Arts » Film Features

High Plains Drifters

El Caballo rides the range with North America’s wild horses

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In an old grain elevator near the tracks on Missoula’s West Side, two independent filmmakers are busy subverting the dominant paradigm. For nearly a decade, Doug Hawes-Davis and Dru Gunn Carr have been clicking away on their mice, assembling footage and creating digital documentaries that challenge the Old West paradigms dictating our nation’s wildlife management policies.

El Caballo: The Wild Horses of North America, and The Naturalist are the latest offerings from this prolific production duo known as “High Plains Films.” By combining jaw-clenching irony with behind-the-scenes footage, High Plains has created more than a dozen films that educate and expose the often bizarre and fiscally-motivated policies of federal resource management agencies. El Caballo, an hour-long documentary on wild horses in North America, challenges prevailing knowledge and presents the many difficulties of managing a species that both “exotic” and “wild.”

Long thought to be a species arriving in North America with the Spanish conquistadors in the 1600s, the film offers a different story about the history of the non-domesticated horse. From the early horses of 55 million years ago to the fenced-in but “wild” horses of today, the film establishes why the wild horse is perfectly adapted to life in western North America. Biologists, historians and Park Service paleontologists describe in passionate detail how the global fossil record provides a compelling case that equids evolved solely in North America.

While much of the evidence about horses prior to European conquest comes from the fossil record, the film uses another source: the frozen tundra stretching from Alaska to the Northwest Territories. Here, frozen specimens provide genetic evidence from bone, hair and skin samples, linking the horses of today with those of the ancient past.

These ancestors eventually relocated, possibly heading across the Bearing Strait about 8,000 years ago. Frozen evidence indicates that until that time, large herds of horses populated the continent, not unlike the American bison. The impetus for the mass extinction of the pre-historic horse is debatable, but Canadian paleontologists point to the fact that the two most common frozen remains found are from bison and horses. At the turn of the 20th century, as many as 2 million horses roamed the Great Plains.

Historians point out that numerous homesteaders travelling across the interior West circa 1700 wrote extensively about the endless herds of horses; many saw more horses than buffalo. Not surprisingly, ranchers and hunters have generated similar near-extinctions, viewing wild horses as competition for public pasture land.

The film does an impressive job of presenting, without preaching, the challenges of Old West vs. New West, open space vs. fences, things wild vs. things domestic. This is indeed High Plains Films’ greatest attribute: stone-faced storytelling that simply refuses to force an opinion on the viewer. This proven record of balanced presentation has allowed them time and again to gain the trust, and therefore camera access, to the dens of recreational and professional animal abusers.

In their highly acclaimed Killing Coyote, Hawes-Davis and Carr went to ground zero of coyote paranoia: a massive Wyoming bounty hunt where hundreds of slaughtered dogs were piled dead and on display. As a testament to their ability to tell an unbiased story, the hunters highlighted in that film had seen the filmmakers’ earlier documentary, Varmints, and finding it well-done, invited them on their coyote hunts.

In El Caballo, BLM officials haze wild horses with helicopters, cattle prods and ATVs, despite being law-bound to officially manage wild horses “as an integral part of the ecosystem” under the federal Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. Because of pressure from the cattle industry and other agribusiness, the lands upon which the wild horses run free are shrinking into inhospitable plots. Some ranchers believe the horses out-compete cattle, which the film claims cost less to feed on public lands than a non-taxpayer subsidized hamster.

Balance in presentation is what sets High Plains films apart from a slew of other preachy-nature films. Competing interests are allowed to present their own perspective, without comment from a narrator. The audience is left to draw its own conclusions.

Full of fresh information, the images are dynamic and illustrative — the majority of horse footage was shot in Montana’s Pryor Mountains—and the soundtrack is simple but appropriate. Making numerous trips throughout the year, the filmmakers have captured the diverse aspects of these often misunderstood animals, from fighting stallions to their intricate social structure. Interlaced within the production is a BLM “Adopt a Wild Horse” film and turn-of-the-century footage of wild horses. There’s even a short sequence of wild horses walking through a sprawling suburb as urban life encroaches deeper into the horses’ remaining refuge.

El Caballo isn’t a call to action. It doesn’t tell anyone what to think, and it doesn’t stake out a high ground or a “right” way to manage. What it does is present a little-known controversy, backed up with a diverse array of opinionated experts, and package it with eye-candy footage that never lets your eyelids sag. This is what independent documentary filmmaking is all about, and it was made right here in Missoula.

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