Mustang Saviors


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Mustang Saviors
"We only get to see the positive side of all this, but some of what we see is very impressive."

The US is very good at recruiting people into its armed services. it's notoriously bad at taking care of them afterwards. With veterans' services around the country chronically underfunded, many have difficulty readjusting to civilian life. post traumatic stress disorder is common. They're disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, 13% of them are homeless and their suicide rate is staggeringly high, with studies suggesting that over a dozen a day die in this way. Veterans' organisations and specialists have been working hard to try and come up with solutions. This film looks at one form of therapy which, at least anecdotally, seems to be getting surprisingly good results.

Animal therapy has been used for several decades now to help people experiencing various forms of psychological distress. It's known to help children going through cancer treatment and older adults struggling with dementia. There might seem to be quite a difference, however, between providing a specially trained dog to snuggle up with a lonely child and putting an already twitchy, highly strung adult into a pen with a wild animal easily capable of killing. As we see in David Glossberg's film, there is little preparation done first, and some of the veterans placed in this situation have no experience with horses. What they do know is how to follow instructions from someone in authority, even in frightening situations, so they do as they're told in engaging with the horses. We are not told whether there have been deaths or serious injuries. We only get to see the positive side of all this, but some of what we see is very impressive.

They key seems to be in matching up the right horses with the right humans, and in understanding what they have in common. Again, we are not told how this works - the film tends to repeat observations we can make for ourselves rather than going into depth or addressing the questions that many viewers will have - but we do get to see something of how the horses come to be there, which will be especially enlightening for urban and overseas viewers not familiar with the country's wild horse problem. Mustangs, descended from the first horses introduced into the country by European colonists and much more rugged and intelligent than thoroughbreds - roam wild across its north-western plateau. There, competition for resources with ranchers leads to efforts to capture and contain them - here we see footage of them being herded by helicopter - but as older ones are difficult to tame, they often end up isolated in unsuitable conditions and sold for meat.

It's easy to see how the experience of these frightened, abused animals, finding themselves in an environment where nothing is familiar, mirrors that of the veterans, and that tacit understanding helps them to form strong bonds. Mustangs integrated into society in this way can go on to enjoy life on the ranch, becoming working horses or pets, though some stay to continue providing therapy. In one scene towards the end of the film, the therapy group visit a rodeo to work with troubled animals. It's somewhat unsettling to go from a focus on rehabilitating animals to displays involving riding ones who are still wild and clearly terrified, and there's no explanation, for the uninitiated, that most of what happens at a rodeo is the trading of animals who don't go through any such rough treatment. Elsewhere, though, there is comment on how training methods have changed over the years. At the centre where therapy takes place, horses are no longer broken in through the old, brutal techniques. Instead, dominance is established by persistent engagement and consent. Horses are, after all, herd animals and when in unfamiliar territory most are happy to follow a leader of any species who seems willing and able to look after them.

With a brief look at some of the other types of therapy now being used to help veterans, acknowledging that different things work for different people, this may very well prove a helpful film for viewers who are in that position themselves and trying to find hope. Discussion of mental illness and suicide is frank and straightforward, easy to engage with and not emotionally overwhelming in itself. the film makes room for peer to peer connection rather than presenting therapists whom veterans might feel don't really get it or are talking down to them. Its other natural audience, of course, will be horse lovers, and it is at its strongest when focusing on these beautiful animals. Several individual horses are given the space to express themselves as we learn about their histories and the progress they have made. Though it has its limitations as an exploratory documentary, Glossberg's film succeeds as celebration of the possible.

Reviewed on: 10 Apr 2021
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Mustang Saviors packshot
A documentary about how bringing war veterans and wild mustangs together is helping both to readjust.

Director: David Glossberg

Writer: Kirk Demorest

Starring: Akuyoe Graham

Year: 2020

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: US


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