PBS Special “Horses of the West” Airs This Month–But You Might Have to Look For It

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We wait and wait and wait for television specials about horses to make it to prime-time “network” television in the United States. We tweeted to pump up the ratings when Zenyatta was on 60 Minutes. We wish we had cable so we could watch HBO’s “Luck”–even though we don’t bet. We donate to PBS because we are anxious for the next installment of filmmaker Ginger Kathrens’ updates on the mustang stallion Cloud and his band of mares in the Wyoming mountains.

In March, PBS kindly offers HORSES OF THE WEST: AMERICA’S LOVE STORY. This special documentary takes viewers on an emotional journey on horseback through the American West. Narrated by actress Ali MacGraw, this new PBS special celebrates the remarkable relationship of horses and the humans who love them, while offering a broad overview of the many different roles horses play.

The opening quote by one of my favorite writers, author Thomas McGuane, hooked me. But as I watched, I realized that the special was shot in the west, to be sure. It was produced by a PBS group in Utah, as a matter of fact.

But except for the rugged Rockies in the background and the cowboy hats that crop up from time to time, this special is really about all horses, anywhere and everywhere. It explores universal themes and carefully portrays the unique character of the American Mustang horse in a positive light.

The film crew?visits the Utah state prison farm in Gunnison, Utah, where inmates work to gentle and train wild horses so they can be offered for adoption. Kerry Despain, who runs the prison’s wild horse program, says the relationship is as beneficial for the men as for the horses they train.

For inmate Richard Evans, the horses provide a sense of freedom “akin to flying. I just love galloping and feeling the wind. I feel like being around the horses has calmed me down as a person, has taken an edge off me.”

Not surprisingly, the inmates become so attached to the horses that it can be emotionally hard on them when the animals are actually adopted. “It’s your best bud and it just kind of hurts your feelings when he leaves and you’re kind of a little heart broke,” says inmate Waylon Riddle. “You gain a relationship, a bond with that horse and he’s gone.”

“Horses of the West” also shows how horses can rescue and heal humans. The film tells the story of two special wild horses at the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah. Shelby, a two-year old Cedar Mountain mustang, was adopted as a colt. Fly, another mustang, was rescued at the same time as a friend for Shelby.

Both are ideally suited for their role as therapy animals. “If their participant has a disability, they’re able to pick up on that and understand what kind of needs that person might have,” says the center’s Abby Ferrin.

Hippotherapy, which uses the movement of the horse as a treatment strategy, improves muscle tone, balance, coordination, motor development and emotional well-being. “I say in a lot of ways he (the horse) rescued her,” says Jenifer, the mother of Sarah Barber, one of the children profiled.

Rounding out the program are a profile of some magnificent Arabians; a visit to the Best Friend Animal Sanctuary to check in on rescued Thoroughbreds; a foray to see working American Quarter Horses on the Montana ranch of author Thomas McGuane; and a colorful look at the striking beauty of the Appaloosa breed and its Nez Perce heritage.

KUED producer John Howe crafted the documentary. It earned Howe the Golden Eagle award from CINE for excellence in non-fiction documentary production for 2011. Professionally judged by national television programmers and producers, the Golden Eagle is awarded to programs that represent “?the industry’s highest standards of production quality and integrity.”

I’m not sure what it says that my local Boston PBS station decided to air this program at 3 a.m. on March 14. If you check your local listings, you might find out that your local area is luckier. Maybe it was the word “West” in the title; it’s hard to believe that those wise PBS decision-makers in Boston thought no one here would be interested in mustangs or therapeutic riding or the human-animal bond.

Those things are oblivious to geography or points of the compass. They’re everywhere, and people are interested, whether they are horsepeople or not. And the horse world needs this special to be aired during prime time.

If this special is not being shown on your local PBS station, or has been relegated to a time slot where it’s not likely to be seen by anyone but late-night security guards and insomniacs, join me in writing a letter to express your disappointment to your local station.

I could survive with one less “Antiques Roadshow” this month if it meant that “Horses of the West” could be on during primetime. How about you?

Maybe that could happen next month, or the month after that, if enough of us care.




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