HORSES: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF THREE IRISH RACE HORSES
Eschewing sentimentality, "Horses" raises basic questions about what constitutes character and who can have it. Ireland's horse-racing culture has produced some of the finest athletes in the world and so the producer of this film set up shop at Toberona Horse Farm in County Wexford, Ireland - a family business; and followed the garrulous and engaging trainer Paul Nolan through a winter of jump racing. Focusing on three horses over the course of a year, the producer made a movie about life at a training center, and about the vagaries of training and racing horses for a living. "Horses like routine," we're told early in the movie, and the movie emphasizes that, repeatedly showing the daily training regimens of training, feeding, walking and shoeing.
We see a number of races, too, but as time spent racing is a small percentage of a horse's life, the races are a small percentage of this movie, though racing as the goal is the focus of nearly every conversation and scene. The horses are regularly referred to as "equine athletes" who have a job to do, who have to earn their keep. So we learn of CUAN NA GRAI, the oft-injured seven-year-old gelding who's heading back to the races after a year off nursing a tendon injury - he's won some major races in the past; he is so highly attuned to all the sites and noises around him that it often seems he'll drive himself mad. Then there's the plucky ARDALAN, who can't quite seem to find his racing niche, too slow for the flat and too small for the jump but with an amazing talent for clearing big hurdles and an irrepressible curiosity which he expresses by trying to eat everything within reach; and of JONCOL, the great hope of the stable. JONCOL is a young, quiet, giant who takes everything literally in stride, and who Paul thinks may prove to be the best horse the stable's ever had though he's only raced once, can't run on firm ground and is haunted by irritated sinuses. The stories of the three horses are compelling and distinct.
Paul Nolan is the central character, a trainer who runs a string of horses at his base in south-east Ireland; a likable, funny, profane man. The tenor of a working racehorse's life is skillfully evoked, and you can't help but feel for Nolan as he tries to strategize his way through the racing season. He is often set in contrast to Tommy, a wizened exercise rider, groom, hotwalker, and equine traveling companion. Tommy might be the stereotypical avuncular, horse-loving Irishman, but he is rescued from caricature by his humor and unadulterated love of the horses.
There's rarely a shortage of drama in the National Hunt - the injury rate is high for both horses and riders (though rather higher for horses), and the potential rewards, while significant, cannot compare to the purses offered in flat racing. It is not a particularly reasonable way to try to make a living, and as we follow our equine protagonists we meet a variety of human characters who offer theories about horse intelligence, emotion, and character. As they speak, we observe, and draw our on conclusions about what might be going on in the heads of these three athletes. The cinematography is superb; the quirkiness and moods of the equine cast members are skillfully captured; the camera rests on them when they are still or posing. The trio are followed when they are training and in one particularly stunning sequence, a spectacular tracking shot follows horses working in company across Irish fields.
An entertaining, engaging documentary about an Irish racing stable which is a pleasure to watch. Though it may not change anyone's world, "Horses" should be appreciated as a story of three characters trying to earn their keep in a rather unforgiving world. The producer may not have succeeded in convincing people that horses have personalities, but she certainly captured the characters of the men who work with these horses. And she successfully portrays the vicissitudes of training Thoroughbreds, the challenges and rewards, and the work that goes into getting a horse to - or back to the races. In the grandstand, on the track, and on the backstretch, the losses come with much greater frequency than the wins and in the period of filming, Toberona's racing fortunes had taken a significant downturn. We see disappointment and setbacks, so when the wins come, they are all the sweeter. "Victory," we are told, "is a great tonic."
Beautiful, unusual, and highly entertaining, the film combines the drama of a sports movie with the exploration of an ancient human obsession, offering a subtle critique of humanity's quirks on the side. As we get to know our three characters, we immerse ourselves in the strange life that humans have made for them - observing stable life from their perspective, meeting the people responsible for crucial decisions in their careers, and following their fates over the course of a dramatic year. Bound to raise arguments over anthropomorphism and the rights of animals, the film reserves judgment, provoking questions rather than presenting an argument. And whatever conclusions you may come to, you'll never watch a horse race the same way again.
|Format(s) Available:||DVD And VHS|
|Category:||National Hunt / Jumps / Steeplechase|