The discipline of dressage is a form of riding rarely if ever explored in film. You generally don’t find audiences everywhere on the edge of their seats to see if the piaffe comes off correctly at the National Championships or sobbing with the rider who’s lost a chance at the prize due to a small abscess in the horse’s left front hoof. And yet, those who practice dressage know that the discipline has all the highs and lows of a horse race, and perhaps even more psychological drama.
This weekend, a short film will set out to prove this point. On Saturday, September 19, award-winning writer, director and equestrian, Sybil H. Mair, will host the regional premiere of her latest film, The Equestrian, at the EQUUS International Film Festival in Missoula, Montana, where the film is a finalist for ‘Best Short Film’, ‘Best Cinematography’ and ‘Best of Festival’.
In The Equestrian, the ambitious, young dressage rider, Freddie Forester, and his gifted mount Gaius take on their first big competition with the highest of expectations. When things do not proceed exactly to plan, the cracks in their relationship burst open. Take a peek at the trailer here:
With the regional premiere just days away, we are please to bring you this interview with Sybil Mair in which she shares the stories behind the story of The Equestrian.
C-CC: When did horses and dressage first enter your life and are you still riding now?
SM: I had ridden off and on, until about six years ago when I decided I wanted to be a proficient rider, and the only way to do that would be through consistent perseverance. I ride on average seven hours per week.
C-CC: When and how did you decide to make dressage the subject of your latest film?
SM: Watching my dressage trainer working with his horses, I became fascinated by the subtle interaction between horse and man. I’d been toying with adapting a short story on jump racing when the idea struck me that something much more interesting, subtle was going on here. I was entranced by the intensity of the relationship between rider and horse. It’s easy to see how racing might be more theatrical, or that jumping provides greater spectacle. With dressage the nuanced complexity of the physical contact combined with the immense concentration and communication required on both their parts proved more compelling.
C-CC: We all understand that it takes a fair amount of Hollywood magic to bring a horse film to life, from stunt doubles to horse wranglers. For The Equestrian, can you tell us about the team in front of and behind the cameras for Freddie and Gaius?
SM: I wanted to be able to make someone’s horse a movie star. Luckily, one of the locations used for filming had a stud farm. Sandro’s Dancer was chosen to star as Gaius, the hero stallion, as he is a beautiful black stallion and was trained to a high level in dressage by Stef Eardley. The stunt horses were chosen by Andy Butcher, a well respected horse master who worked on many films, including “War Horse”, “Gladiator”, “Huntsman”. He brought two lovely black stallions, each with distinct strong points: Ode Miro, an even-tempered Lusitano, and Inca, a fiery Arab x Andalusian. Layke rode growing up, so he came with sufficient basic knowledge of riding. Most important was that he was not afraid of interacting with the horse physically on a more personal and emotional level. The other riders were chosen based on experience. Sandro’s Dancer’s regular rider and trainer at the time managed him on set.
C-CC: For The Equestrian, you worked with not only some serious film talent, but also some real pros in the world of dressage. Dressage freestyle composer Tom Hunt, who has worked with top riders such as Charlotte Dujardin and Carl Hester, scored the film and Hester himself made a cameo. How did working dressage professionals add to the film?
SM: I first met Tom just as he was starting to break into music for dressage. Though he hadn’t worked in film, he was excited by the script and was eager to meet the challenge of scoring a film. So over several months we were able to develop a creative collaboration through several discussions on theme, mood, the narrative ebb and flow, and I think the result is beautiful. We were thrilled to win the Gold Medal Jury Choice for ‘Best Impact of Music in a Short Film’ from the Park City Film Music Festival, it’s especially gratifying to have the individual crafts involved in creating a film acknowledged.
We were so pleased that Carl Hester agreed to appear. He loved the script, but was only able to confirm his availability the day before shooting the scene. I was elated –and relieved as the 1st AD, aka ‘slave-driver’, whose job it is to keep track of the progress of the filming production schedule, had been asking for 6 days straight “Where is this guy?” Anyway, I rewrote the scene as a post-competition press conference with Carl now on board, and this created a special buzz on set as he and Uthopia had just won silver at the Europeans in Rotterdam.
C-CC: You have said that the horse-rider relationship teaches us about ourselves. What does Freddie learn about himself in the film through this relationship, and what have you learned about yourself from horses?
SM: I had recently come across this quote from Buck Brannaman, “The horse is a mirror to your soul . . . and sometimes you may not like what you see in the mirror.” This is what happens during the night scene with Freddie and Gaius in the arena. Freddie is forced to confront certain truths about himself – his arrogance, we recall the dressage magazine cover stating ‘Forester builds a dynasty’, his frailty and above all his need for his father’s love and recognition, most poignant in the breakfast scene before he leaves to compete. Freddie learns to be a man, not from his father but from his horse. For me, simply put, we learn more about what it is to be human – the good and the bad. It challenges our behaviour, our belief in ourselves as the civilizing masters. It reminds us what a privilege it is to experience such a close relationship with another being.
C-CC: To write this script you had to get into the head of not only humans but also horses. How do you write for horses?
SM: A while ago I heard a director of a film on dressage say that they weren’t interested in the horses, for them the focus lay elsewhere. I found that – curious. I wrote for the horse as I did for the humans. For the stallion to have a presence, I had to care for his character as much as Freddie’s. He couldn’t simply be an adjunct to a human world. The horse’s world is equivalent to the human world. We have to see the stallion observe, think, act. And to do this, I had to study horses just as I study people, which I couldn’t do while riding or through general interaction. I had to sit and watch not impose my presence, like people-watching in a café. This was essential for the night scenes between Freddie and Gaius in the stables and the arena.
C-CC: What kind of responses to your film have you received from people not familiar with dressage and horseback riding?
SM: I think people have been struck by the intensity and powerful emotion of The Equestrian, I don’t think they expect this from a ‘horse film’. I received this message from someone who had seen the film in Bulgaria, they said, “I loved most the final scene between horse and boy . . . all the feelings and the movements were so right and clear. I could feel from my seat in the audience that man power was in conflict with nature, but at the same time both were suffering and were loving, adoring each other. It aroused real emotions and feeling for me.” As a director I’m deeply touched.
C-CC: Were you influenced by any horse films and why?
SM: Oddly enough no. I had watched a number: Seabiscuit, The Black Stallion, The Horse Whisperer, but when it came to filming and post-production there were three films in particular I refered to: The Wrestler, Goodfellas, and Apocolypse Now. These films seemed to speak more to the mood, tension and imagery of The Equestrian, for instance Freddie anxiously walking along the corridors of the competition arena, the chiaroscuro in the stable and arena scenes or the voice over used as he reflects upon his life.
For more information about The Equestrian and to purchase the DVD please visit:
Official website: www.theequestrianfilm.com