As horse-crazy kids, many of us watched Alec Ramsay tame the horse in “The Black Stallion” and realized relationships with horses could transform our lives. Or we munched popcorn, while on screen a teenage girl gained the confidence to believe in herself and save her horse, The Pie, in “National Velvet.” In Velvet and Pie, we recognized horses could inspire our own bravery.
Lisa Diersen, founder of EQUUS Film Festival (EFF), believes these moments—the horse captured in film, story and visual art—matter both to horse-crazy kids and to humankind as a whole. Diersen, who manages the Royal Lusitano breeding farm in St. Charles, Illinois, has always loved horse movies. She says, “As a kid anytime “My Friend Flicka” came on TV—well, I just lived to watch it. Any horse movie, even any horse commercial, and my attention was captured.”
This, in part, led Diersen to a lifetime of involvement with horses, including the importation, breeding, training and competition of Lusitano horses for dressage. It also fueled her desire to establish the EFF, which she now oversees in collaboration with co-manager and renowned equine photographer and journalist Diana De Rosa. Founded in 2013 and held annually, the Festival highlights, acknowledges and awards the diverse and creative efforts of those who artistically pay homage to the horse. Each year, the EFF receives hundreds of entries in more than 40 categories, ranging from full-length equestrian film to equestrian music video mash-up, from equestrian training and education film to equestrian animation. In addition, EFF also sponsors equine literary and visual-art contests, each with multiple categories.
Diersen’s vision is for the EFF to serve as a platform for art that raises awareness about the many ways horses are connected to humankind: through work, sport, recreation, art, equine rescue, human healing and personal development. According to Diersen, “I’m convinced the representation of horses in various forms of art is one way to ensure the preservation of horsemanship and enjoyment of horses for the coming generations.”
The fourth annual EFF, a celebration of equestrian art and culture, premiered last Nov. 17–20, at the Village East Cinema in New York City. According to Diersen, “We wanted to make it a festival with international flavor. Holding it in NYC makes it easier for European filmmakers to attend. There is a great deal of interest in producing high-quality equestrian films in Europe. The public embraces it more and, in Germany and France in particular, there are entire industries devoted to equine filmmaking.” At the premiere, equestrian films from around the world were screened at Village East Cinema while VIP parties and directors panels were hosted at the nearby Ukrainian Village East Hall. EFF attendees were invited to tour the Carriage Horse Stables at Clinton Park and to meet and greet actors, artists and directors, including equine movie stars Apple and Dreamer.
Awarding prizes to work in many categories is another way of expanding the EFF’s influence and audience. Near the conclusion of the festival, the EFF’s prestigious WINNIE Awards (EFF bills the event as the “equestrian equivalent of the Oscars”) were presented during an event at The Wild Horses of Sable Island Gallery. Diersen explains, “It’s more than just a regular film festival, where you might have a “best of” award and one or two others are recognized. We have so many categories because there are so many themes that run throughout the horse world.” This year, winners in major categories included “Liberty Groundwork,” directed by Ralf Schauwacker, for Best of Festival–International and “Scout’s Honour,” directed by Andy and Sara Neitzert, for Film Lover’s Inspirational Award. “The Edge—Bruce Anderson Natural Horsemanship,” directed by James O’Connor, won the Equestrian Environmental Awareness Film honor and “Out of the Wild,” directed by Paul Krizan, won the Festival Director’s Choice Award.
Diersen says the dressage enthusiast will find much to cherish among the films, literature and visual art presented at EFF. She recommends USDF gold medalist Yvonne Barteau’s book, The Dressage Horse Manifesto, which was awarded a WINNIE for Best Equine Training Book, as well as Barteau’s film collaboration with Erika Wyatt, “Into the Spotlight,” which was awarded Best Full-Length Horse Rescuer’s Documentary. In addition, the WINNIE for Best Art Film went to “Slow and Steady Wins the Race: Laura Graves and Diddy,” directed by Netta-Lee Lax, an associate producer for NBC’s Olympic coverage. Diersen also mentions a documentary, “The Black Gold” (“It Swarte Goud” in Dutch), which is sure to appeal. Presented in four parts, the series depicts the history of the Friesian horse, including the breed’s importance to the Dutch people, its background as a carriage horse, modern evolution as a dressage horse and how the KFPS ensures the future of the breed with its annual kür.
Double-WINNIE award winner Barteau, who has a long background in training horses for theatrical performance in addition to competitive dressage, explains the significance of having both her book and documentary recognized: “Of course, it makes you feel good to win an award. But it’s more than that because the subject of our documentary, horse rescue and retraining, matters so dearly to us.”
“Into the Spotlight” features Barteau, her family and staff at KYB Dressage as they rescue horses from slaughter, retrain them in dressage and ultimately integrate these horses into equine performance work. “Hopefully, people who watch will think more about the choices they make with their horses and where those choices can lead if they’re not careful,” says Barteau. “It’s surprising to people when even horses who seem so valuable end up in a terrible place. When we began work on the film, it was just going to be about getting horses ready for performance and theater, but then, since we often do this work with rescue horses, their stories ended up weaving their way into the film.”
While attending the EFF premiere, Barteau was also pleased to notice many entries that highlighted dressage. She has long believed that making dressage visible and accessible through art is one way to ensure the future of the sport. “Even going way back to when I trained horses for Arabian Nights Dinner Theater, I realized that when we perform with our horses, what we’re actually doing is sharing dressage with a much broader audience than the sport typically draws,” explains Barteau. “Yes, we include liberty work and tricks—the horses can lie down and bow and so on—but we’re first and foremost dressage trainers executing dressage movements in a performance sequence. We add music, which happens anyway in freestyle competition. We then also add costuming and storyline, but it’s essentially still dressage. Today, when we do large-scale performances two or three times a year with our horses, we’re absolutely getting dressage out there and increasing its visibility. I think everybody has to do what they can to help young riders and horse enthusiasts understand what dressage has to offer. Like live performance, the dressage-oriented films celebrated by the EFF help make our sport more accessible and spread the word about what we’re doing with our horses.”
EFF at the World Cup and Beyond
EFF is now on tour and its second stop will be the 2017 FEI World Cup™ Longines Jumping and Dressage Finals in Omaha, Nebraska, from Mar. 30–Apr. 1. EFF organizers, filmmakers, artists and sponsors will be at Midtown Crossing Marcus Cinema Complex, a premier entertainment venue less than five miles from CenturyLink Center, where the finals will be held. The cinema will not only screen award-winning equestrian movies in state-of-the-art theaters, but will also offer a full menu and cocktail service. Diersen hopes a festival stop at the finals will increase the visibility of the EFF, which in turn expands the exposure for all the directors, artists and horses highlighted by the films. “Our goal is to make people aware of the horse’s story, be the voice of the horse.”
EFF will make at least six additional tour stops in the U.S. and Europe throughout the year. Typically, festival stops include screenings of featured WINNIE award-winning films as well as panel discussions with filmmakers, artists and authors and family-friendly, horse-themed activities. In addition, film enthusiasts can access EFF films year-round at the Kentucky Horse Park (KHP) in Lexington, thanks to an ongoing partnership between EFF and KHP. Select screenings are offered almost every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening in the KHP’s Post Time Studio Theaters at the visitor center, with filmmakers periodically scheduled to attend screenings and lead conversations about their work.
Diersen and De Rosa are also working hard to make it possible for fans to access the films from the comfort of home. “We’re working on a pay-per-view platform, which will be great for the filmmakers,” says Diersen.
Why Horse Movies, Why Now?
Though Diersen says horse films are entertaining and a pleasure to watch, her vision of connecting people with horses through the arts goes beyond entertainment. “As most people have gotten away from horses as a mode of transportation and having them as a part of everyday life, human beings have come to miss having that connection in their lives. We get films in from all around the world and it doesn’t really seem to matter where a film is from, the story is the same: it’s the human–horse connection.”
To illustrate the way this theme permeates the large majority of the festival’s entries, Diersen cites the example of “Unbridled,” which debuted at the EFF in 2016 and won the WINNIE for Best of Festival Feature-Length Film. “Unbridled” is based on the story of a program in North Carolina where equine therapy is aiding the recovery of girls who have survived abuse and trauma. According to Diersen, it doesn’t matter where you are in the world—horses are healing people.
While these films depict equine therapy being employed in a very deliberate manner, Diersen believes all people can benefit from even casual connections with horses. “Horses,” she says, “have been part of humankind’s entire growth as a civilization and now, more than ever, this connection has implications for how we live, work, grow, relate to others and heal. The EFF strives to make visible and accessible the many gifts horses bring to humankind and, in turn, highlight how we can best relate to, care for, train and protect our horses.”
2017 EQUUS Film Festival
• Little Theatre, Camden, South Carolina, Feb. 17–18
• Midtown Crossing Marcus Cinema Complex, Omaha, Nebraska, Mar. 30–Apr. 1
• Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, Baltimore, Maryland, May 11
• Equinal Film Festival, Spanish Riding School, Vienna, Austria, June 30–July 2
• Equestrian Film Festival Les Chevaux du Sud, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, France, July 13–16
• Kentucky Horse Park, Lexington, ongoing screenings
• Tour stops currently pending in Sante Fe, New Mexico, (August) and Tryon International Film Festival, North Carolina (October).
Check frequently at equusfilmfestival.net for more information.