Mustang taming is the topic taken up by Alex Dawson and Greg Gricus’s mawkish documentary Wild Horse, Wild Ride, though in a sense its real subject is a peculiarly American brand of assimilation—one that envelopes wild horses as readily as it does their would-be trainers. The focus here is the Extreme Mustang Makeover, a competition in which amateur and professional trainers are given 100 days to transform completely wild horses into paragons of calm and obedience. If this sounds like the premise of one of those tiresome Discovery Channel docu-tainments, it’s because it essentially is, only heavily abbreviated to fit the feature-film format. Dawson and Gricus, of course, already have successful careers in TV, producing precisely such programs. And despite the jump to the silver screen, their sensibility is still predominantly televisual; to the film’s detriment, their style betrays not a trace of the cinematic.
As you might expect from such a trifle, the satisfaction one can glean from the proceedings is decidedly narrow; how much pleasure one derives from watching a colorful cast of trainers struggle to subdue animals of natural splendor (and abundant, fervent energy) is directly related to one’s fondness for, ahem, this sort of horseplay. Though billed as a delight for more than just fans of all things equine, the film puts little effort into converting those not already breathlessly enraptured by the sight of horses broken and restrained; as a wide-eyed endorsement of the Extreme Mustang Makeover itself, Wild Horse, Wild Ride isn’t the place to look for a particularly deep or nuanced examination of the subculture of which the contest plays an important part. We’re meant to take it as a given not only that horses themselves are inherently interesting, but that the practice of taming and breaking them is perfectly fine, morally speaking. The nagging sense that there’s something uncomfortable about coercing wild animals into performing parlor tricks for our amusement (done, by the way, in order to increase their value at auction) never really goes away, and despite its many nods to the care and affection the trainers show toward their charges, the film makes no attempt to quell the concerns of conscientious objectors. Which isn’t to say that there’s something de facto wrong with taming wild horses, but the film never bothers to make an argument either way.
Ethical reservations aside, the doc proves occasionally entertaining but ultimately pretty meager—a shame considering how ripe the material is for solid long-form drama. Because it deigns to cover nearly a dozen horses and trainers over the course of their respective journeys, Wild Horse, Wild Ride can only manage to tell each story elliptically, a frustrating compromise that strongly suggests a basic incompatibility of the enterprise with the medium. Simply put, this should have been a television series: At just over 100 minutes, the film doesn’t have anywhere near enough time to convey the feeling that these horses and their trainers have developed a bond or grown together over more than three months. As it stands, the film plays like an extended trailer for the compelling series it could have been.