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Friday Flicks: ‘Martin Clunes: Heavy Horsepower’

A British documentary about working horses.

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The film begins with Martin introducing his two Clydesdale two-year-olds named Ronnie and Bruce. Martin describes them as “teenagers bored and in need of a job.” That becomes apparent when Bruce decides the camera equipment needs investigating.

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Martin: “Bruce, why?!? Why wallop it?”

Bruce and Ronnie are then hauled to “hoof camp” to learn how to drive and perform farm tasks such as harrowing. The trainer, Robert Sampson, explains briefly what Ronnie and Bruce will learn, but emphasizes that Martin will need to learn just as much. Along with weekly training sessions, Martin becomes determined to learn everything he can about working horses wherever he can including New Orleans, Scotland, Belgium and Italy.

In Scotland, he helps prepare horses for competition, learning that many “superficial” features like feathers have very practical applications. He also meets Ronnie and Bruce’s sire.

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From there, he heads to America to meet the Budweiser Clydesdales. The original team of six was given to Mr. Busch as a gift to celebrate the repeal of prohibition in 1933. Martin works with the Budweiser team, preparing eight for a parade in New Orleans. The company breeds and owns 250+ Clydesdales, but only a precious few make it to “the hitch,” based on very specific physical and mental criterion.

In Belgium, Martin discovers the Brabant breed that has been used for shrimp trawling since the 1960’s. The practice dates back much further, but smaller nets of the past didn’t require the heavy breed.

Martin: “You needed more power!”

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In Northern France, Martin attends a pulling competition. His team, powered by Suffolk Punch horses, places a respectable fourth.

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Back at home, Ronnie and Bruce have been paired with a well-trained stallion named Axel. When Ronnie is faced with his first pond, he says, “No,” but Axel says, “Go!” The stallion proves a formidable partner for the green horses, pushing and pulling them just enough to let them know the rules.

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Next, Martin visits a Czech logging team — which probably would have been fascinating if the film had English subtitles — and an Italian winery where the Comtois breed is utilized.

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Then Martin visits the Household Cavalry of the British Army where he watches a young horse being trained to be a “drummer.” These horses are actually controlled by foot reins, a rein attached to each stirrup. The drum horses, after two years of intense training, are given the honorary rank of Major.

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Back in America, Martin visits the Schmucker Belgians. This Amish operation has used all Belgian mares since 1959 to do every kind of farm work possible.

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Back at his home farm, Ronnie and Bruce have returned from their two-month long “hoof camp.” Both horses — and Martin — go for their first solo ride when their trainer jumps off the cart in the middle of the lesson.

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This documentary surprised me in that it was full of information I’ve never heard before. The host, Martin Clunes, was extremely likable for his genuine enthusiasm about horses and learning in general. The film and sound quality was excellent, though, as previously mentioned, the Czech portion did not include an English translation or even subtitles.

I give Heavy Horsepower, available on Netflix, 3 1/2 Golden Horseshoes.

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Go Riding.

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