CASE STUDY: 02 Horses – Feature Documentary

  • Feature Documentary
  • Running Time : 87 mins
  • Horses was released at London’s ICA, shown on BBC Four  / Storyville and is out on DVD in the UK & Ireland.
  • Shortlisted for Best Cinema Documentary – Grierson Documentary Awards
  • Nominated in the Special Jury Awards – Sheffield Documentary Festival
  • World Showcase – Hot Docs Film Festival
  • BBC Storyville/RTE/West Park Pictures.
  • Writer & Director : Liz Mermin
  • Producer: Aisling Ahmed
  • Editor: Bert Hunger
  • Executive Producers :Nick Fraser, Alan Maher,  James Mitchell & Andre Singer
  • Production Company : West Park Pictures/DCD Media

Concept Summary

Ireland’s horse-racing culture has produced some of the finest athletes in the world, and this film draws us into the lives of three of them over the course of a difficult racing year — focusing not on jockeys or trainers, but on the horses themselves. The protagonists prove less reticent than one might imagine, and as we watch them train, rest, play, and race, distinct characters undeniably emerge. They are framed by a charismatic collection of human supporting actors, from their good-looking foul-mouthed trainer to an elderly groom who obviously prefers horses to people, but ultimately they command our attention on their own. Without ever straying into Disney territory, and eschewing sentimentality, Horses raises basic questions about what constitutes character and who can have it.

It asks – how does the world look from the perspective of a race horse ? Based in a stable in Southeast Ireland, HORSES follows three equine protagonists as they prepare for the National Hunt races: grueling trials in which a dozen or so thoroughbreds gallop in a tight pack around 2-5 mile grass courses, leaping (or trying to leap) over obstacles of 41/2 feet or more. Will they win or lose? Do they care? Why do they do it? What happens if they fail? Trainers, grooms and an equine masseur help us explore the distinct personalities of three professional histories.


“ A sparse but rhythmic electro score by James Burrell somehow evokes an equine viewpoint” – Variety

“ A remarkably odd score that actually sounds like a horse’s idea of music” **** View London

“This remarkable documentary might offer the most searching portrait of equine personality since George Stubbs” **** The Independent

“Intensely strange and fascinating ; resonant music cues” The Artsdesk

“A pleasure to watch” *** The Guardian

Surprising and Evocative – Pop Matters

Featured on The Guardian’s Film Weekly Podcast

Feature in Real Screen

Feature on Production Focus

TV Pick of the Day in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph. The Times, The Evening Standard & Time Out

Creative Story

The score creates music by manipulating location sound recording to reflect the inner life of race horses.

The director Liz Mermin’s idea was to show what life is like for three racehorses in a neutral manner without resorting to a sentimental anthropomorphic take on animals. She wanted to explore the strange existence we have developed for race horses, not to argue any cruelty within it, but simply reveal its oddities – the bond between the trainers and horses, the balance between these very controlled environments in the training yard and the hyper stimulation of the race course.

So how do we help this musically? Liz’s brief was that she didn’t want any music, or rather she did not want the music to be music…. She didn’t want anything that would be perceived as music with readily identifiable instruments. She also wanted to cut through any preconceived idea of the “natural” as signified by lush strings, folky acoustic guitars or mandolins for example. More adventurously she wanted the music to directly reflect what might be going on in a horses brain, in its nervous system as it navigates this strange life with its intense contrasts. The score had to have enough space to blend with the other elements of the mix – location recording, dialogue, horses noises, so that we could create a collage of sound.

I chose to generate music directly from the horses world. So I asked for copies of all the sound recordings from the stable yard, journeys to the race, and the races themselves. Stable yard doors being shut and bolted, the whir of the walking machine, horses breathing through the nose, eating, hooves on ground , the noise of the road coming through the horse box, the noise of the racecourse, helicopters going overhead,the trainers speaking to the horses, the roar of the crowds

I went through the sound files and found little moments and patterns, equivalent to percussive hit, or musical notes or textures that I could then arrange almost like a mini orchestra. I built up these phrases to function almost like a melody might, while some provided a rhythmic foundation. I then processed these phrases through effects, distortion , delays, echoes, reversing them, stretching them over time, cutting them up and interrupting them. I would take the patterns in these sequences and turn them into musical notation then play them on synthesised instruments I’d design to create a kind of non-music music. Everything came from either the horses themselves or the environment that they were hearing.

Here are some examples of the micro loops that I created from the location recording:
(Horse Loops 1, 2, 3, 7)

This in turn enabled me to construct cues such as this one to accompany the adrenalised build up to a race.
(Tense Loop Slow)

Here are some clips to show where the director Liz and I ended up.

Yard Montage

The opening scene of the film. It immediately shows that we are not in a traditional fetishisation of the animal world. It also accentuates the audio environment in which the horses live, the mechanical aspect not this environment and significance of routine in their lives.

Ardalan Wash Down

This cue aims to mirror the horse’s post race adrenalised state – every movement is a kind of signal against its nervous system. It was created by improvising against the picture with layers of sound effects processing . The aim was to achieve a detailed sync relationship that was spontaneous and true to life. Using the resources of machinery but utterly unmachine like.

Ardalan Runs Free

The final scene of the film where Ardalan twos his rider to achieve a brief moment of freedom. We aim here for a neutral electronic sound. The emotion is very controlled, a kind of undertow. There is no grand release or swell but rather an indication that the freedom the horse achieves in throwing its rider is limited.

Here is the reel with multiple clips.

It is hugely exciting when a director invites me to explore with them the true potential of the relationship between sound & image, the fertile crossover between music & sound, the alchemy of it all.

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