One filmmaker is on a quest to bring the issues and challenges wild horses constantly face to the screens of Telluride. Through her documentary, "Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West," director Ashley Avis, who also directed 2020’s "Black Beauty,” follows wild horse herds as they are rounded up across the American West. It also inspired her to start the nonprofit The Wild Beauty Foundation.
Avis recently submitted "Wild Beauty" to the Telluride Film Festival this year in hopes of being accepted for the September event. Telluride Film Festival is the perfect event to debut her documentary, Avis said.
"The issue (of wild horses) would benefit greatly if we can position our documentary following in the path of 'Black Fish' or 'The Cove,'" Avis added.
Last year, National Geographic films like "Fauci," "The Rescue" and "Becoming Cousteau" premiered at the festival.
"Wild Beauty" was filmed in all 10 states with wild horses, including Colorado. Avis covered a roundup, or what the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) calls "gathers," in Sand Wash Basin in September 2021. Sand Wash Basin is 48 miles west of Craig and home to a herd of wild horses.
The Colorado BLM is responsible for four wild horse burros (donkeys) and herds. According to BLM.gov, since 1971, they have "removed" 4,400 animals from public rangelands.
"As part of (the state’s) efforts to maintain healthy horses and burros on healthy public rangelands, animals removed from public rangelands are offered to the public for adoption; unadopted animals are cared for on open pastures for the rest of their lives," according to the website.
While the numbers for each state differ — for example, since 1971, 37,000 animals have been removed from public rangelands in Wyoming — the latter message stays the same: animals are either adopted or live the rest of their days in "open pastures."
After covering roundups across the country, Avis found the BLM's narrative to be untrue.
"They're sticking brands on their necks and basically marking them. Some of these horses get spray painted. It's disgusting. They don't have shade, and a lot of them aren't protected from the elements. They're overcrowded, and little babies are laying in piles of their own excrement," Avis said.
Telluride local Erin Cain runs Grace Reins Equine Therapy, which currently has five wild mustangs that were "rescued" from BLM land. Cain referred to footage of a roundup as "sickening" and "heartbreaking."
"We will never truly know the trauma of their journey prior, but we do know it is deep having been torn from their families (bands), physically traumatized, taken from their freedom, trailered miles and miles, and kept in holding pens. Many are sent to auction and adopted to unsavory homes, or worse, sent to slaughter," Cain said.
In May, the Colorado Sun uncovered a report about horses from the Sand Wash Basin herd that had been rounded up and were now being kept at a holding facility in Cañon City. The holding facility held around 2,000 mustangs and burros. A report found horses had not been vaccinated, and 145 wild horses had died in Cañon City due to a preventable flu.
"The federal agency's policy is to freeze-brand and de-worm mustangs within 30 days of capture and vaccinate them as soon as possible based on the advice of a veterinarian," according to the May 27 Sun article.
The investigation team, which included BLM officials and a veterinarian, found the agency was non-compliant with 13 policies. The report goes into lack of staff, mixing mares and stallions, and how the facility was not operating in compliance with BLM rules concerning euthanasia.
However, Avis has hope for Colorado and has found people within the state more receptive than places like Wyoming when it comes to sharing the issues wild horses face. The "progressive mindset" in Colorado is one of the reasons she wants the documentary to premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, she said.
"Colorado was the only place where we got any kind of reception; where, honestly, it made me feel like if I was there alone, I wouldn't be putting myself into a dangerous situation," Avis said.
Even Governor Jared Polis is on board and aware of the situations in Colorado and across the West.
On May 19, Polis tweeted, "Due to the loss of 142 horses from disease, I am calling for a delay to consider more humane options for the Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse roundup."
Through her latest documentary, Avis hopes to bring the wild horse issue to the main stage and, hopefully, the Telluride Film Festival.
"We have to have a meaningful world premiere to kick off that energy for our entertainment world to pay attention," Avis said.