One of the images of the Wild West is the mustang, but the closest most people come to one is the sight of a mustang’s metal namesake with four wheels. “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” is about real people taking a real feral horse and training it for the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge, an annual contest that gives 100 people the chance to tame a horse, but they only have 90 days to do it. Sometimes, the challenge is giving up the horse. You’ll see tears and I dare you to leave this moving without shedding a few of your own. The documentary, “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” opened up on September 7 at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7.

This isn’t just a matter of bravado and boasting rights. Each year, the federal government rounds up thousands of horses and attempts to adopt them out. Where some go has been a matter of controversy. It’s not easy to raise a horse and it takes money to keep one. Trying to adopt a wild horse isn’t easy, so different programs encourages people to train and gentle these wild horses to make them more adoptable. Of course, not just anyone can take on a horse or is eligible for this program and first-time competitors do have mentors (such as in the case of Melissa).

First time directors Alex Dawson and Greg Gricus’ documentary follows eight people that run from the highly educated to the immigrant looking for a better life in the United States. Some have more time than others. Two of these people will finish in the top ten. Some will be injured. Some will go home with their horses after the auction. One will be outbid for the horse.

Charles and Carlos Chee, father and son,  are from Wheatfield, Arizona and Native Americans of Navajo descent. Charles was once a champ on the Native American Rodeo Circuit. His horse, Comanche, is angry and aggressive. Charles is older and stiffer and this also figures into the training. He also has a more traditional approach than his son whose horse is I.D.K.

Jesus Jauregui works in the construction and roofing business but grew up on a ranch and wants to make a name for himself in the cowboy world. His horse, Compadre, is a nice looking powerful mustang, but Jesus may not have the showmanship aspects.

George and his seventh wife Evelyn Gregory each take a horse, His wife wants one that’s easy-going. She wants a tiny one. He wants a big one but George’s horse is a mean and small bay. George describes himself as an old overweight guy and he seems too big for his horse. It seems as if they are ill-matched in every way. “You get what you get; it’s the luck of the draw,” George says. George names his Willie. Evelyn names hers Waylon.

Nik (and his horse Ranahan) and Kris (and Sioux) Kokal are young men living in rural Greenfield, New Hampshire who together take on two horses and teach them in creative ways. They were home schooled and started their own horse care business when they were 11 and 13. They seem natural horse trainers, taking lessons from their observations of horses.  They form genuine attachments to their horses. Sioux is a beautiful black horse with a small white star.

Melissa Kanzelberger is a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering at Texas A&M University. While most of the other competitors are training their horses in Western saddles, Melissa chooses to use an English saddle for her horse Zero. She bases her training on what she has read. Her friends think she’s crazy. One says, that with any horse, “It’s not if you get hurt, it’s when and how bad.” Melissa does get hurt, but like any good horse person, she gets back up in the saddle.

Wylene Wilson is a slender woman with long  blonde hair who has a definite theatrical flair and pulls out false eyelashes, sequins and a push-up bra for competition. She’s in Queenscreek, Arizona and always knew that she was destined to do something amazing and she doesn’t admit to fear. Her horse is Rembrandt and her horse is mellow. Rembrandt is her fourth horse in the Extreme Makeover competition and she placed fourth with her last horse. “It’s always been about the horse and we just want to help these horses get great homes,” she explains.

Whatever their motivations, you have no doubt these people love horses, but they have different levels of horsemanship and horse sense. Training isn’t just a matter of technique. It is a partnership between man and animal and a matching, meshing and clashing between personalities. Some horses like dogs may be a one-person animal–only willing to trust one person. Some horses have stronger wills and not all approaches will work for all horses.

The first Extreme Mustang Makeover was held in 2007. Since then the Mustang Heritage Foundation has gentled 3,300 American mustangs and facilitated their adoption. Mustangs are a part of our American heritage.  The makeover isn’t just a one-day or one-time deal. The even is two-days and takes place all over the nation.

The scoring and competition isn’t just the horse, it’s the horse and the trainer. Nerves have a lot to do with it. The scoring is technical–about lead changes and leaning. Some of the scoring is subjective–there’s an artistic and a showmanship aspect to the competition, especially among the top ten finalists.

When you think how few people are able to train their dogs, it’s amazing to see what these competitors can do in three months. This documentary won “Best Documentary” at the Boulder International Film Festival and the Dallas International Film Festival. It’s an official selection for the Newport Beach Film Festival.

The next competition is in Fort Worth, TX (13-15 September 2012). There’s on in October (19-21) in Clemson, South Carolina. In November, there’s be one in Alvarado, Texas.

Today, 8 September 2012, “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” filmmaker Alexandra Dawson and horse trainer  Wylene Wilson will participate in Q&A sessions after the movies on the following schedule:

  • Playhouse 7/Pasadena: after the 12:45 PM screening;
  • Music Hall/Beverly Hills: after the 5 PM screening;
  • Fallbrook 7/West Hills: after the 7 PM screening.
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