All we can say is, at home he’s brilliant. He’s too brave for his own good.
— Paul Nolan
“He’s a big monster, a big backward sort of lad, and he hasn’t run very often.” Paul Nolan squints a bit, his mouth turned up in something like a smile. He nods, too, as he observes that soon enough, Joncol will start in a Grade One race. They they’ll see “whether he turns out to be the real deal.”
Joncol is a racehorse, large and dark and brawny. And after just a few minutes of watching him in Horses, you see why he’s won over the track professionals who work with him — no matter his lack of experience. Joncol is a gregarious sort and fond of the usual horsey business, rolling in mud and kicking around the paddock. He’s also a serious athlete, with talent and determination and a sense of himself as a winner. “You think he’s proud of himself?” filmmaker Liz Mermin asks his groom following a frankly thrilling victory. “Oh very,” declares Tommy Woods, hosing off his charge, “But in a very kind, nice way.” This horse, he says, “isn’t cocky.”
Joncol is of three equine subjects in this fascinating documentary, premiering as part of the new season of Stranger Than Fiction on 13 April, when Mermin will be on hand to take questions. An opening title card states that all three horses “live and work” at Toberana, a stable in County Wexford, Ireland, along with some 80 other horses, “attended by a team of humans,” led by the Paul Nolan his brother James. The film follows their efforts over a year to win races, more specifically, to live up to the standard set by Accordian Etoile, a gorgeous bay with a white blaze, recently retired with nine wins and earnings of €200,000.
Each of the three equine athletes has his own special talents and personality, and each is brought along differently, according to the animal’s maturity and evolving ability. When things go wrong, when a tendon is strained or a fall taken, Paul plans a particular healing program, sensitive to each horse’s needs, both physical and psychological. He doesn’t worry about minor setbacks, and takes accidents — say, over-jumping” during a race — in stride. “It’s the very same as a football player or something like that,” he philosophizes, “A hat trick one day, substituted after half time the next day.” But even if you can’t anticipate every day’s turn of events, you can be prepared.
Charismatic and compassionate, Paul leads Mermin and her crew on a lively tour of training and traveling routines, from the choice of companions for horses riding in vans (ideally, an experienced, older horse, a calming influence) to the ties for trainers’ public appearances (already knotted and ready to sling quickly around the neck). Thoughtful and funny, Paul’s comfortable with thinking through his next steps on camera. When Joncol needs a little time off — say, when he had a “sinus problem” or the ground feels too hard at a racecourse — Paul is patient and intuitive, making choices with the horse’s long-term career in mind. He, Tommy, and James genuinely like their horses, understand them as individuals. “Don’t be hard on him,” Paul advises the rider for a short and spunky five-year-old, Ardalan. “He’ll give you everything anyway.”
As much as Paul looks after details, so too does the film. Sometimes these are lovely and familiar (mares and foals in sunlight), but more often, surprising and evocative: fuzzy ears twitching, a long forehead pressed against a stall wall, teeth scraping on a door hinge. Tommy watches Ardalan some minutes after he’s tumbled over a jump and galloped across a racecourse riderless, now back at the barn, gazing off across a parking lot. The man reflects, “He’s got his mind on other things… He doesn’t focus at all.” Or the leggy seven-year-old Cuan Na Grai, who’s been at Toberana since he was a yearling, still hasn’t made a name. “He’ll jump into a wall,” sighs Paul, “He’s just a bit stupid that way. He’s a bit of one-flew-over-the-cuckoo’s-nest.” And yet he’s also part of the team, perhaps with potential that just hasn’t yet surfaced.
The film respects the relationships among these partners, men and horses. The camera watches from the dirt as horses gallop by, breathing in rhythm, or a long high angle catches a post-workout group, clomp-clomping across the pavement, their haunches steaming and heads tossing. The sounds of the stable — hoses spraying and brooms swishing — illustrate as James submits that horses are “creatures of habit, they don’t like changes in their routines.” A silhouette bobs in a mechanical walker, as he goes on, “They have busy days, they work hard every day. They’re athletes, that’s what they’re meant to be doing.”
As James shifts on his feet, restless in the frame, Mermin asks if he talks to his horses, say, Etoile, now enjoying long hours in a grassy paddock near James’ own house. He laughs, not so much embarrassed as genuinely happy. “Well, talk to him on good days. He doesn’t talk back. He used to talk back on the race course on his big days, I suppose.” They share their lives, energy, and trust. Horses lets you see why they would.