Wild Horses Deserve a Better Film than ‘Unbranded’

by Libby Blanchard as published on High Country News

“I found the documentary disturbing. Scenes of negligence towards the mustangs abound…”

Unbranded CrueltyA few nights ago, I downloaded the acclaimed 2015 film Unbranded. This crowd-funded film, made by Fin and Fur Productions from Bozeman, Montana, depicts the journey of four young men who ride mustangs from the Mexican border up to Canada, traveling through some of the most beautiful public lands in the American West.

Unbranded is marketed as a celebration of the American mustang, both wild and under saddle. It was featured at the Banff Mountain Film and Telluride Mountainfilm festivals, and continues to be promoted widely. Last year, it was a top download on iTunes and gained over 150,000 likes on Facebook. Outside Magazine and the Los Angeles Times gave it glowing reviews.

But I found the documentary disturbing. Scenes of negligence towards the mustangs abound. A dog drives a horse to jump a barbed wire fence. The horse’s hind leg gets ensnarled in the wire, and the animal struggles to pull free while the boys watch.

Another scene shows a horse limping from a torn muscle in its hindquarters, the after-effect of setting him loose to graze with his halter on. Any real horseman knows that a horse can easily catch its hoof in the webbing of a halter negligently left on, resulting in severe and potentially permanent injuries.

But the most egregious scene is when the boys force their horses up dangerous terrain. Someone notes that the route is a bad idea, but no one has the maturity or leadership to turn back. After struggling up the steep mountain face, one horse — unable to gain purchase in the loose, unstable footing — kneels down in exhaustion. When the boys provoke it back onto its feet, the mustang struggles for a foothold. Unable to find purchase, it tumbles off the mountainside, rolling through the air down a significant drop before crashing onto flatter ground.

At this point, I turned off the film, disgusted. When I finished it later, I discovered — unsurprisingly, given the negligence and ignorance throughout — that one of the horses dies. This fatal injury, likely a cervical spine fracture, is never explained. Instead, the death is romanticized by these self-identified cowboys, who say it is “satisfying to know that he died in the wild where he belonged, not in a holding pen.” Yet there’s little moral high ground for the cowboys to stand on: A horse was fatally injured under their care, a circumstance that is neither common nor acceptable on a horse-packing trip.

The film’s storyline is also troubling. A veterinarian and various Bureau of Land Management officials talk about how hard it is to protect public lands from overgrazing while still conserving the mustang as an American icon. The solution: moving “surplus” mustangs from the range to federally run holding pens to prevent further degradation of the land and starvation of the horses. Yet the filmmakers make only a slight attempt to explore the contentious political context of too many mustangs roaming the public land. The title, Unbranded, by the way, makes little sense as the BLM freeze-brands every horse that it rounds up for adoption or life in a holding pen.

The only comprehensive thread woven through the documentary is the account of four fame-seeking boys who disregard the welfare of their horses to inflate their own egos. Instead of being exalted, the American mustang is treated as a cheap, easily replaceable commodity available for irresponsible use.

While some reviewers have criticized the choices of the protagonists, virtually all conclude that the film is redeemable because of its cinematography. Unbranded does depict sweeping vistas, but this doesn’t excuse the behavior of the people we’re watching. As Aristotle observed, when storytelling goes bad, spectacle is substituted for substance. Richly painted sunsets and the drama of needlessly frightened, panicking horses become ends in themselves.

As wrong as it was for these young men to treat their mustangs neglectfully, it is also unfortunate for the public to accept this behavior. To celebrate this documentary at film festivals, to mount no outcry about it in over a year, is to condone behavior that is neither common nor acceptable. Those of us who love the West and its mustangs should stay away from this documentary.

18 comments on “Wild Horses Deserve a Better Film than ‘Unbranded’

  1. I have yet to see it and after the reviews I’ve read I doubt that I’ll ever give it the time of day. I’ve had enough of the propaganda from the him and the American mustang is almost a thing of the past thanks to the him and others who could have done something for them but refused outwardly off just ignored the situation. They’ve been rounded up, given pzp, been the victims of evil experiments, slaughtered, shot, locked up in internment pens yetwe effort them to flourish? All for the damned cattle..everything for the cattle, for the sport wildlife and now the oil.. There’s not much hope for them now..crazy..

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    • I saw the film and thought t was one of the worst things I have seen. Glorified Stupidity at best. I love horses and do not proclaim to know that much about them but do know that these four fools do not seem like college educated men in any way, not people that understand the spirits of horses well at all.
      I totally agree that the Wild Mustangs deserve a MUCH better representation than this stupid film.

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  2. I had reservations about it when I first heard of it too. It is mind-boggling to me that this kind of treatment of animals is so ingrained into the human consciousness that it is accepted. Or that needless violence in our books and films is supposed to mean ‘realism’. I shudder when I think of how expendable horses must have been as just means of transport and work power. “The poor horse (dog, or other animal) gave his life for a human.” Well BS to that! I’m still wondering what “A Dog’s Purpose” is supposed to mean too.

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    • To be honest, I’ve not seen “A Dog’s Purpose” nor read the book, but the title just reminds me too much of animal enslavement to the dominant human interests, even if it really means teaching us. We’ve enslaved each other, and animals are the last remaining group discriminated against, I believe. Someday, I hope it changes as well.

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  3. Nope – I havent watched it either – made a comment on this article – which was a good one! The main “character” now writes knowledgeable (?) articles in one of the Western mags & is being touted as this experienced horseman! I know many people use nylon halters – but have seen the damage done when a horse gets a foot caught – I know of one horse that died – fell thru a fence & down into a ditch & laid there all nite – another draft horse that injured his neck & did eventually get over it. These were domestic horses. They dont break – sometimes thats not a good thing. Nominating this guy to the Advisory Board? I’m sure cattlemen & pro-slaughter love him.

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  4. I have watched this film twice and had the same gut wrenching feelings you have expressed so well. While the premise drew me in, several of the scenes depicted seemed to lack the respectfulness the mustangs deserve.

    Add that to the ego driven behaviors of the young men involved both during and for some after the film, it is questionable whether they actually helped , or in fact hurt the plight of the American Mustang. These horses are amazing creatures that allow you a window into yourself, but only if you are patient and kind and truly desire to learn from them.

    It takes time. It takes patience. It takes respect. It takes kindness. And then, one day, they regard you in a different light and it all comes full circle. That didn’t happen in this movie.

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  5. WILD HORSES (excerpts)
    http://www.hoofrehab.com/wild_horses.htm Pete Ramey

    After all these years, my family and I made our first trip to see the wild horses of the western United States. My work has been dramatically influenced and inspired by the study of these horses and their hooves.

    So, I walked into wild horse country thinking that I was on a tourist trip; confirming what I already knew. I could not have been more blind. I could not have been more wrong. They were much, much more than I had ever imagined. What I write here, will probably sound very similar to what my predecessors have written. I don’t know if anyone’s words can get the point across to the world, but I have to try. I thought I was ready, but what I saw literally blew me away. I have worked on thousands of horses, all over the world. I spent six years of my life in the saddle from daylight till dark. I’ve had the privilege of working on some of the finest horses, for the finest horsemen in the world. Understand that after two minutes with the wild ones, I knew that I had never seen a true horse. I literally had no idea of their potential.

    How has the horse world ignored the remarkable lessons the natural horse has to offer us? Only a few people have noticed them and very little time has been spent studying them

    The true wild horse is an endangered species, because true wild horse country is almost gone. We had better learn to treat them as such and get all of the answers we can from them before it’s too late.

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  6. Ben Masters, post-film, was given this additional platform for expounding his totally uninformed views or more likely anti-wild horse biased given that Forrest Lucas funded his film. http://adventureblog.nationalgeographic.com/author/bencmasters/

    Here are a few followup suggestions: I’m cancelling my subscription to National Geographic and I’m writing them to complain about how they could be remunerating someone who is so innately anti-nature on their masthead.

    Forward this High Country News Review to others and 1) ask them to write High Country News to thank them for posting this opinion piece, 2) share the post on social media as I did and 3) contact National Geographic with your views (and boycott it too) and complain to Nat Geo and Nat Geo Wild.

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    • To my knowledge, the Forrest Lucas funded Protect the Harvest was a sponsor of the 2016 Equus Film Festival where it showed its propaganda film “Runnung Wild” and where Ben Masters showed his newest film pushing fertility control on our non viable wild herds called “Wild Horse Resolution”. So, seems Ben Masters is closely aligned with and promoted by the horse killing machine. One sponsor of Masters’ propaganda film “Unbranded” was the Mustang Heritage Foundation, which receives funding from the BLM, also part of the horse killing machine. Wild horses died on this trek.

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      • So what is the deal with two films with the same name? Running Wild is the documentary film about the life and wild horse sanctuary founded by Dayton Hyde. It was released prior to anything with the same name shown at the Equus Film Festival (if they are indeed two different films). I hope Dayton is aware of this and has some lawyers involved if others are capitalizing on his life’s work.

        http://runningwildfilm.com/

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  7. “The only comprehensive thread woven through the documentary is the account of four fame-seeking boys who disregard the welfare of their horses to inflate their own egos. Instead of being exalted, the American mustang is treated as a cheap, easily replaceable commodity available for irresponsible use.” This is exactly how the BLM has treated mustangs and burros with the full support of DOI, so why am I not surprised. Of course this isnt the only description and review of this film I’ve read and I have NOT seen the movie nor intend to. I wouldnt see this movie for free and dam sure wont pay to see it. No beautiful cinematography can erase the careless treatment and outright abuse, leading to the death of a horse during filming, apparently. Another piece of anti-wild horse propaganda. I am disgusted by 4 young men who are so narcissistic they believe the public should idolize them while they abuse the animals in their care. Boys, karma is a bitch. Look out.

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  8. I watched the film and like everyone else besides the vistas it really didn’t have much depth to it. I was also disturbed by the treatment of the horses and their lack of preparation and knowledge of what they were to encounter beforehand. For example in one of the first scenes in the desert and the horses getting covered in some kind of cactus needle. The above mentioned scene in which the horse tumbles down the side of a mountain made it appear to the viewer that these are normal occurences on a packtrip. I don’t think so as you rely on those animals to get you somewhere and their health and well being depend upon it. It sure doesn’t put a great light on the male species for sure. I have encountered this type of behavior volunteering in Boy Scouts as well. Lack of knowledge or research of a trip beforehand because guys don’t need to that puts everything at risk. It is not prevalent but it occurs and these are the ones that get attention unfortunately. The only thing the film is worth are lessons in NOT what to do. I think good role models in filming should be at the forefront of supporting films about any wildlife. Right now I’m following on Instagram the “500milesproject” which has to do with veterans and mustangs. I hope their practices put the horses first. It seems like it but you can only see what the producer wants you to see. There is too much gaslighting going on by the cattle industry. To me its a perfect example of a predominant male industry vs mustangs in which the predominant supporter, researcher, fact gatherers are women. I’m not a hater of men but to me this is a common thread throughout many important issues happening in the natural world these days.

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    • Yep, and to say this film was crowd-funding is probably a stretch too.The Mustang Heritage Foundation is very cagey about their funding sources, making a big deal about small, individual donors. The totally unbalanced views re: the status of wild horses on the range in Unbranded was no accident; clearly, the majority of funding came from folks who want to perpetuate the falsehoods about excess feral horses.

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      • They say they have money for 1300 tip horses or 1.3 million to go to the trainers. I wonder how much the heritage foundation gets for administration per horse or per year. It has already reached the max for this year and they are asking for donations. Although, the holding facilities are getting 1200 per year per horse. (I laugh at how math ignorant some are when they defend — “it costs $50,000 per horse lifetime holding”). I would love to see an audit.

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  9. I have little actual experience with horses, but one is as a wilderness trail crew we ran into a washout and had to take the horses up a similar hillside. One we went up on foot clearing all the rocks, stumps and created a temporary trail. Only took a couple of hours. That horse in this show kept tripping over debris and they just forced it to keep tripping over the same debris. Also, if I were to take horses from Arizona to Montana to promote Mustangs, I would’ve gone through Wild Horse territory and educated my viewers on the wonderful remote sophistication of our herds and the health of the land.

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