A new documentary drama about a woman’s search for the possible origins of the appaloosa horse breed is hitting the big screen later this year.
The film True Appaloosa is the result of a chance viewing of a Conor Woodman documentary about travelling in Kyrgyzstan by New Zealand foundation appaloosa breeder Scott Engstrom.
US born Engstrom, who has lived at the top of New Zealand’s South Island since the mid 1990s, saw a horse in the documentary (Around the World in 80 Trades) that Woodman had traded during his journey. She thought the horse looked a lot like the appaloosas on her farm.
The spotted appaloosa has been recognised as a breed since about the mid 1940s, after a group of breeders got together to form the first stud book, based on horses who were originally selectively bred by the Nez Perce tribe.
But in recent years, cross-breeding has eroded many of the bloodlines and the original type of the breed. There are only a handful of breeders world-wide who work to maintain the old bloodlines dating back to the early 1900s, avoiding crossing the horses with other breeds such as the quarter horse, which is common in the US. It is not know how many true foundation appaloosa horses remain today, but there are estimated to be fewer than 200.
Engstrom has been breeding foundation appaloosa horses since the mid 90s, and has built up a sizeable herd.
After seeing the 80 Trades show, Engstrom contacted Woodman, the show’s presenter, and from their discussions about the origin of the breed, the film was born. Engstrom, at the age of 69, packed her bags to join Woodman and a film crew in Kyrgyzstan to find the horses and see if there were any more.
Woodman said: “Scott and I exchanged quite a few emails about the Appaloosas and I also started to talk with my friend Munarbek Kuldanbaev, who had initially helped me buy horses when I made the 80 Trades show. Eventually we all started to get excited that we might be onto something.
“The problem was that we needed to find that horse that I’d sold years before to an unknown farmer. Then in 2012, Munarbek contacted me to tell me that he’d tracked down where the farmer was from. I thought – ‘OK, now’s the time to put up or shut up’. So I emailed Scott and asked her if she was serious. Because if she was, then it was time to go to Kyrgyzstan. I think she booked her ticket that day!”
For Engstrom, it was the adventure of a lifetime. “I would do it again in a heartbeat!” she says.
“The first time I saw that first herd coming over the hill, I cried like a baby… such tears of joy! I will never forget it ever. It was almost surreal and what a blessing to know that this special breed still exists in the wild and it tells you they are survivalists.
“The Kyrgyzstan men are wonderful horsemen, having been raised since early childhood on horses. It was such a pleasure to watch them handle the horses and not a mean thing was done with even the most wild.
“One of my biggest thrills was being called into the makeshift enclosure by the head stallion to say hello. Yes, he was wild as. He had placed all of his mares and foals (about 20) behind him and then looked at me and started to chomp like a foal would do,” she said.
“I just couldn’t believe it. I went through the gate in with him and he proceeded to sniff and then let me touch him all over. It was almost like an out-of-body experience and oh so special. He picked me to be his friend. He must have sensed somehow that I was not the enemy. I would bring him home in a heartbeat if we can arrange it. He is solid as, but all Appaloosa and producing some gorgeous foals.”
Woodman says as the action was being filmed, he didn’t know how it was going to end.
“I wanted to stay true to the spirit of adventure and the journey into the unknown.
“I knew all along that Scott might be wrong and if she was then we were going on a wild goose chase. But something about that blind faith attracted me to her story. How many people just up sticks, fly to the other side of the world, meet up with some guy they’ve never met before and agree to ride off into some of the most inhospitable mountains in the world just to see if their ‘crazy’ theory is right or not? On every level it’s madness. But I must confess I like a bit of madness.”
He says the film had changed his life.
“It’s my first time directing, which presented a whole new challenge on top of being the guy in front of the lens. But more than that, it’s reaffirmed my faith in following your heart and never taking no for an answer when you’re convinced you’re right. Scott is a massive inspiration to anyone to do exactly that. Her drive and her unbridled courage in making this journey should be an example to us all. And don’t forget she was 69 years old when she did it.”
True Appaloosa will be showing at various film festivals around the world later this year and in 2015.