Mustangs deserve a better film than ‘Unbranded’

The 2015 film’s scenery doesn’t make up for the cruelty endured by the wild horses.

 

A 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.

Courtesy of Ben Masters
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 death 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.

Ben Masters, far left, and two of his friends completed a 2,000-mile ride along the Continental Divide in 2010. They adopted some $125 mustangs from the Bureau of Land Management to supplement their string of quarter horses.That experience was later turned into a film, Unbranded, which was released in 2015.
Ben Masters/Flickr

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.

Note: This article has been updated to correct a factual error about the death of one of the horses in the film. The death was not the result of a cervical spine fracture, as originally written by the author. 

Libby Blanchard is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She grew up in Montana and Colorado, trained and cared for horses for over a decade, and is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge in England.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.