Louisa Behnke - Wild


WILD CAN MEAN many things; of course. 

But aside from its meaning, there is its feeling — like falling, freedom, and fresh air.  It suggests letting go.  Trusting that the answers are out there, if you have the courage to seek them.  This is the spirit of wild horses, the wild west, and three women who united to understand what happens when wild things struggle to coexist.

Louisa Behnke, a local filmmaker who lives in Essex, has existed happily and easily in a natural environment all her life.  Raised in a family that celebrated the adventure and beauty of the outdoors, Louisa grew up skiing, romping in the salt marsh, searching for snakes and frogs, climbing trees and fishing for striped bass.  The Essex River was her home, and most summers were spent on the family boat.  She fell in love with and began riding horses at the age of eight.   Between high school and college, she spent three months in the backwoods of New Zealand with a national outdoor leadership school during which time she backpacked, sea kayaked, and white water canoed all while learning leadership skills. 

When the time came to head to college, she chose Durango, Colorado, and a degree in outdoor education.  During this time her summers were spent in Encampment, Wyoming, a town of approximately 426 people, where she worked as a wrangler at a guest ranch with 120 head of horse.  It is here where she met two other women who shared her love of the wilderness, horses, and adventure.  And it is here where the idea for Women in the Wilderness was born.

While working together at the ranch, Louisa, Caroline Heer, a Los Angeles native and fellow horsewoman, and Katherine Boucher, head wrangler at the ranch and a Vermont-born Wyoming transplant with a degree in animal science, decided that they wanted to challenge themselves with a horse packing trip.  But they wanted the experience to be meaningful, more than just a personal goal.  This missing piece of their journey came in time.  Through their work at the ranch, a situation was revealed to them, one most of us outside of the great American West are unaware of — that of the wild mustang population.

In 1971 the federal government passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act which states that “… wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene”.   The act specified that these animals could not be captured, branded, harassed, or slaughtered. 

In an effort to create and maintain a healthy mustang population, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) established an “Appropriate Management Level” which defined how many horses could live on the range (26.9 million acres of public lands across 10 Western states) without destroying it.  Since the inception of the Act, the BLM has been unable to reach the specified level.  According to the BLM the current estimated on-range wild horse and burro population is 82,384.  The federal government has stated that 26,785 can live on the land sustainably.  It is estimated that by 2030 the wild mustang population will reach one-half million.

Through the lens of biologists, mustangs are destroying the ecosystem and competing with other wild animals for resources.  Mustangs drink up valuable water, causing cattle ranchers to struggle to keep their animals healthy.   Some propose simply leaving the mustang population be.  While others have suggested the use of the contraceptive PZP to be administered with dart guns.  Currently the excess wild horses are rounded up and penned, begging the question — are they truly wild horses if they are kept in captivity?   These gorgeous iconic creatures, brought to the American West by the Spanish, symbolize freedom, strength, and the spirit of the wild, yet in our effort to save and protect them, we find ourselves making them anything but.

And so it is that in October of 2021, Louisa, Caroline, and Katherine set out on a 26-day pack trip through the Red Desert of Wyoming with nine mustangs — four to ride, three to pack, and two extras, all born in the wild.  The intention of the trip was not only to challenge themselves as horsewomen but more so to better understand the mustang controversy.  Their journey would be documented on film with the hope of creating a greater understanding around the mustang’s plight. 

Despite the unforgiving weather, horses who, even when being hobbled, would wander away in the night, and serious difficulty sourcing water, the women successfully made the trip and along the way interviewed ranchers, biologists, cattle ranchers, mustang advocates, and BLM employees.  They also witnessed the largest wild horse roundup in Wyoming history and captured it on film.  Louisa explained, “Our goal was to learn first-hand about the conditions and controversy surrounding the wild mustang herds in that area and to create a documentary to educate the public about wild horses on America’s public lands.” 

These interviews and the journey of the women and their horses is captured in stunning footage of the majestic expanse of Wyoming, the gorgeous toughness of these remarkable women, and wild mustangs who are their guides and companions.  The film attempts to illuminate two benevolent intentions at odds - preserving the great American range and protecting an important and iconic animal.  Louisa says she is still coming to understand what she thinks about this issue, explaining, “Everyone deserves to have a piece of

this land, but it still has to be protected.  If there is no land, there is nothing.” 

The film, financed with $100K secured through a crowdfunding campaign in 2020, plus other grants and sponsorships with an additional $30K for editing in 2023, is currently in post-production. 

Wild mustangs represent freedom, strength, and the American West, but they also represent grit.  It takes grit to do a 26-day pack trip with two women and nine mustangs through a desert; it also takes grit to see a documentary film to completion.  Louisa Behnke has grit.   I believe we may all have the pleasure of seeing Women in the Wilderness on a big screen quite soon.  I also believe that these three women had the courage to set out to discover more about wild mustangs, the spirit of the west — and themselves.  In this sense, they are truly wild.

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