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
riverpinesfarm.org, 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