there is a competition at the end that allows the riders to show how much the horses have learned. Following nine riders, some experienced, and some brand new, first-time husband and wife documentarians Greg Gricus and Alex Dawson follow the incredible journey that takes place. Each trainer seems to have their own style, and each horse has their own individual quirks. At times, the documentary can play as a comedy, while other times it takes on a dramatic tone. Because of the numerous hats the doc wears, it becomes a roller coaster of emotions that ends with the thrilling conclusion at the contest itself.
While Gricus and Dawson are no strangers to the documentary format, this is the first time they have sat in the director’s chair. Balancing nine different stories can often lead to disastrous results, but Wild Horse, Wild Ride has a flow that is easy-going and knows when and who to focus on. Some of the trainers are clearly a cut above the rest, and while they get a fair amount of attention, the focus seems to be on the most stubborn horses and the newer trainers. This benefits the film as the audience can grow with the trainers, and share in the lessons and accomplishments. Even more remarkable is the fact that the two were the only ones filming, meaning they had to hop from location to location—yet they didn’t focus on only west coast or east coast trainers. The airlines must have surely loved them.
While some trainers seem more preoccupied with the horses, some enjoy the spotlight. Wylene Wilson, in particular, is a show all her own. This thrill-seeking mother of two has an undeniable talent for training horses, and yet she is a showman of the highest order. Vibrant, blonde, and wanting to turn heads everywhere she goes, she is as talented as she is cocky. Among the other stable of trainers are an older couple that train two very different horses, an A&M professor that is a complete newbie, and a Native American father and son duo. This eclectic group get an equally diverse group of mustangs and the challenges can often be hilarious. On the other side, the feats many pull off within the short amount of time is stunning. For someone that knows very little about horses, it was fascinating to see how well trained these once wild mustangs could be under the proper guidance.
The diversity of the group provides lots of opportunities to witness how each of the trainers approach breaking the animal. As the film switches between the introduction of each trainer and the horse they are paired with, you might think one method is perfect, only to be outdone by the next trainer a few minutes later. Yet, there is a hurdle that each trainer must overcome, and that is simply mounting the horse. Trust has to be formed between the animal and its potential rider, and considering they have never been ridden to that point, it is often a momentous step in training. There is also a danger to the rider, as a horse that doesn’t accept the rider can begin bucking and rearing up. By the time the competition in Fort Worth rolls around, the intensity and emotions are through the roof.
The future of the riders and the horses come into question, as some may never ride together again. Thus, the competition is bittersweet for many. There is a pride in the contest that isn’t just about the trainer, but the horse as well. You can see how proud the riders are of their horses; after all, the horses have come quite a way. Yet, as thrilling as the competition is, it’s the auction that steals the show. After all, the true journey of Wild Horse, Wild Ride is about the connections made, and for many this becomes the end of their journey. Despite the sorrow that is felt, there are also moments of joy that keep the film from ending on a bitter note.
Wild Horse, Wild Ride is that rare film that can cross any border and imbed itself within the hearts of the audience. The balance shown by Gricus and Dawson is a staggering accomplishment. There is humor, sorrow, joy, glee, and lessons to be learned, all within 100 minutes. The film won the audience award for best documentary feature at DIFF, but the praise simply cannot stop there. The real pity is that little is known about when the film might hit theaters, but it is on the festival circuit at the moment and will likely make its way to home video soon.