The Making of “Wild Horse, Wild Ride”
Filmmaker Alexandra Dawson says she and her husband, Greg Cricus, worked for years making documentaries before they found the story they really wanted to tell in Wild Horse, Wild Ride, screening Thursday, Sept. 6at the Autry before it opens in Los Angeles.
Oh, sure, she had loved and ridden horses as a girl in elementary and middle school. She is a huge fan of films that tell horse stories, like The Black Stallion (“There’s nothing better,” she said.). And they live in Jackson Hole, WY, the epicenter of horse country if there ever was one. Both had wanted to go the independent film route for some time, and Cricus wanted to make a film about the relationship between humans and horses.
“It was amazing to him, because he always would see these cowboys, these guys full of bravado and machismo,” she said. “But then you step behind the (horse) trailer and see the same guys with their horses, and all of that would fall away.”
The couple kept eyes and ears open, but the right story didn’t present itself, at least not right away. Cricus did cinematography on other projects. Life intervened. In 2007, Dawson became pregnant with the couple’s first child.
The following summer, an article appeared in the Jackson Hole News about the Extreme Mustange Makeover Challenge, a new contest sponsored by the Mustang Heritage Foundation that brings mustangs freshly corralled by the federal government together with people to train and tame them enough in three months so they can be adopted out to families. It was a triple-hundred challenge: 100 horses, 100 people, 100 days. Cricus brought the paper home with him.
“This is our film,” he told Dawson.
The baby’s due date was fast approaching, and their lives were in flux at that moment. But Dawson says they pasted the page on their refrigerator and kept it there. As a reminder. As a goal.
In the meantime, they sought out information about the contest. The first competition had been videotaped and posted on YouTube, and Dawson says the emotional connection between the trainers and horses was powerfully evident.
“We were blown away by the relationship and the rapport these people had with the horses,” she said. “It doesn’t get any better than that, the relationship between man and horse. These mustangs are tough but they form bonds of trust and partnership with their trainers that are for life. It was so much more about that than about the competition.”
Cricus and Dawson sought introductions and gathered more information. By the time the couple connected with the Mustang Heritage Foundation and the film project was green-lighted, two years had passed. So their film chronicles the journey toward the 2009 Extreme Makeover contest.
The Mustang Heritage Foundation was formed in 2001 to help find good homes for the mustangs that the Bureau of Land Management rounds up each year, said spokeswoman Jennifer Hancock. Mustangs in western range lands suffer from overpopulation, in part because they have no natural predators in the area, according to a BLM fact sheet. As of July 2012, there were 37,300 wild horses and burros roaming on BLM land across 10 Western states. That’s about 11,000 more than can sustainably survive in the area. So the BLM conducts scheduled yearly roundups of the mustangs, as well as emergency roundups if drought conditions warrant them. The horses are then kept in BLM corrals, and from there, the foundation begins its work.
“Over the past several years, adoption numbers had dwindled for the BLM,” Hancock said. “They found that biggest fear of adoptive families was getting a horse home and not being able to touch it (because it might be too wild or hard to train). Our foundation was created to offer trained horses to the public so that fear could be alleviated.”
Another issue, Hancock said, is that these horses lack a traceable bloodline. The horse-riding and training community is very much oriented to breeds of horses that serve different purposes, from ranch work to racing, she said. Mustangs are hard to categorize in that world.
“These horses did have a reputation of basically being the mutt of the prairie,” Hancock said. “Mustang herds were descended from lots of different kinds of domesticated horses that basically escaped. These included paints and appaloosas that had belonged to Indians and got loose during fighting with settlers, and there were also ranch and draft horses . . . . In our society, we have horses mainly for pleasure, and organizations have been created to promote different breeds, like the American Quarter Horse Association or the Jockey Club for thoroughbreds. The mustangs are not registered and have no way to trace their bloodlines.”
When Patti Colbert became executive director of the Mustang Heritage Foundation in 2006, she introduced the idea of making the mustang taming and training process a contest, both to jump-start adoptions and to increase public interest in the mustangs. The Extreme Makeover Challenge was born.
Though organizers do ask that trainers have some previous experience with horses, Hancock says potential trainers need not be professionals. That means the contestants end up being quite a diverse group of people. That, says Dawson, was one biggest challenge in making the film.
“We started with 100 trainers and whittled it down to nine,” Dawson said. “Since Greg and myself were doing all the work, it was just us. We didn’t have a second crew. Not even a sound guy. Sometimes we had a babysitter. So we would ping-pong across the country, from Arizona to Texas to Wisconsin to New Hampshire. We tried to be there at all the important moments.”
Dawson said she figured perhaps a few more of the trainer stories would end up on the cutting room floor. But each one was particularly compelling, and editing them out would have hurt the storytelling.
“The way each particular story played out made it really difficult to part with any of them,” she said. “As the writer of the film, that was my biggest challenge: figuring out a way to keep all of our characters, both human and equine, and figuring out a way that people would invest in the relationship enough to stick with them throughout the film. We did go back and weave them all together, but I would say that was our biggest challenge.”
So, does she have a favorite story? Dawson says it’s hard to choose. But the story of George Gregory, an older rancher who wanted the Challenge to be the coda to his career, tugs at her heart. Gregory wanted a big, sturdy horse to train as his challenge. Because the horses are assigned at random, he got a small one called Waylon. In the end, their relationship because one of the closest.
“I think of the film as a love story or series of love stories,” Dawson said. “Theirs is sort of the romantic comedy. They were mismatched but they were being forced in these circumstances get to know each other. There were a lot of humorous moments between George and Waylon.”
George died in May 2012, and several Challenge participants attended his funeral.