A quote by the Native American author and educator Luther Standing Bear flashes onscreen at the beginning of “The Mustangs: America’s Wild Horses.” The quote tells of an old Lakota man who “knew that man’s heart away from nature becomes hard,” that “lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans, too. So he kept his children close to nature’s softening influence.”
While the quote applies throughout Steven Latham and Conrad Stanley’s documentary, which looks at multiple angles of the modern plight of mustangs on America’s public lands, it fully resonates when the film explores how working with these animals helps veterans and active-duty service members. PMC Vice Chairman Gerry Byrne is a consulting producer on the film.
Operation Wild Horse, a non-profit organization based in Bull Valley, Ill., pairs veterans and service members with formerly wild mustangs to build bonds between them, and working to remove barriers that might have formed during their time in uniform.
Whether it’s riding the horses, doing grounds work or simply spending time with them, participants proceed at their own pace, based on their own needs.
“We call the program a structured/unstructured program,” says Patti Gruber, program director for Operation Wild Horse, noting that the structure comes from planned activities for a participant. “But it’s unstructured in the way that if someone wants to come in and do something else, we will change it up.”
The film arrives at the program as it follows a particular mustang (Pearl Snap) after its removal from the wild to a short training period and then a charity auction where it found its home with Operation Wild Horse (the horse was renamed Pearl Harbor).
“They’ve got unbelievable horsemanship and incredible respect and programs for the veterans,” says co-director Latham, who also produced the film. “It’s a really healing place … for the veterans and the mustangs.”
After experiencing the rigorous structure of military life, combined with the harrowing traumas of combat, veterans can’t always immediately sit down and talk through their experiences with a therapist or with their families.
“When you get out of your service — for me, from combat — coming back to civilian life was a big change. I didn’t know where I fit in,” says USMC Sgt. Ryan Bentele, who served from 1998-2006, including combat operations in Iraq’s Triangle of Death, and is featured in the film. “I still had the Marine mentality of giving orders, giving orders to the family, and wasn’t having much luck with that.”
Bentele was able to include his family when participating in Operation Wild Horse, allowing them all to build trust together, starting with his working with the mustang.
“I would say to him, ‘I know you’re out of the wild, you’re out of your element, I’m out of my element too,’” he recalls, pointing out that both the veteran and the horse are getting a second chance to prove that they can be of worth to the community.
“Ultimately working with the horse to where I was able to ride, in my uniform, during the Fourth of July parade, carrying Old Glory down the streets I used to drive around as a teenager, it was kind of hard to keep the tears back.”
Latham notes that in addition to Operation Wild Horse, “We can do a whole lot more for our veterans and we need to,” he says. “A lot of veterans are so stoic, but if they can get other people to realize that there’s outlets out there, you don’t need to suffer in silence.”