“The hardest thing about horse training is that you never really arrive, you never really attain mastery. Even though you put the hours in and you should be, there’s always the cow and the horse, the judging and the ground — there’s so many variables.” — Sandy Collier, Hall of Fame Horsewoman
These words sum up the central struggle of the documentary “Down The Fence,” which explores the human-animal connection that exists in the eroding and evolving world of cowboys. From it’s quietly powerful opening scenes to the riders’ quest for success in the reined cow horse arena, the film channels an authentic look at a sport that many people are unlikely to be familiar with.
It’s not enough in the Western world to be a cowboy or cowgirl; those featured in the film are true horsemen or horsewomen, both training the animal and competing with it. Herd work and rein work are vital portions of reined cow horse competitions, but it’s the fence work, during which a trainer shows how well a cow can be controlled in any situation and along the fence that truly separates the skill levels. It’s also the most dangerous aspect of the competition.
“Down The Fence” follows both veteran trainers, such as 70-something-year-old Doug Williamson, a legend in the field, and younger trainers, such Kelby Phillips and Erin Taormino, who are angling to carve out a living in the industry. But the film goes deep to get many perspectives on the industry, one that is now more often centered on sport rather than traditional cowboying. It does well to explain the events, the scoring, and how cowboy culture has evolved over time — a refinement of the vaquero-style horsemanship that dates back to the first Spanish missions in California.
Important to these trainers, too, is the camaraderie. “Your friends in the horse business are your friends for life,” one trainer says. They are keenly aware that their lifestyle is dying out, and the competitions that culminate in Reno, Nevada, are a way to keep alive the skills and the strength that being a rider and trainer demand. Even moreso, the common thread across generations is to continue to shape horses into greatness. The documentary celebrates this endeavor. The filmography is stunning, mixing in the high-action of competition with slow-motion “hero shots” that add grandeur to how these riders are perceived.
The film came out in 2017 and has been shown in screenings around the country since then. Directed by MJ Isakson, who herself has a deep connection to the equestrian industry, “Down The Fence” was a work several years in the making. The documentary has been well received, earning accolades at more than half a dozen festivals and scoring an 8.3/10 from viewers on IMDB.
It’s an engrossing movie, one that may take some time for you to sort out the many names and faces in it but which also has you wanting to see all trainers succeed. It’s refreshing to see everyone as heroes, with the “villain” here being each individual’s own perceived limitations.
Particularly if you’re a horse person, you’ll understand how deeply people bond with their horses, how emotional it can be to share their growth, and how exciting it can be to see them perform. There are moments of worry and moments of wonder, and “Down The Fence” captures everything that you’d want to see passed on about cowboying.