Dora Leu Reviews “The Herd”

The Herd (2021), dir. Monika Kotecka, Karolina Poryzyała, Poland

A herd of their own: Monika Kotecka and Karolina Poryzya acquaint us with the sisterhood of a horse-vaulting team

“The vaulting family comes before everything,” says one member of Poland’s only equestrian vaulting club, a niche sport that brings young girls together in a moving documentary from Monika Kotecka and Karolina Poryzyała. At the centre of The Herd lies not the spectacle of acrobatics, but the family-like structure that forms in the face of life’s hardships – a sisterhood driven by the ardent desire of constantly bettering yourself.

Kotecka and Poryzyała craft a great piece of observational cinema, letting reality reveal itself before the camera and the young acrobats speak for themselves as they train together. Life is dedramatised, the film allowing for intimate glimpses of the mundane, including life in the dorm they share during their training camps. Unbothered, they braid each other’s hair, they gossip about boys and they cry in each other’s arms when things get tough – only to turn into serious and competitive young athletes on the training ground. They are all so dependent on each other that should one of them be missing – as often happens due to frequent accidents and injuries – the entire team takes a hit.

Matching them in spirit, the girls’ trainer shines as the epitome of dedication. The two directors manage to capture a certain duality: she is both a stern perfectionist and a caring mother to all of the girls, mindful of other hardships in their lives outside of vaulting. Kotecka and Poryzyała don’t make her a main character in the story – the group functions as a whole and attention is distributed equally – but we see she often has to bring her own children to the job. The trainer seems to make the point about how very often where there is a lot of idealism, personal and professional life inevitably overlap.

Despite the showy, sparkly costumes and the dancing, Kotecka and Poryzyała’s take on vaulting is not as concerned with projected personas or with the flashiness of carefully planned routines. Instead, The Herd focuses on the vulnerabilities of the body and soul, on limitations and weaknesses that the young vaulters can overcome only through each other. What also binds the girls is their love and care for the horses, their other essential teammates. Shots of nature around the training centre and of the girls slowly brushing the horses makes for subtle and simple, yet impactful images of a serene relationship between man and animal.

The beauty of a documentary like Kotecka and Poryzyała’s is that it reminds us that real life is unscripted and often not glamorous. It is a game of waiting and wishful thinking and rarely of great triumphs. What seems to matter most in The Herd is not whether you win – success is short-lived and life is unpredictable – but the process you go through and the friends you make along the way. 

Dora Leu
Edited by Amber Wilkinson