Long considered an "exotic" species, wild horses occupy a sort of borderland, caught between the mythology of their origins and the reality of their plight today. This is the subject of a new documentary, El Caballo, by Drury Gunn Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis. Known for their hard-hitting documentary films, Varmints (HCN,10/26/98: Varmints) and Killing Coyote (HCN, 7/31/00: Killing Coyote), Carr and Hawes-Davis approach wild horses with a lighter, albeit no less powerful touch.
The documentary opens like a Clint Eastwood film, with horses galloping across the desert against the backdrop of a waning sun. The film's basic tenet is that all equids, including horses, evolved in North America and existed here until the end of the Pleistocene Epoch 8000 years ago, when they mysteriously disappeared. Therefore, when Spanish explorers arrived with horses in the early 1500s they were essentially reintroducing a native species.
"Equus caballus was here 1.7 million years ago," says Jay Kirkpatrick, a wildlife biologist with Zoo Montana. "I've always thought that when they (wild horses) returned, they really had come home."
Viewed as an exotic species by the U.S. government, wild horses had been slaughtered as vermin until well into the 20th centry, when they were finally given some degree of protection under the 1971 Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act.
If wild horses are the film's protagonists, the BLM plays the villain, with its dark choppers swooping down on terrified herds, and its hired hands harassing them into trucks. These scenes are hard to stomach, the horses wide-eyed and hysterical, violently resisting capture.
Lest the viewer be traumatized, Hawes-Davis and Carr offer minor comic relief with clips from the BLM film, Welcome Home, Wild One!, an almost farcical account of the Adopt-a-Horse Program, the BLM's primary strategy for reducing competition between wild horses and domestic livestock. While BLM officials tout the program as a success, critics claim that rather than providing comfortable homes for horses, the BLM may be supplying raw material for the burgeoning international market in horse meat.
El Caballo offers no easy answers. While hinting that wild horses deserve to be managed as a native species, the documentary shies away from addressing exactly what this would mean. It's clear that wild horses belong on public lands, but how and to what extent is for the viewer to contemplate.
As Kirkpatrick says, "I don't see any biological issues anymore; they're political or economic or social or cultural, and these poor animals like wolves and bison and horses are just symbols for the different sides to rally around." El Caballo is available on VHS video for $35 from High Plains Films, P.O. Box 8796, Missoula, MT 59807 (406/728-0753). Call for a screening in your area.