Horse News

Unabashed propaganda film: Unbranded

The film Unbranded, in part sponsored by BLM partner Mustang Heritage Foundation, uses the term “excess” to describe the wild horse population, when we know there are NO EXCESS wild horses or burros.  The film even features Gus Warr, the BLM Utah Wild Horse & Burro Lead, asking “What do we do with the excess wild horses that we have to remove?”

Well, Gus, the BLM doesn’t have to remove the wild horses.  The BLM can, and should, remove livestock, instead.  The truth is, most of the remaining herds of wild horses & burros don’t even have viable numbers.

In Unbranded, 4 young Texas A & M grads, including producer Ben Masters, live out a “frontier” fantasy by riding 16 wild horses adopted from the BLM, across 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada, through the “wildest terrain in the west.” One trailer stated they went 20 miles between water sources.  The trails were described as nasty and steep, and they were obviously in snow for part of their trip.

The Unbranded website even states that one horse named Violent “could’ve easily died in a preventable halter-related injury that took him out of the trip.”   Another horse named Cricket supposedly “passed away from natural causes during the trip.”

The most accurate review I’ve read of this film was written by Shari Montana, Founder of the River Pines Horse Sanctuary in Missoula, Montana, so I’m posting it below.  Thanks for taking the time to write this, Shari.  –  Debbie

UNBRANDED – a review

Unbranded is the latest, shameless cowboy documentary of a self-orchestrated, but failed, coming-of-age story. It was made under the guise of promoting conservation of public lands (except for grazing beef cattle on publicly-held lands, subsidized at pennies /day on the financial backs of the unknowing citizens of the United States of America).

The film appears to be sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, as their point of view is heavily weighted (they also just happen to manage those cattle-grazing leases). This film turns out to be a not-so-subtle campaign against Wild Mustangs, our oldest known indigenous, North American large mammal species, while lobbying for the beef industry’s subsidized use of public land.  Wild Mustangs are now endangered due to inhumane and inappropriate BLM Wild Mustang “management practices”.

Unbranded was shown and, disappointingly, won Best of Festival, at our local film festival whose intention is stated below in their mission statement cut and pasted from the EIFF website. The EQUUS International Film Festival® returns to Missoula, Montana September 18, 2015.
The first all-equine international film festival and conference features films, television programs, Internet videos, music videos and other media that celebrate the equine arena. Our mission — education and understanding to enhance the equine/human bond and to improve the welfare of equines through excellence in film, television and other media.

A noble intention indeed! Throughout my review of this film, I give examples of the uncaring, ego-based decision-making regarding the 16 mustangs used in the film, while I honor the intention behind EIFF’s mission and deeply respect the festival organizers, Unbranded was anything but representative of their mission!

Instead of a film enhancing the equine human bond and improving the welfare of horses, Unbranded turns out to be a continuation of the cruel, inhumane, inconsiderate horse-breaking techniques long-abandoned by most contemporary horse lovers and horse advocates.
The horsemanship, training practices, decision-making and care of the Mustangs in this documentary are practices left over from the darkest ages of American cowboy “breaking” techniques and the continued abuse of horses as commodities rather than the sentient beings they are. A variety of kinder, gentle horsemanship training techniques have been developed and practiced by those who truly care for the welfare of horses for nearly 50 years – do the terms “natural horsemanship or horse whispering” sound familiar to anyone?

In the planning of this extraordinary 3000-mile trek from Mexico to Canada, the boys state they had a strict budget so they needed cheap horses and decided to go with captured mustangs, rounded up and held in pens for possible, eventual adoption by the BLM.  They then chose 16 horses for their journey and then sent them to “trainers” for their first 90 days of breaking.

On the first day of the trip, the four 22-23 year-old boys become lost and instead of stopping at a pre-determined 25-mile mark for the sake of the horses they’re riding, they continue to ride forty miles until after 2 a.m.  These boys comment on how exhausted they are but show no concern for their horses, those poor, tired mustangs actually doing all the work!  It appeared that no additional rest was set aside to compensate to the horses due for the lack of mapping competencies.

The first major horse injury occurs when one of the pack horses becomes distressed, escapes and runs hysterically through vicious “jumping” cactus, a variety of cactus with barbed spines that attach themselves like porcupine quills. The horse becomes covered in the cactus and it took them 4 days to remove them all.

In Unbranded, one horse dies tragically and others are injured due to the ongoing bad decision-making and poor planning of these boys.  The horses are left to their own devices on and off throughout the film.  The next injury shared with the audience happens to a horse as it panics and tries to jump a barbed wire fence, its hind legs becoming entangled in the wire, it struggles, pulls and eventually breaks free while the boys cringe and watch it struggle, in the end with an “oh well” remark.  No information was shared with the audience regarding the ensuing injuries that occurred from that wrestling match between horse and barbed wire fencing, which usually causes severe lacerations, and often, permanent injuries.

Several weeks into their journey, under the direction of the boys, all the horses struggle to climb a sheer rock cliff face and one of the horses actually tumbles and rolls down over and over itself as it struggles, exhausted, to follow and obey the lead of the cowboys in charge – definitely not an example of caring for the welfare of the horses – but rather consideration again, only for time constraints and yet another example of their poor mapping and planning.  Instead of altering their course, they push on regardless of the difficult terrain or welfare of the horses. We’re told in the film that the horse that tumbled “appeared” to be all right. I know from taking a few tumbles myself over the years that bruises, scrapes, concussions and worse often result from a fall of that nature.  I believe the same would be true for a 1000-pound horse carrying a full pack. Granted, about half of the 16 original horses actually complete the trek, though in the end, they all looked dispirited, spent and bone-weary!

The actual filming of Unbranded was magical as backcountry America is stunningly beautiful! There were only occasional moments of affection shown by some of the boys for the horses. A burro whose mysterious, unexplained appearance part way through the journey provided occasional humor interspersed randomly, and there was a bit of sentimentality offered up through a tenderhearted elderly cowboy. He watches over the boys and horses for much of the trip.  He helps the boys with decision making over injured horses, hauling them out for vet care and rest.  He meets them with food and supplies off and on throughout their journey. He has several emotional displays of affection including tears, when he has to leave them as they set off for another segment of travel through more roadless terrain.  His concern appeared real and was deeply moving.
Without the adorable burro and the sentimental old man, this documentary would have been nothing but a cold, uninspiring, unfulfilling 3000-mile test of endurance for both horses and boys, yet another example of the vicious consequences for horses that exemplifies their historical and abusive interaction with humans.

In addition, the angry exchanges between the boys including abandoned friendships and spent horses make this movie one of the worst examples of the equine-human bond or of the caring and welfare of horses ever!

Only the artistry of the camera operator and the film’s editor provide any redeeming qualities for horse advocates, horse lovers or anyone who commits to sitting through the disastrous and distressing treatment of these magnificent horses. It was heart wrenching and painful!
The cruel, inconsiderate and inhumane use of these beautiful Mustangs for this ego-centered and failed coming-of-age film once again is but another example of how humans have disregarded the welfare of horses to benefit our own selfish agendas, pocketbooks and egos!
The hype and excitement around this film are sky-rocketing it into the public view – please don’t let the general public believe that this film demonstrates acceptable use or treatment of the 16 mustangs “broken” for the film, or for any horse in contemporary times!

The current wide variety of kind and effective negotiation and collaboration techniques to work with and train horses is readily available on television channels devoted to equine management and horsemanship, through dozens of natural horsemanship trainers and horse whisperers selling their techniques, services, dvds, books and other products, to say nothing of the many horse science degrees offered through several fully accredited universities around the world. The current available knowledge base for humane treatment, training and partnering through relationship with horses leaves us without excuse for the continuance of the outdated and cruel “horse breaking” techniques once practiced in ignorance.

Thank you for your consideration.

Shari Montana, Founder
River Pines Horse Sanctuary
Missoula, Montana


17 replies »

  1. I’ve followed Ben Masters for a few years and I don’t think your assessment of him is correct. I am a Mustang advocate. I am anti BLM but many films have presented advocates and BLM spokespeople. Ben has devoted 4 years of his life to inspire wild horse adoptions, finding homes for dozens of horses, and raising over $100,000 for adoption programs.
    I saw the film. I was upset by the horse injuries. I did not hear Ben or the other 3 riders advocate for cattle on the range. Again the opinions of others was presented such as the Vet/Cattleman and the BLM.


  2. I think most people don’t understand – a wild horse should remain wild. “Breaking” them and finding them homes is a not acceptable. There’s no guarantee that in a ‘good home’, just like with domestic pets (or even state agencies for the protection of children, nowadays), that they will be well-treated and properly cared for, and their care properly supervised, or even in the cases of the animals, go to several ‘good homes’ when all is said and done. The horses don’t have to be removed, that’s the first misleading statement, at least all of them don’t. A big thumbs down on this 2 min. review.


  3. From the link to the “injury” comment, here is what is written about Cricket:

    “He passed away from natural causes near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was very sad to lose a member of the team but satisfying to know that he died in the wild where he belonged, not in a holding pen.”

    It’s impossible for me to square that sentiment with promoting roundups, removals, adoptions, and life sentences in holding pens and maybe is for these young men, too. It takes a lot of sponsorship and support to do such an expedition and maybe this was the “angle” that worked for them to undertake the adventure of their lives.


  4. Through Unbranded we have raised over $100,000 for wild horse adoptions. I have personally found homes for dozens of wild horses. Unbranded has also inspired hundreds of adoptions. We advocate for birth control, adoptions, and quality rangeland management. Yes, the Mustang Heritage Foundation is one of our proud sponsors, they adopt out about 1,000 wild horses and burros a year. I’m sorry that you feel this way about Unbranded. I’ve devoted the last three years of my life trying to help out this issue and it breaks my heart to read this.


    • Perhaps you should have consulted some real wild horse advocates like Karen Sussman instead of BLM employees like Gus Warr . Also more research needed to be done on BLM “managing for extinction”. Now there is even a plan by BLM to spay some wild horse mares when this is so dangerous it is seldom done to domestic mares under sterile conditions in clinics with post-surgery care. The cruel, unnecessary roundups result in many deaths that are not reported and many die in the holding corrals also.


    Abused Horse Begins To Trust Again With Patient Rescuer

    In truth, this title could be applied to every last remaining mustang in this country. The wild horse has been hounded, abused, maligned, and mistreated for centuries now, and still is subjected to the most horrific treatment by the agency in charge of its well-being. If ever an argument against government intervention could be justly made, the US Bureau of Land Management would be the poster child. Instead of protecting the mustang herds, they have repeatedly caved to special interest groups, and allowed these horses to be brutalized, all the while insisting that they are in fact helping them. It would be almost funny, if there weren’t so many unnecessary casualties involved.

    On the surface, adoption of wild horses and burros would seem to be a good thing. (The book and movie project “Unbranded” utilized adopted horses for their trek across the West.) But unfortunately, too many of the adoptions are either to kill buyers or to well-intentioned but incompetent owners.

    Samson was one particularly unlucky horse when Mitchell Bornstein first met him. By then he had suffered six years of violence at the hands of men who believed the only way to tame him was to beat him down. He had been a six-year-old stallion, part of a large herd in Nevada, when he was captured in a helicopter roundup that decimated his herd and catapulted him into a world of neglect and abuse.


  6. I enjoyed the doccumentary UNBRANDED. This is my 2 cents about its controversy.

    I hate to hear people argue purely from emotions; no reasoning. It’s like “don’t bother me with facts, I’ll draw my opinions ONLY on my feelings”. I call it “emotions gone wild”. It appears that common sense is not common at all! It should be added to the endangered species list! This little planet; everything in it and it’s immediate surroundings is ours (mankind ours). I make this assertion because since we have the power to destroy it, therefor we have the responsibility to protect it AND TO MANAGE IT. WE share the responsibility of stewardship. To do this WE must look for FACTS and apply COMMON SENSE.
    Horses, like pigs arrived to America at the same time. They are invasive species. In reality they are feral animals not really wild. Yet one WE (as in WE the people) have decided to eradicate (feral pigs) while the other we protect. Either species of animal has No rights. All animals have only the rights WE give it. In the US we eat pigs. We do not eat horses. WE (the people) decided.
    Take two horses; one born in a farmer ranch and bred by a human, the other out in the range. WE expect the owner of the fist to feed and care for his animal. Laking that care WE charge him/her with neglect and cruelty. WE own the second. WE must FEED and care for the second. WE control its habitat. WE must control its numbers! WE make laws to control dogs and cats population right?
    I’ve heard some fools argue that to herd, corral and keep feral (excuse me, WILD) horses is “inhumane” trartment when the alternative is possibly starvation. A fool is much dangerous that’s an idiot. BTW, many of these FOOLS sufering with the “emotions-run-wild” virus NEVER even see the problems faced by whatever they so fervently support.
    The only argument, made by the “emotions gone wild” bunch for me to ponder is the free range cattle business. I am ruminating that from the “fairness” point. Is it business-like fair for the rancher who must pay taxes on his land to compete with the free-ranger? What would the economical impact on beef (for WE the people who eat it) be to restrict it even more? I do not have enough real, believable, transparent facts at this time to have an opinion. But I do trust the people in charge (BLM) to know the facts about the habitat WE have entrusted them to MANAGE for WE THE PEOPLE and to use ALL the common sense they can muster in doing so.


    • You need to look at the facts. The NAS study found no evidence of an over-population of wild horses. Get the small book, Managing for Extinction, from Animal Welfare Institute , read about Wild Horse Annie also. See research and facts at The millions of cattle have destroyed the range and riparian areas –see the GAO report for 1990-91 Also go to for facts of what cattle have done to our public lands.
      70-80% of the herds are not genetically viable –see study by Gus Cothran, PhD.
      That movie was just BLM propaganda.


  7. This just screams animal cruelty to me…They pushed these horses far beyond their limits in my opinion especially during the steep climb when they knew it was dangerous and they made the horses climb anyway, resulting in a horse falling. The money made from this film should all be donated to horse sanctuaries and animal cruelty organizations as a punishment for the way they treated these animals! I thought this movie was going to be really good when I started watching it but by the end I was just shocked and appalled!


  8. I have visited the hundreds of horses in holding pens in Ridgecrest, California and observed a round up aftermath in Cold Creek, Nevada – the above comments cover most of my heartbreak and concerns so I won’t repeat the obvious facts about THE BLM agenda and the realities and ugly results of BLM round ups. The truth is only a small fraction are adopted, the majority lose their families and freedom forever, and or sold to slaughter (that is a fact). Unfortunately the film needed a fair and balanced voice from true advocates who were not represented powerfully enough in this documentary. Having said that, I do believe Ben tried to make a film to benefit Mustangs somehow, it might not have been my method and I certainly would not have taken money from those who obviously have a different agenda than mine. My only hope is that more wild horses and burros will be adopted, I have zero faith in our government or any of the BLM agency employees I have met personally. Thank you all for caring, please keep speaking out, and keep pushing for their rights. Please read Author Deanne Stillman’s book Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West. (for a real education and history on Wildhorses and BLM’s heartless record.
    # 1-866-4Mustangs – ADOPT PLEASE!


  9. I had to read this review for a college assignment and I hated every moment of it. You’re a very wordy and sporadic writer and I got a headache reading this. I want those twenty minutes of my life back. I give you -10 stars. My peers and I agree that you need to get off your high horse, pun intended.


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