‘Wild Beauty’ Documentary Explores Controversial Wild Horse Issues

A special screening of 'Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West' takes place on Wednesday, March 15 at South Point

Why are wild horses, a symbol of freedom in the American West, disappearing?

Ashley Avis—who directed an adaptation of “Black Beauty” for Disney+ in 2020—set out to answer that question. In her latest documentary, “Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West,” Avis and her crew investigated how the government treats wild horses, revealing the terrors they experience in hopes of saving them.

While filming “Black Beauty” in 2019, Avis headed out west to Nevada, Utah and Wyoming to capture B-roll footage for the movie, which is when she witnessed two massive helicopters rounding up wild horses for the first time. She was unaware that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was removing horses and holding them in captivity to reserve room for cattle, sheep and other wild animals that grazed the same land.

“I grew up riding horses and I had no idea this was happening until I embarked on ‘Black Beauty’ and was trying to find a modern-day parallel to why Anna Sewell wrote the story, which was an animal welfare plea,” says Avis. “In wanting to be authentic to her themes and modernizing the classic for audiences today, that’s when I started researching issues that horses are facing in our country.”

Mass numbers of wild horses in the Western United States are being corralled by helicopters paid for by taxpayers and removed from their homes and families to be placed in cramped government holding facilities, often with no shade or space.

According to the BLM, the nationwide population of wild horses was 82,384 as of March 1, 2022, with 41,853 of them being in Nevada. In 2018, a Public Policy Poll showed that 86 percent of Nevadans agreed that “Mustangs are a symbol and should be protected.” Only a small faction of Nevadans are pushing for the extermination of wild horses, according to the Nevada Independent.

The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was created to protect wild horses from capture, branding, harassment, or death. But what happens when the authority that is meant to uphold this law uses methods that are detrimental to the wild horses’ health?

The BLM website states that the practice of gathering and removing wild horses and burros from public lands is to protect the health of the animals and the nation’s public rangelands, and that in some locations the BLM also implements birth control methods to slow the growth of wild horse herds.

When Ashley Avis and her film crew asked BLM officials why they were seizing seemingly healthy horses, the government authorities’ explanation altered and became unclear. Avis explains why she thinks the government officials didn’t keep their story straight. 

“Because people find out that what they’re saying is false, or in the case of Onaqui [wild horses in Utah], under oath. The field manager said the horses were starving and overpopulated,” says Avis. “And then they’re drawing back those statements because people go out to the range and look at the horses and it’s very clear that they’re not starving and overpopulated. Especially being a horse person, it’s sickening to go out there and look at the horses and realize this is just blatantly false.”

Behind the scenes with Director Ashley Avis with wild horses / Courtesy of The Wild Beauty Foundation

Another concern is how the wild horses are being treated in government holding facilities. During a roundup, many of the horses that are placed in government facilities are injured, and some do not survive. A disease also spread in one of the holding facilities, causing over a hundred horses to die.

“A number of diseases sweep through certain facilities, like in Colorado at the Canyon City holding facility, which is in the Canyon City Federal Prison,” says Avis. “There was equine influenza that broke out there and more than 140 horses died. It was simply due to not vaccinating the horses.”

The “Black Beauty” director says she is very proud of the documentary she created and that it was a labor of love. While she enjoyed exploring the striking American West, she was also pained by the wild horses’ distress during roundups and their cries for their families.

“Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West” took four years to put together. Avis and the crew thoroughly researched, interviewed experts, captured footage, and deeply investigated this controversial issue. The documentary is a groundbreaking film juxtaposing breathtaking views of wild horses galloping freely across the desert terrain while showing the harsh reality of BLM helicopter roundups snatching wild horses from their natural habitats and taking them away from their families.

For many people, this may be the first time they see the harrowing truth of what is happening to America’s wild horses. While it chronicles a remarkably beautiful journey in some ways, in other ways, it is extremely painful to watch. The documentary handles the difficult subject elegantly and without excessively gruesome imagery, yet it shows just enough to evoke unsettling emotions that illuminate an ugly truth.

Avis hopes that the documentary film raises awareness and inspires people to take action to protect the country’s wild horse population before it’s too late. Her films have inspired children to speak out in defense of wild horses.

“It’s why the film is called ‘Wild Beauty,’ to preserve wild beauty, not just for us but for our generations to come. I’ve got a lot of wonderful young pen pals, a lot of young people that I’ve gotten in touch with because of ‘Black Beauty’ and because of the documentary,” says Avis. “It’s really amazing to see children raising their voices. Children have written letters to the president or their members of congress. I think the takeaway is caring and wanting to protect our wild world.”

Inspired by her experiences from the filming of this documentary, Avis also founded The Wild Beauty Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting wild and domestic horses.

An invitation-only screening of “Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West” takes place on Wednesday, March 15 at South Point at 7 p.m. It will be followed by a Q&A session at 8:45 p.m. with the director Ashley Avis, producer Edward Winters, and other experts.

The documentary is set for theatrical release in May.

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