Mustang! An American Original

By Ginger Kathrens

It was a few weeks before Thanksgiving, 1993. The phone rang in the office. It was Marty Stouffer, the host of the popular PBS Wild America television series. "I’ve always wanted to do a film about mustangs," he said in his confident Arkansas drawl. “Will you shoot it for me?" I was stunned. I'd been researching, writing, and editing programs for Marty since 1987, but Marty never assigned me to shoot his films, using what I thought were lame excuses like "I can’t send you out in the snow and cold” or “You could get lost out there." I really think girls shooting programs for him was an alien concept. But Marty had just seen my two-hour production for the Discovery Channel, "Spirits of the Rainforest." I filmed the majority of the natural history sequences, which showcased a dazzling array of jungle wildlife from giant otters and macaws, to jaguars, and six species of monkeys. The program eventually won an Emmy Award for Best Documentary of 1993.

I answered Marty's request with an enthusiastic and unequivocal, "Yes." But as I hung up the phone, I started to worry. I believed that the extent of wild horse behavior was largely what I experienced as a child with my own domestic quarter horse, Sunny. All he did was stand around in a field and graze all day. How was I going to fill a whole half-hour show with interesting action? I started my research, and, aside from a scientific study of wild horses in Nevada's Great Basin by Joel Berger, I found nothing dedicated to the topic of wild horse behavior. This only served to underscore my belief that wild horses are as boring as domestic ones. So, I concluded, if I was to create an exciting and educational experience about mustangs for TV viewers, I would have to focus on their history. My rough draft script included everything but the kitchen sink-evolution, Conquistadors, Native Americans, wild horses living on an island in Nova Scotia. You name it, and I had it in my shooting outline.

All my misconceptions about wild horse behavior eventually flew right out the window when I met a stunning black stallion named Raven and his family. But that is another story. My early research focused on the history of Equus (the taxonomic name for the genus of horses and asses). I ran across a story about a horse carcass unearthed by two placer miners in the Yukon. What I knew about the Yukon was based on a childhood TV program, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, shot on location in California! In other words, I knew about as much about the Yukon as I did about wild horses.

Kayah Swanson