Filmmaker David Abberton of Missouri is working on a film about bands of free-roaming horses that make their homes about halfway between Little Rock and St. Louis.
Wild Horses of the Ozarks will feature footage of these horses in the wild combined with research and “oral histories of the Ozarkers along the Current and Jack’s Fork Rivers where the horses live,” Abberton explains.
Examining the stories of these horses from many different angles, Abberton will explore the complexity surrounding the horses and their land. “There was also a long struggle to keep them from being removed from national park land,” he explains. “And the struggle centered around different perceptions of the horses: the official “invasive” species view versus a more popular viewpoint of their belonging in the wild. So it became a story, to my way of thinking, that just had to be done. It’s similar to the decades-long struggle out west over the fate of free-roaming horses, but it’s right here in the heartland.”
The horses have no natural predators and one of the key ways the herd is culled is through outside adoption. Abberton’s film will also follow the adoption work of the Missouri Wild Horse League and feature the story of a horse named Shannon who was recently adopted into a family in Tennessee.
Abberton was kind enough to answer a few questions about his upcoming film, which you read below. Check out the early trailer for the film below and learn more by following the blog here. To learn more about how you can help with the completion of this film go here.
Wild Horses of the Ozarks-trailer1 from David Abberton on Vimeo.
How did you become interested in wild horses in Missouri?
As I grew into a career in media, particularly in making documentaries, I became especially attracted to stories dealing with nature and ecology. I grew up close to nature in rural Missouri with animals all around, both wild and domesticated. In high school and college I worked for the Missouri Department of Conservation and the U.S. Forest Service. I got to witness how professional conservationists try balance the science, social relations, and sometimes the politics involved in land use issues- which, in a sense, amounts to the nitty gritty of ecology in a lot of rural areas.
The overall story of wild horses in America is one where those competing land use and wildlife conservation issues clash. In most cases, free-roaming horses live in the wild on government land. There’s been more or less an official designation of them by government agencies as being feral stock, an invasive species, regardless of how many decades, or even centuries they’ve been living out there. As I started researching the issue I was surprised to learn that there are free-roaming horses in the Ozarks about halfway between St. Louis and Little Rock. There was also a long struggle to keep them from being removed from national park land. And the struggle centered around different perceptions of the horses: the official “invasive” species view versus a more popular viewpoint of their belonging in the wild. So it became a story, to my way of thinking, that just had to be done. It’s similar to the decades-long struggle out west over the fate of free-roaming horses, but it’s right here in the heartland.
I understand you spent a great time following the horses with your camera. How do the horses react to you as you’re hiking and following them?
It has definitely been a learn-as-I-go experience. I had experience shooting wildlife footage, but this was different. Like with deer, for instance, if you get too close or make too much noise, they bolt. The horses will do that sometimes as well- which is an incredible sight seeing a dozen horses leap into the brush and quietly disappear in a matter of seconds. There are other times when they let me get pretty close. In those cases, I’ve learned to keep my eye on the lead mare and stallion and watch their body language and gauge their attitude by how they’re looking at me. I’ve been run off by the lead mare a few times. One time I was chased up into the woods by the lead stallion. Unfortunately, I only got some really shaky, unusable footage from that event. I got some interesting sound though: the stallion snorting and neighing, me thrashing through the brush, and the sound of my heart beating out of my chest.
I’ve heard stories and seen photographs of people up close to the horses feeding them and touching them. So there are definitely times when they’ll allow close human contact like that. But what I’ve heard from people who really know these animals is that you’re taking a big risk getting that close to them. That has also been my experience over the weeks that I’ve spent around them. I think it’s just a good commonsense principle, not just for safety, but out of respect for the animals, to keep some boundaries between humans and wildlife.
Some of the horses are adopted out, and you’re following a story about one of these horses as well. Can you tell us more about this?
The size of the herd has to be controlled and that has to be done by humans. They don’t have wide open range and there are no natural predators outside of just a very few mountain lions which would rather go after easier prey. Some of them have succumbed to the elements during harsh winters over the years. There have been some attempts to re-introduce horse slaughter for meat, but that has been met with pretty stiff resistance. Most people would agree that adoption is the best way to manage the herd size.
There’s a group called the Missouri Wild Horse League that has taken on that responsibility. They do a good job using humane methods. They lure the horses into a pen and separate out the ones they want to remove. They bring in a vet for testing and any necessary treatment. They also have a horse whisperer who gentles the prospective adoptees to the point where they can be introduced to farm life.
I’ve been in touch with a family in west Tennessee who adopted a colt last year from one of the gathers. They named him Shannon after the county in Missouri where he was captured. They send me pictures and progress reports on him from time to time. Following Shannon’s story has been instructive in seeing some of the differences and similarities between wild and domesticated horses. He and his relationships with his adopted family and other animals on the farm serve as a good example of the benefits of the adoption policy. As a young colt living in the wild, he would have faced being violently expelled from the band. They have a strict family/social order in the wild bands. There is only one breeding stallion allowed in each band. Now he’s got it pretty good. The family love him and he gets along fine with the other animals. One of the older geldings took to him right away as a sort of a foster son. His wildness does come out when they take the gelding out and leave him behind. Then he tends to jump the fence and run off.
What kind of research are you engaging in for the film? How much is based on the human stories surrounding the horses?
I started with news stories which followed the long legal and political struggle for the horses’ protection on federal land. Most of their range is on National Park Service land in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. The NPS had tried to remove them in the early 1990’s, but local citizens organized against that policy. That was the beginning of the Missouri Wild Horse League. Those same locals and their forebears have an historical relationship with the wild horses that goes back generations and predates federal stewardship of their range land. In my view the central sources about the story come from the oral histories of the Ozarkers along the Current and Jack’s Fork Rivers where the horses live. To tell the story of the wild horses of the Ozarks, it has to include their relationship with the people in the area over the generations. To understand the conflict over the wild herd’s presence there, the official park service argument has to also be presented and explored.
I’ve also been researching the origin of horse culture on the Ozark Plateau. It’s a strong part of the cultural fabric of the region. A professor of rural sociology at University of Missouri, J. Sanford Rikoon, has contributed some interesting ideas on the issue in essays he’s published. But again, since there’s not a lot written on the subject, the oral history of the people is the most important resource. That’s what I want to capture in the film.
What are the next steps for you in this project?
The next immediate step is to get enough funding to go back into field production. I’ve taken some time out to work on another project, and develop some fundraising efforts to pay for more time out there with the horses. I’ve put quite a bit of my own funding in to get it this far, but now I’m really in serious need of some help to keep going.
What are your core goals for the film?
My goal is to make a film that can serve as historical documentation of this incredible story- to capture the oral history and preserve it. In the process, I hope it will create interest in ideas about wildness and connections with nature and the land.
David Abberton operates Steady Now Productions and lives in Missouri.
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