Four Texan Cowboys Ride Wild Mustangs from Mexico to Canada in 'Unbranded'

Posted by Mateja Lane
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All images via Unbranded

The documentary "Unbranded" follows four friends on an epic journey to ultimately bring attention to the plight of wild horses. 

Ben Masters, Thomas Glover, Ben Thamer, and Jonny Fitzsimons are four crazy cowboys who take the epic ride from the border of Mexico up to Canada on wild mustangs in the 2015 documentary "Unbranded."

The four went to Texas A&M together and after graduating, Ben Masters suggested that they take some time off to ride from Mexico to Canada on wild mustangs adopted from holding facilities, like any newly-graduated Texan cowboy.

Masters had previously ridden 2,000 miles along the Continental Divide on adopted mustangs from the Bureau of Land Management. He realized just how dire the situation surrounding the 50,000 wild horses and burros was as the animals were spending their lives in holding facilities.

He came up with the idea to film a documentary to bring attention to the controversial and complicated issue of wild horses in the West and asked his three friends to join him on the 3,000-mile journey.

The film begins with a quote by Gus McCrae that sets the tone of the movie perfectly:

"Ain't nothing better than ridin' a fine horse into a new country."

The opening scene in the film shows a horse getting caught in some nasty cacti and one of the boys getting kicked in the face when trying to get the spikes out of the horse's lip. You immediately know this won't be an easy trip for these guys.

The rest of the movie follows the boys along the most beautiful scenes our country has to offer. The cinematography is really well-done and like Masters says at the end: "That goal of reaching the Canadian line isn't as powerful as the impact of going through this land has made on me."

The boys had some wonderful help from Val Geissle, an old "cowboy poet, horse trainer, Unbranded mentor and support crew." Geissle and his wife are caretakers of a Forest Service cabin in Yellowstone and Geissle helped the boys on their journey by bringing trained mustangs for the guys to ride, finding good camping spots, and bringing them water.

Geissle lost his four-year-old son when he got kicked in the head by a horse. In a touching scene in the documentary, Geissle tears up as he imagines his own son in the four boys he so lovingly takes care of.

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Geissle has a wonderful quote in the movie that describes the boys' journey as a learning experience:

"Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.  And sometimes that bad judgement can be pretty horrific!"

And the boys' judgment is tried and tested throughout the film as they move through the often dangerous terrain.

The juxtaposition of humans crossing the wild parts of America is seen throughout the film. From not being able to cross through private ranches to airplanes making trails over wide swaths of land to trail motorbikers scaring off their horses, the boys realize the impact humans have had on the natural parts of our land.

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 This impact is especially seen on the wild horse populations in the Western part of the United States. Masters, Glover, Thamer, and Fitzsimons ride through Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana - all states where the current 50,000 wild horses and burros roam.

As the boys ride through the land, they learn about the convoluted and complicated issue that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) faces with wild horse and burro populations. The range can't sustain the herds as they are now, and between the cattle ranchers needing the land for their cows to graze on and horses starving due to lack of resources, the situation can only be described as dire. The wild horses are then rounded up and placed in holding facilities until they are adopted.

Ben Masters puts it succinctly when he says:

"I feel like we have a lot in common with these horses. Not enough room out there for them and sometimes I feel like...there's not enough room out there for us."

It costs the BLM $43 million a year to manage the holding facilities and the mustang adoption rate has been decreasing annually; less than 3,000 horses were adopted last year. Meanwhile, the wild horse herds are still reproducing, approaching overpopulation, even as animal advocates are fighting to make the mustang an endangered species.

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The documentary does an incredible job at interviewing experts from both sides of the issue as they work together to decide the complicated future of American wild horses. The film also elucidates the importance of keeping the wild parts of our country public and protected.

As you follow the riders through the Grand Canyon, through fires in the Montana backcountry, and watch them bicker about misreading maps, you really fall in love with these Texan cowboys, wild horses, and our beautiful country.

The documentary won the Audience Award at Telluride Mountainfilm festival and the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto, was the finalist at the Jackson Hole Film Festival, and was the official selection at the Banff Mountain Film Festival.

You can watch it on Netflix, rent it on iTunes, or buy it here.

Have you seen this documentary? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

 All images via Unbranded

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Four Texan Cowboys Ride Wild Mustangs from Mexico to Canada in 'Unbranded'