The Equus Film Festival is best defined by passion.

Whether a film is about reining, racing, or hunting for the origins of America’s wild horses, dedication, love, devotion, and perhaps even a little bit of obsession echoes across the screen with every hoofbeat in the Wrigley Media Group theaters at Kentucky Horse Park.

With 14 films, two panels, and several shorts to choose from, it was hard to narrow down which of Friday’s events to highlight, yet there were a few that stood out.  

One was a film by Dafna Yachin, called The Great Flip-Off. The screening was the film’s encore presentation at the Equus Film Festival, and its cheeky title told the audience that this was going to be a story of irreverence, uncertainty, and fun. While it was all of those things, it was also an elegy on horseback. The Great Flip-Off was a one-day event in 2006 were more than 20 of the great bareback riders of the United States, came together for one last performance. 

A bareback rider is a circus performer who does tricks standing up on the back of a cantering horse. Due to the upheavals from animal rights groups and a growing disinterest in circuses by the general public, there are fewer and fewer bareback riders every year. This film showcases the sad dwindling of the art form, and the group of colorful misfits and their horses seemingly made for the spotlight. 

Another band of underdogs in the spotlight at this year’s festival is the Mustang breed.

There are seven events or features with the word “mustang” in the title alone throughout the four day event, including films about Mustangs and Veterans, the ecology of mustangs, the Spanish heritage of the breed. Along with two real-life and exemplary Mustangs, Aramis and Argentina, who were braided up to greet guests as they arrived to watch the films. 

Friday featured a panel called “America’s Wild Mustangs presented by the Mustang Heritage Foundation” in which panelists discussed some of the challenges facing the breed today.

Patti Gruber, of Operation Wild Horse, believes “The Mustang has a perception problem” and went on to detail how her Mustang competed and often beat six-figure horses in the dressage ring, despite the fact that she often felt unwelcome at dressage events.

David Glossberg, the director of Mustang Saviors, which premiered at the Equus film festival, also chimed in about the influence of the wild horses and what they can teach us. “The Mustang lives in the moment, and if we can live in the moment, perhaps, we can take better care of the land,” he opined. 

The day finished with a shift across the Pond to an Irish movie called Finne Paddy Merrigan. Paddy Merrigan became a star jockey when he was just a teenager, but the up and down life of someone who works with racehorses and an undertreated mental illness left him in tatters only a few years later. This film, which is partly in Gaelic, is a tale of recovery and features a stunning opening sequence and a poetry that will make you walk a little taller by the time the credits role. 

For Paddy Merrigan, and for the other films today, a passion for horses was the thing that pushed people forward to defy the odds and do great things. Now onto see what Saturday has in-store.