Filmmaker Ashley Avis documents threats to wild horses in the American West.
Filmmaker Ashley Avis felt in love with horses — and with Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel Black Beauty — at an early age, and felt she was handed the opportunity to make a childhood dream come true when she was approached to write and direct a new film based on Sewell’s classic.
Unfortunately, dreams have a terrible habit of turning into nightmares.
Please don’t misunderstand: Avis is deeply proud of the 2020 Black Beauty movie she made for Disney+, and cherishes many happy memories of the on-location filming. But she was ill-prepared for what she witnessed while researching wild horse round-ups in the American West.
“I was absolutely stunned,” she says, “that as a horse person in my youth, I had no idea that wild horses were being rounded up by helicopters, torn away from their families, and locked away into government holding facilities, some never to gallop again. Diving head first into the issue, I came to realize the Bureau of Land Management was prioritizing special interests groups such as tax-subsidized livestock grazing, oil, and mining — over preserving the ecological balance of our Western public lands. They were knowingly eradicating federally protected wild horses and native species such as wolves and mountain lions — using methods that were deeply antiquated and cruel. How could this possibly be happening?
“And so, I intertwined this modern-day issue into our reimagining of Black Beauty, which I am proud to say impacted millions of children and families around the world. After the film debuted, my husband and producing partner Edward Winters and I decided to keep going to raise awareness for this little-known issue. We felt a deep passion, and obligation, to use our platform as filmmakers to protect the horses.”
All of which provides the backstory for Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West, a beautifully crafted and emotionally resonant documentary now available on various streaming platforms. Avis and her production team set out to illuminate both the profound splendor and desperate plight currently faced by wild horses in the Western United States. Their success was admiringly appraised by Jennifer Green of Common Sense Media: “With poetic voiceover narration, gorgeous nature scenery, investigative reporting, and depressing findings, this documentary hits its mark. Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West is an activist and journalistic endeavor that… makes a compelling argument and could prove a useful educational tool.”
We recently had the opportunity to chat with Ashley Avis about Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West. Here are some highlights from our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.
Cowboys & Indians: Is it true you weren’t aware of the brutality of the wild horse roundups until you started work on your Black Beauty reboot?
Ashley Avis: That’s right. I grew up with horses most of my childhood. During my teenage years, and then going to college and starting a business — horses were out of my life for about a decade. But they came back full force when I started re-imagining Black Beauty. It wasn’t until then I realized that Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty not necessarily as a children’s book, but as an animal welfare plea for the horses of her time — the cab horses, the carriage horses. I didn’t know that growing up. But I, like so many people, fell in love with Black Beauty.
And that’s why it was really important to me to honor the themes behind why she wrote it. So that prompted me to start researching different issues horses were facing in our modern day. And that’s when I came across the wild horse issue back in 2017.
C&I: Do you remember your first reaction when you were literally on the ground there and saw these magnificent creatures just running wild and free?
Avis: It was breathtaking. So few people have gotten a chance to go out into the wild and see this, and we were very fortunate to. It’s breathtaking and surreal to see wild horses galloping free. Especially as the sun is rising and you see hundreds of them galloping to water, and they’re kicking up dust and it looks like mist all around them. It’s a spectacular experience. And that’s why we called the film Wild Beauty — because that’s everything that we have to protect. We can’t lose that.
C&I: Did you ever experience at any point what we might politely call pushback from the Bureau of Land Management?
Avis: We received a profound amount of pushback from the Bureau of Land Management. At almost every step of the way, really. Whether it was going to the roundups, or asking to exercise our rights as journalists, as public observers, to see the trap site. The Bureau of Land Management often refused to allow us to see the area where they actually stampede the horses into those corrals. As I say in the film, that’s often where those injuries happen, where horses are breaking their legs or their necks trying to escape the low flying helicopters, or trying to protect their families. Foals get stampeded and crushed. How in 2023 a government agency is saying a helicopter rounding up a federally protected flight animal is humane — that’s insane to me.
C&I: What has been the response to your film? Do you ever hear from people who think rounding up the horses might not be such a bad idea after all?
Avis: It depends. We've had screenings where the entire audience is completely with the horses. But in some places around the country, obviously, we’ve gotten some pushback during the live Q&As with some people that don’t agree with us, or some people that have really been impacted by the misinformation campaign that the Bureau of Land Management has waged very effectively in trying to convince the American public that wild horses should be rounded up. They say four things: The horses are starving, they’re overpopulated, there’s a drought, and we’re rounding them up for their own good.
But if you go to one of those holding facilities, there is no way that you can look at a wild horse stuck in a cramped corral where they can’t gallop — where sometimes they don’t even have shade — and say that that’s for their own good. And if you go out to these ranges and these herd management areas where the Bureau of Land Management is saying they’re starving, they’re overpopulated — you’ll think, “Wait a second, there’s 200,000 acres, and there are only 400 horses, and they’re fat and they’re healthy.” So none of this is true. And that’s what we really tried to present in the film as well, for people to look at this with their own eyes and make their own determination that this campaign to eradicate wild horses is false.
C&I: Were there days when you were on location filming where it just got to be too much for you? When what you were seeing, and the vibe you were picking up, made you think something like, “OK, look, I’ve got to go in my car and just decompress for about an hour before we continue here?”
Avis: There were a couple of days that it was really, really hard. Particularly at the roundup of the Onaqui, because those were the horses that we met first. They were in Black Beauty. I’ve gotten thousands of messages from children about how they loved that film, how they fell in love with horses after seeing that film. And so getting to know that particular family of horses for years, to see them get rounded up — and that was one of the worst roundups, where the helicopter was flying so low. You can’t do those maneuvers in an action movie. It’s just insane.
During the days we spent at that roundup, I had to actively remind myself that we had to do our jobs as filmmakers and as journalists, to protect the horses and to tell the story and to not crumble because that was very, very hard. But yeah, there were plenty of nights that we went back to the hotel room and cried because it’s very hard to see.
C&I: And then during the editing process…?
Avis: The editing process of this film was probably the hardest part, because that’s when you’re reliving all of that trauma. Of course, that’s nothing compared to what the horses are going through. But it was so hard sitting in a dark room for several months editing a film that has such spectacular beauty — and also a lot of that hardship. And the thing is, we didn’t show in the film the worst that we saw, because it’s very hard for anybody, adult or child, to see a horse with a broken leg, or to see some of the other images we filmed. See, we never wanted anyone to turn off the film. We wanted the 12- or 14-year-old young person that wants to see this to be able to watch it alongside their parents, so that we could encourage the next generation to care about wild horses and our greater wild world as well.
C&I: One final question. Were there days when maybe you or members of your crew said, “OK, I’d like to adopt that horse, and that horse, and maybe this other horse as well?”
Avis: [Laughs] I’ve got to do some bigger movies so I can get my own ranch one day. But yeah, I remember the first roundup that we ever documented in 2019, which was in Nevada, the roundup of the Triple B horses. My heart broke in a way that I’ve never experienced while seeing that first roundup. There was a little Pinto colt who’s in the film, and the chopper chased him by himself. He was maybe a month old, and they drove him away from his family and into the trap site. He was miles away, but we could see through our long lens him throwing up his neck and clearly crying for his family with this monster behind him. It was over a hundred degrees, and they were still running the horses — even though they’re not supposed to run them at those temperatures.
And I turned to my husband while we were up on top of that hill, filming, and I said, “If he survives, I want to do something about him.” And my husband said, “Okay.” Well, he did survive and he was reunited with his mother — and we adopted them both. So they actually live in Solvang in California, and we’ve been rescuing other horses as well over the past couple of years. Some wild horses do very well once they get into the company of humans, and they assimilate very well, or they do therapy programs. It’s amazing to see children or veterans who have gone through abuse or trauma or PTSD and how they connect with wild horses who have gone through abuse and trauma. That can be life-changing for both. And then you have some of the horses that never are going to want to be part of that, and they need to go to sanctuaries or, in my opinion, need to be re-wilded.
But yes, if I had a billion dollars, I would be emptying the pens and trying to save them all.