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Something of a minor legend among horse enthusiasts, Dayton O. Hyde is the founder of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, an 11,00-acre South Dakota ranch that shelters more than 500 undomesticated equines. Hyde’s renown as a Western writer and former rodeo photographer have the potential to push Suzanne Mitchell’s biographical doc beyond equestrian audiences in theatrical release, although the film will flourish best in home entertainment formats among true believers, which are legion.
Over his 80-plus years, Hyde has cultivated careers as a cowboy, rodeo rider, author and conservationist. But at age 65, he walked away from most of his family and their ranch in Oregon to pursue his self-appointed mission to provide refuge to the wild horses of the American West (aka “mustangs”), many of which faced harsh conditions and the risk of capture for public sale or even slaughter while roaming free on federal lands.
A naturalist and writer in the classic mold of pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold, Hyde’s intention with the sprawling sanctuary is to protect feral horses, as well as to preserve their often unique Iberian bloodlines inherited from ancestors that arrived with Spanish settlers. Hyde’s quest and visibility are bolstered in no small degree by his reputation as a writer of 20 fiction and non-fiction books related to wildlife, cowboys, horses and Western lore.
Mitchell followed her subject for 11 years shooting the documentary, capturing not only the feisty and often humorous Hyde on and off horseback in various cowboy getups and phases of advancing age, but also interviewing his family members and sanctuary staff, then combining that footage with archival images, family photos, newsreel and clips from Hyde’s own black and white horse documentary, “The Pastures of Beyond.” Missing however, is a broader perspective on the frequently contentious issue of Western wild horse management and the animals’ impact on rangeland ecosystems often already compromised by cattle grazing, as well as the federal government’s curious role managing what’s essentially a wild animal, but not a wildlife, population.
On the Black Hills ranch, however, the mustangs have more than enough acreage to roam freely, allowing Mitchell and cinematographer Mauro Brattoli to capture stirring footage of herds of galloping horses, nursing mares and proud stallions dramatically framed against sweeping, rugged vistas in iconic evocations of fast-disappearing, unspoiled Western landscapes.
Opens: Oct. 4 (Screen Media Films)
Production company: Free Running Films
Director: Suzanne Mitchell
Producer: Suzanne Mitchell
Executive Producers: Barbara Kopple, Alejandro Perez, Robert Johnson
Director of photography: Mauro Brattoli
Music: Steve Poltz
Editor: R.A. Fedde
No rating, 92 minutes
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