Buck was a surprise of a documentary. It focused on Dan “Buck” Brannaman, one of the real-life horse trainers who inspired the Nicholas Evans novel The Horse Whisperer; it was adapted into the 1998 film of the same name by Robert Redford. Since I’m not much of a horse guy, the draw of Buck was Brannaman himself. He’s such a fascinating person, and his relationship with horses is really just an extension of his way of living.
When reviewing Ultimate Christian Wrestling, I mentioned that Somerset Maughm line that in every shave is a philosophy. All it means is that if you do something enough times, it can become an action that defines a way of being or suggests a way to live. Think of martial arts, think of motorcycle maintenance, think of writing. Now think of how those actions can inform unrelated actions as well as interactions with others.
So in Wild Horse, Wild Ride, there are nine horse trainers. Each has to tame a wild mustang in 100 days for the Extreme Mustang Makeover. They have their own way of doing things, and like Buck, the people and their way is the draw.
Wild Horse, Wild Ride
Directors: Alex Dawson and Greg Gricus
Release Date: August 24th, 2012 (New York)
Sometimes there’s a challenge to narrative films and documentaries that focus on multiple characters. It’s possible to lose people in the mix, especially when there are strong personalities involved. In successful films with multiple characters, I think the filmmaker capture the personalities and make clear their concerns. It’s not always about sharp contrasts, but those can be helpful, and I don’t think it’s about rendering a person down to a word or phrase that captures his or her essence (but again, that can work). More than anything, capturing a person as they are has more to do with giving people — real or fictional — enough time to reveal themselves. If done right, that’s also enough time for an audience to care.
Wild Horse, Wild Ride does all that, and it does it without any noticeable strain from directors Alex Dawson or Greg Gricus. There’s lots of talk about patience in the movie when training a horse. You can’t rush the process even though you only have three months, and you need to earn the animal’s trust. The film has a certain beautiful patience about it, unfolding deliberately and naturally. The people chronicled may not share equal time on screen, but they each make an impression when they’re there.
Maybe the biggest impression is made by Wylene Wilson, a cowgirl from Arizona with lots of moxie. She’s got a broad smile and big eyelashes, and lots of skill around horses. Hers is the kinds of personality that’s immediately charming and then quickly becomes alluring. Wylene compares herself to Evel Knievel, and she prides herself on standing up on her horse like it’s nothing at all. Yet there’s something more to her way of doing things than the show she puts on, but the show is part of the way she does things.
Then there are Nik and Kris Kokal. They’re brothers living in New Hampshire, and they have a low-key style about them. They’re closer to Brannaman in demeanor, though with none of Brannaman’s troubled past. Watching them earn their horses’s trust is soothing. The same goes for George and Evelyn Gregory, an older couple from Texas who each train a mustang for the competition. There’s a certain easiness about them both, which helps since George has one of the most problematic horses in the film. The other horse that poses a challenge is Comanche, who’s being trained by Charles Chee. Whereas George is relatively mobile for his age and size, Charles’s joints have caught up with him.
As an outlier to everyone else in the film, there’s Melissa Kanzelberger. If I remember right, she’s the only person in the documentary that doesn’t sport a cowboy hat while she’s on screen. She has a PhD in biomedical engineering at Texas A&M, and she’s never trained a horse before. While she seems like she knows her way around most horses, working with a wild mustang makes her skittish. She admits she’s only read books about training. The title of Richard Linklater’s first feature was It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books; with Melissa we watch if that’s true with taming mustangs. Her friends are doubtful.
Melissa’s scenes are like watching someone skydive for the first time, but doing it solo instead of tandem. It’s such a major hurdle. You notice differences between her and the more seasoned horse trainers, how her body language seems tense and her voice anxious. Catching this is one of the interesting and unexpected joys of Wild Horse, Wild Ride. Like anyone who sat through the Olympics, I learned about those little things that athletes do or that judges look for. Same goes for this documentary. I couldn’t train a horse worth a cow pie, but I could notice a couple things about the horses and the trainers and how they interacted.
I remember a scene in Buck where an adult horse who suffered a birth defect went wild on one cowboy. It’s such a tense and harrowing moment in a film that is mostly calm. Since I’ve never ridden or been around horses before, it reminds of just how powerful and massive horses really are. Any time a horse seemed off in Wild Horse, Wild Ride, I sat a little forward wondering if there’d be a mishap. These are wild horses, after all, removed from public land by the government. Trained well enough, the horses will be auctioned to other ranchers or riders.
But even though these are wild horses, there’s something about time and dedication that turns them into a kind of companion to the trainers. They’re not pets, and it doesn’t seem like the trainers think of them in that way. There’s something about the size and intelligence of these animals that results in a kind of mutual respect. There’s something touching about the way some of the trainers hug the necks of their horses or rest heads on that stretch of the horse’s face between the forehead and the muzzle. And to think, three months prior, they were running buck wild in a field.
That’s a disarming thing about Wild Horse, Wild Ride. In three months, it’s impossible for these people to not feel connected to their horse. It becomes especially poignant toward the end as the mustangs go to auction. One of the seasoned trainers, Jesus Jauregui, talks about keeping the horse to the head of the Extreme Mustang Makeover, but he doesn’t think it’ll be possible. All that time, all that effort, and all that trust just to make sure their horse is ready to be cared for by someone else. It’s almost like watching a parent with his or her child, now all grown up; it’s almost like watching someone give a stranger a meaningful piece of themselves.