I’ve spent a lot of time traversing the freeways of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and South Dakota recently. From Pueblo on up to Rapid City, my wife and I have hit the road exploring our surroundings and discovering small towns. Naturally, my mind turns to movies in these moments, pulling on images and information long dormant that suddenly seems relevant.
Memories Unbranded, a documentary following a 3,000-mile trek from Mexico to Canada with 16 wild horses in tow, flooded my mind, as did my interview with the movie’s main subject, Ben Masters. When I exclaimed, You’re a real cowboy; he drawled: Well, I don’t know about that. I don’t really work with cows. And, so, I learned that if you work with cows, you’re a cowboy. If you don’t, you’re not. From Boulder Weekly, Vol. 23, No. 12, “Border-to-border.”
No one’s gonna top this, in our posterity, I don’t think. Maybe, but I doubt it,” Ben Thamer tells the video camera in the new documentary, Unbranded. “You can run a marathon, you can hike across the Great Wall, you can do a lot of things, but you can’t do this. This is for crazy people, really.”
In 2013, Ben Masters led fellow Texas A&M graduates—Thomas Glover, Jonny Fitzsimons, and Thamer—along with 16 wild mustangs and a documentary crew on a five-month ride from the American-Mexican border in Arizona, through Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and finally to the American-Canadian border. Three thousand miles up America’s spine with 16 wild horses. Crazy people indeed.
But a journey of 3,000 miles starts with a single thought, and in the case of this border-to-border ride, Masters conceived of it while on another ride.
“I did a similar journey in 2010, 2,000 miles along the Continental Divide,” Masters tells Boulder Weekly. “That was the inspiration [for Unbranded].”
On the Continental Divide, Masters and his crew lacked the funds to purchase quarter horses for their string—horses bred for sprinting and used for ranching work—so they adopted $125 worth of mustangs from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Much to Master’s surprise, the mustangs outperformed the domesticated horses and prompted Masters to dig a little deeper and learn about these wild horses. What Masters found was unfortunate: the 50,000 wild horses and burros were more accurately unwanted, roaming freely in government-leased pens and pastures awaiting adoption.
Masters wanted to do something about it. He felt that a ride would prove the worth of these animals and, hopefully, raise awareness. Masters invited a small documentary crew—led by director Phillip Baribeau—along with to capture the ride. The result was Unbranded, which won the audience award at this year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival.
Full of sweeping vistas as picturesque as a Thomas Kinkaid print, Unbranded follows Masters and company as they forge their trail through the American West, one that Masters had to piece together over two years.
“There is so much private land everywhere; we had no choice but to use GPS and maps and state-of-the-art technology to do the trip legally,” Masters says.
In one scene, Masters comes to a gate where the owner refuses the riders’ permission to cross on his land. As Masters points out to the camera, the owner owns an idyllic valley that would be incredibly easy to cross. But, since they cannot, they must climb the cliffs shaping the valley and use that as their trail.
Private land is one of the issues that Unbranded calls attention to. Wild mustangs present a problem for the American West, as they continue to run wild in pastures that cannot support them, while public interest is waning. The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act of 1971 protect the animals, but the population has increased at a staggering rate, multiplying by 20 percent annually and doubling every four years. The once open frontier, now parcelled and divided, is no longer an adequate space for the horses.
Ranchers see these horses as causing irreparable damage to their land, which doesn’t just impact the American rancher’s pocketbook, but their animals’ health, as well as the free animals’ health. On the other hand, activists claim that the BLM is using these arguments as leverage to eradicate or capture wild horses and make room for livestock grazing. Baribeau presents both sides of the arguments civilly and wisely peppers Unbranded with expert interviews to provide the background information that makes Masters’ ride important.
Activists and ranchers alike share the prevailing sentiment distilled by Masters’ ride: Americans can no longer ignore the issue. All too frequently, nature is seen as something that works in checks and balances, and, if left to its own devices, Mother Nature will eventually even things out. Maybe in theory, but no longer in practice. Humanity’s impact on the planet is too great just to let things go back to normal. Every road, every train track, every fence, every building takes from the animal kingdom and creates a barrier that halts migration.
This topic was recently explored in the Colorado-produced documentary Hanna Ranch, which comes to the same conclusion as Unbranded—we cannot simply sit back and hope for nature to take its course. We must get involved; we must engage if we hope to correct the situation and save what we have left.
That is what Masters hopes the documentary will inspire.
“[Unbranded is] very successful for raising awareness for the mustang, but also inspiring adoption,” Masters tells BW. “We had dozens of organizations [use] the screening of the film to raise money for their wild horse adoption, for their sanctuary. And we’ve also had, I don’t know, maybe 100 people that we know about that have directly adopted wild horses because they watched our movie.
“That’s the most satisfying thing for me,” Masters continues. “Seeing our film actually make a quantifiable difference.”
Seeing that difference has also spurred Masters on a new career, one as a filmmaker and storyteller, and Masters is currently producing short videos for National Geographic’s website.
“I’ve seen the power of documentary. And storytelling. It’s a powerful thing,” Masters says. “With Unbranded, I’ve seen what it’s done for the wild horses, and educating a lot of people about an issue. I want to replicate that with other stories that are important.”
Documentary filmmaking and storytelling are powerful tools to raise awareness, but Masters’ journeys speak to a deeper nature—the unbridled nature of the American West. Like a modern-day Davy Crockett in search of a new frontier, Masters identifies his and his fellow riders’ connection with the wild mustang: “I feel like we have a lot in common with these horses. There’s not enough room out there for them. And, sometimes, I feel like there’s not enough room out there for us.”