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A movie review, sort of

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Recently, our local library announced availability of Robert Redford’s latest movie, “The Mustang.” It wasn’t shown in theaters nearby. It’s a drama based on a prison program that pairs inmates with wild horses. If training is successful, both prisoners and horses have a chance for life in society. Recidivism is reduced.

While protected by an act of Congress, the current wild-horse population teeters dangerously over an abyss. Wealthy subsidized ranchers demand removal of competition for range grass on public lands. Lobbying is their tool. Special interests carry clout on our public lands. Our tax dollars pay the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) through the Department of the Interior. The BLM ignores poachers who capture then sell the horses for slaughter. Then it deploys helicopter chases for its own roundups, a short sample of which opens the movie. Mustangs are terrorized. Foals or older horses who can’t keep up are shot to death on the spot because their legs, necks, or backs are broken. (This isn’t shown in the movie.) Survivors are crammed into ridiculously crowded and suffocating trailers then holding pens. The prison program takes on some of these.

Bare bones, with a French director and crew, the movie contains valuable truths about what people can learn from horses. It also offers hope. I applaud this effort. The subject is painfully near to my heart. But my best wish is that you view it with caveats: This is not buffed-up, happy Hollywood magic. To their credit, the French aren’t big on that. The acting is raw. Don’t expect clear lighting and sound. Don’t expect to learn about horse training. In fact, forget what you see in the round pens. Many bright trainers avoid using them. Horses can run themselves to death when they see no escape from pressure by an incompetent human in a confined space. In every sense of the word, horses are prey animals. Escape is their best defense. And humans are quintessential predators! We think and act differently and assume much. We anthropomorphize. Don’t assume that a horse, brutally beaten by a prisoner with anger management issues will suddenly turn docile, “understanding,” then tolerate a rider without proper introduction to cues, equipment and socialization. If they seem like they have, then they’ve succumbed to “learned helplessness.”

So is this story a fantasy? No. Horses, wild or not, do notice every minute detail about our mental state, body language and unspoken thoughts. They are drawn to honesty. Showing them our boundaries breeds trust. Knowing their place in our herd or theirs is important to them. It supports survival. Their responses show us who we really are. Time is a valuable asset. So many incarcerated people need time and understanding, as do the horses. In real life as well as in the movie, sometimes there just isn’t enough time to show the whole story.

Years ago, I was inspired by the program near Santa Fe, NM. But I saw the irony too. The office was near the pens, sectioned according to horses’ ages: yearlings, two-year-olds, three and so on. The manager greeted me, explained how horses were handled and what successes they’d had. Inside he pulled photos and files of graduate horses. Many went to 4-H kids, police, drill teams and other disciplines. He became emotional when he shared that the program was being cut due to funding. He begged me to write to the Department of the Interior. Before I left, I promised I would, and I did. Never received a response. Sadly, the program was cut. But now we have social media, also a powerful tool.

So please, borrow the movie. Watch it with an open mind. Try not to pass up an opportunity to raise awareness. The horses who deserve their chance to remain free helped to make this country great.
Here are a couple of links: www.americanwildhhorsecampaign.org and www.returntofreedom.org.

Jennifer Canfield likes to think the learning never stops when it comes to horses. Because she loves to write, both interests have found a happy home on the farm she shares with her husband in Damascus, PA.

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