Each year the U.S. government has to round up and relocate thousands of untamed equines from public lands. Some are taken by trainers who get just 100 days to turn these free-ranging animals into obedient steeds for the competitive annual Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge. A wide range of personalities on display — among both species — makes documentarians Alex Dawson and Greg Gricus’ feature debut, “Wild Horse, Wild Ride,” an engrossing study in the communication possible (and sometimes near-impossible) between man and beast. Docu could score limited heartland theatrical release, with further fest travel and tube sales assured.
These horses have never had human contact before. Their initial sheer panic in captivity suggests a hard road ahead for the geographically and otherwise diverse folk who have signed on to train randomly assigned mustangs of variable size, age and temperament.
Each developing relationship is as unique as the methods deployed. Navajo Arizonan Charles Chee and much-married Oklahoma cowpoke George Gregory are older men bent on proving they can still break a horse, despite being well past their own physical prime.
It’s the soft-spoken younger men here who prove most admirable in their ability to gently work miracles. Kris and Nik Kokal are New Hampshire brothers who started a care and training business when they were just 12 and 13, respectively; Kris, in particular, is a natural “horse whisperer” who soon has his animal walking blindfolded over foreign obstacles. Mexico-raised roofer Jesus Jauregui, a rope-trick specialist, also develops an almost mystical rapport with his charge.
With focus in their scenes on creaky, hefty Gregory’s struggles with a possibly untrainable small horse, there isn’t much emphasis on his (seventh!) wife, Evelyn, whose mare gives her a much easier time.
Unfortunately, the pic’s two remaining female subjects are also its least appealing ones. Texas biomedical engineer Melissa Kanzelberger, who has no training experience whatsoever, seems to have undertaken this task simply as another way to prove herself; while she curses the stubborn “monster,” two friends worry her lack of patience and prudence could prove dangerous. And “Extreme Wylene” Wilson is a glam blonde rhinestone cowgirl who’s clearly an exceptional trainer and show rider, but her incessant bragging gets old fast.
These two surprise in the end, however, as do others in a climactic stretch devoted to the makeover contest in Fort Worth, Texas. It’s followed by an auction where trainers get no bidding advantage; some hearts are broken as individual horses’ values skyrocket well above their erstwhile keepers’ working-class budgets.
While the pic takes a while to get going (at first, the number of protags seems unwieldy), it soon has the viewer firmly hooked. Straightforward assembly is solid. Parental warning: Exposing children to this feature may lead to years of expensive horse-riding lessons.