May 7, 2015

A Simple Animal, A Complex Problem and An Epic Journey

Unbranded started with cheap tequila, greasy enchiladas and a college buddy who wanted more than a degree, internship, 401k and home in the suburbs. We decided to skip a semester, gather a string of horses and ride 2,000 miles of the Continental Divide Trail for four months through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. We were broke at the time and adopted $125 of wild mustangs from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to use for the trip.

The adventure was incredible: the fly-fishing absurd, the adrenaline addicting and the lifestyle beautifully simple. I found a greater appreciation for the natural world and conservation efforts. I was also impressed with the mustangs and looked into the controversy surrounding them.

I discovered a simple animal in a complex problem. The BLM established appropriate management levels for wild horses to protect rangelands from overgrazing. When populations exceed that level, excess horses are gathered via helicopter and offered for adoption. Almost 50,000 wild horses and burros are in holding pens and pasture, costing taxpayers $43 million annually. The BLM spends most of its money feeding unwanted horses in pens, rather than managing them on the range. Considering livestock, wildlife and native vegetation, the appropriate management level for wild horses and burros on the range is 26,000. The current population: 50,000.

As the West becomes an increasingly difficult place for indigenous species to thrive because of development, drought and human impact, the culturally important but non-native overpopulated wild horse herds pose an ecological risk to delicate ecosystems. I wanted to do something about it: inspire mustang adoptions and bring attention to their plight.

I decided to take another journey, this time using all mustangs and traveling from Mexico to Canada through the deepest backcountry of the American West. I gathered a team of riders — Ben Thamer, Jonny Fitzsimons, and Thomas Glover — met adventure cinematographer Phill Baribeau and launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $170,000. Cindy Meehl, Dennis Aig and Scott Chestnut rounded out the film team.

From April 1 to Sept. 6, 2013, we traveled 3,000 miles using 16 BLM mustangs through almost entirely public lands in Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. The trip was actually more badass in real life than you can imagine. We saw some of the most pristine country on the planet, fly-fished from the backs of our horses, drank ’til we passed out, loved each other, hated each other and had the times of our lives. The mustangs transformed from nemeses to teammates to trusted friends.

During the ride, I didn’t see any of the footage and I later tried to avoid the edit room as much as possible. Instead, I focused on writing the Unbranded book with Texas A&M University Press. I finished the book around the same time the first rough cut of the film came into existence. I’d poured three years of my life and all of my money into making the documentary possible, so watching the first rough cut was nerve wracking. I laughed. I cried. And I broke down and lost it before the movie was even finished. Unbranded far exceeded my wildest expectations, and I’m incredibly grateful for the wonderful team of people who enabled my vision to come to life.

Every day, someone reaches out to say that our journey has inspired them to go on an adventure, adopt a mustang or think twice about our role as stewards of the land. Those words make all the effort worth it.

It’s an honor to have our U.S. premiere at Telluride Mountainfilm. A better venue, more appropriate location and more exceptional audience doesn’t exist.

Ben Masters

Learn more about Unbranded.

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