This is the question that director Liz Mermin asked herself after she was approached to make a documentary about Irish racehorses. “I know what I like about horses,” she said during Tuesday’s Q&A after her film Horses was screened at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village, as part of its “Stranger Than Fiction” documentary series. “But I didn’t want to make a film about horse people. They’re not interesting to other people.”
Mermin, who has made movies in Qatar, Afghanistan, and India and on topics such as women hairdressers in Kabul and abortion doctors, reluctantly agreed to the project. “I had no other offers,” she said, so she set up shop at Toberona horse farm in County Wexford, Ireland and followed trainer Paul Nolan through a winter of jump racing. Focusing on three horses, she’s 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, 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; of Ardalan, who can’t quite seem to find his racing niche, too slow for the flat and too small for the jump; and of Joncol, the great hope of the stable.
The cinematography is beautiful; Mermin, who rode show horses growing up, uses her knowledge of the horse to capture the quirkiness and moods of her equine cast members. She lets the camera rest on them when they are still or posing; she follows them when they are training, particularly in one stunning sequence about two-thirds of the way into the movie, in which a spectacular tracking shot follows horses working in company across Irish fields.
The stories of the three horses are compelling and distinct, and Paul Nolan is a likable, funny, profane man. 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. Following a race in which a horse hasn’t run particularly well, Nolan says decisively, “We were shite.” Walking with the horse back to the barn, Tommy rubs the horse’s nose and murmurs, “You’re tired, aren’t you? Just tired.”
The use of subtitles in the film seems gratuitous; yes, some of the accents are heavy, but they are hardly incomprehensible. Without being explicitly expository, the film is full of information not just about the specific horses but also about racing in Ireland, and I was amused—and maybe a little envious?–to hear said of Ardalan, one of the featured horses, “He’s only five years old, and he’s still learning.”
During the Q&A, Mermin admitted that before making the movie, she didn’t know much about horse racing and that she “disapproved” of it, referring immediately to the drugs and “dirty tricks” associated with the sport. She also said that making the movie had changed her mind, while acknowledging the significant differences in racing in the U.S. and in Ireland, where, according to Mermin, “things are stricter.” “I saw the connections between humans and horses” on the backstretch and on the farm, she said.
Mermin underestimates, I think, the interest that “horse people” might hold for those who make their living off the backstretch. She 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 during which Mermin filmed, 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.”