The Wild Horse Redemption ReviewReviewed by Jeffrey Rolo
One day while I was flipping through the gazillion channels available on DirecTV when I stumbled across a documentary called The Wild Horse Redemption on the Sundance Channel. Now I have to say that I'm typically not fond of cinematic documentaries since all too often a hamfisted director plagues the material with his personal agendas or biases, but when the topic is one that interests me, I'll give it a shot. And it's safe to say that horses very much interest me.
The Wild Horse Redemption documents an inmate program in a Colorado penitentiary where hardened convicts can volunteer to train wild mustangs collected by the Bureau of Land Management while under the supervision of staff trainer Guy McEnulty. Once trained, these formerly wild horses are then adopted by various individuals and organizations.
This wasn't the first time I heard of the WHIP Program (Wild Horse Inmate Program), and similar programs exist within other prisons (for example, canine training). I'm a firm believer that such programs are win-win situations when presented to the right candidates; they can heal a man as quickly as they can heal an animal. McEnulty makes a similar observation in the film when he notes, "People to me are a lot the same way as the horse. If you get them excited they can’t think very good and a lot of the times make the wrong decisions."
And indeed throughout The Wild Horse Redemption we do see a handful of repeat offenders evolve from hopeless souls into confident, patient and… dare I even say… compassionate individuals. But although the material itself is interesting to me, it's the presentation of the material that seals the deal. The Academy Award-winning director John Zaritsky allows the horses as well as the trainers to speak for themselves. We're not subjected to monologues or opinions; we are simply offered the chance to enter into McEnulty and his crew's world and observe the inmates train horses that are even more spirited than they.
Some inmates are naturals, and quickly adapt to the skills necessary to train wild mustangs. Others struggle with the gentle battle of wills with untamed mustangs, and McEnulty isn't afraid to acknowledge that a few prisoners that have entered his program just weren't cut out to work with horses. Breaking mustangs isn't for everyone.
What makes this a compelling view for horse owners isn't just the subject matter, but also the depth to which natural horsemanship techniques are explained and demonstrated. The Wild Horse Redemption does a better job illustrating the varying stages of horse training than many horse training videos I have watched!
Perhaps part of the reason why The Wild Horse Redemption is so successful on an educational level is that it can provide virtually any viewer hope that they too can conquer personal insecurities and work with horses. You're not watching a professional trainer "break" a hand-raised colt; instead you're watching raw newcomers that have never been around horses learn how to break the wildest of the wild.
One inmate's struggles in particular are all too familiar with many of us; he earnestly wishes to work with the mustangs, but in the beginning he is almost petrified with the fear of getting kicked or injured. As the documentary progresses, we watch him eventually shake his jitters, become confident in the techniques of natural horsemanship, and finally conquer his fears and produce good results.
The Wild Horse Redemption makes a compelling argument as to the power of natural horsemanship. McEnulty explains at the start of the film that they used to break mustangs cowboy-style up until around 1998, at which time they decided to try out natural horsemanship techniques. According to him, such techniques were overwhelmingly more successful, and led to a far fewer returns once the mustangs were adopted. But beyond the personal experience of McEnulty, we can see the power of natural horsemanship with our own eyes: convicts that were once ill-tempered hoodlums become gentle, quiet instructors, and horses once petrified of humans learn to trust them.
Throughout the film you'll learn invaluable advice about how to desensitize horses, earn their trust, maneuver your body, become a gentle but firm alpha leader, and eventually saddle and ride them. One inmate even goes so far as to ride one of the mustangs bareback. I have watched some documentaries about "horse whispering" before, but they generally struck me as too gimmicky – as if the trainer was somehow able to understand a language the average horseman can never hope to learn. The Wild Horse Redemption doesn't attempt to present the material as in any way mystical or overly difficult; McEnulty and his team breaks the no-frills process down into easily understood steps that most of us can easily follow, whether experienced with horses or not.
The one minor criticism I have of the film is that it focused so intently on the actual horse training that it glossed over what happens once a horse or convict leaves the system. We would see occasional success updates, such as footage of wild mustangs adopted by the police in a noisy parade, but for the most part these victories were too fleeting. For example, we're told that one of the inmates depicted in this film went on to get a job training horses at a thoroughbred farm once he was released, but aside from being provided some quick flashes, we didn't hear a whole lot from the convict himself at his new job. Sure, we know that he developed a love for horses while in the WHIP Program, and we know that he took these newly learned skills and used them to turn his life around… but it would have been nice to hear it more directly from him.
That having been said, The Wild Horse Redemption is a fantastic documentary that I would encourage all horse lovers to pick up and watch. The movie gives us food for thought about how lighter offenders can potentially be rehabilitated within the system, but even moreso it illuminates the power of horses, and how the bond between horse and man changes both for the better.
If you would like to read other reviews about this fine film, or purchase it for your own viewing pleasure, click here.Rating: A+