Filipe Leite was prone to fright as a child — always jumping at shadows, fearing the boogeyman. His family had emigrated from Brazil to Calgary, Canada, and the displacement (coupled with ongoing immigration issues) cause real anxiety for the little boy. He found some comfort with his family’s horses. They’re an equestrian-centric family; Leite claims to have ridden horseback before he could walk. The terrifying night that defined him, though, was the one where his father brought him a book: Tschiffely’s Ride, the 1933 travelogue of A.F. Tschiffely, who famously rode on horseback from Argentina to Washington, D.C. Tschiffley was a long rider, which is exactly what it sounds like — someone who takes long, challenging rides on horseback. Some ride across their country; some tackle continents. Leite’s experience reading the book, coupled with his love of horses, ignited in him a lifelong dream: to ride from Calgary back to his family’s home in Brazil.
That’s about 8,000 miles of often rough terrain, unpredictable weather and conflicting political bureaucracies across a half-dozen different countries. For the health of his horses, Leite’s max speed tops out at 3 kilometers an hour, 30 kilometers a day. At that rate, it’s a two-year journey, camping or finding good samaritans along the way. Most of the time, Leite is alone with his thoughts. It takes a unique person to undertake such a journey and an equally unique film to capture the ups and downs of such a journey in an uncompromising way. There are many documentaries about incredible feats of endurance, and The Long Rider is one of the best I’ve seen — perfectly paced, meticulously detailed and humble to the core.
Nobody just gets on a horse and leaves town for two years without knowing precisely what they’re doing. Riding is just the start. A rider needs training on how to properly pack a horse, on how to care for them in the middle of nowhere. It’s expensive, it’s time-consuming, it’s a ritual that has to be learned before any possible progress into the unknown. Credit to Leite and director Sean Cisterna for emphasizing the importance of expertise and knowledge before getting into the ride itself.
Once he’s on the road, Leite’s story follows a fairly traditional pattern for travel stories. He meets new people, both friendly and not. He finds new obstacles and overcomes them, one way or another. There are harrowing moments with him and his horses traversing Montana during a drought. In the most intense sequence of the film, one of his horses falls into a hole, and he has to help it climb out and avoid further injury. Along the way, Leite is occasionally joined by his girlfriend, a parent or simply another rider, although by and large, he’s alone with his horses. The camera footage he shoots on his journey really conveys how close he became to his equine companions.
The Long Rider actually opens with footage of Leite arriving in Brazil. The tension is never over whether he’ll succeed but rather what he faces along the way. It’s a smart editorial choice that allows the film to find drama in the stories he tells without constantly invoking the specter of complete failure. Additionally, it doesn’t start at the end of the story as a whole: There is an epilogue that is equal parts gutting and uplifting that speaks frankly about the effect a two-year solo journey has on a man.
Look, there are plenty of endurance-sport documentaries about men or women embracing challenges to find themselves. To find purpose. It’s a fascinating sub-genre. The Long Rider sits apart from them thanks to its incredibly intimate, personal touch. There’s very little time spent on Leite waxing poetic about larger ideas but a lot of focus on the way he changes as a person over the journey. His connection to his horses, the development of his faith, his cycle of desperation and salvation. There’s a real sense of traveling the journey with him. By the end, it’s easier to understand how someone who once feared so much could find their strength in doing the impossible.