Ben Masters is a filmmaker, writer, and horse hand who splits his time between Bozeman, Montana, and Austin, Texas. Masters studied wildlife management at Texas A&M University and serves as wildlife management chair for the volunteer BLM Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board. Follow him on Twitter @bencmasters:
Last week High Country News released an opinion article by Libby Blanchard that portrayed the film Unbranded, in which I am a character, in a scathing manner that ultimately called for wild horse lovers to “stay away” from the film. I was shocked to hear about the criticism of a film that resulted in hundreds of wild horse adoptions, raised nearly $100,000 for the Mustang Heritage Foundation, and had an entire theatrical release centered around fundraising and press to increase wild horse adoptions.
In addition to calling for a boycott of the film, Blanchard wrote: “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.” While I don’t profess to be a saint by any means, the accusation that we treated our mustangs neglectfully is a remark that stings especially deep, as I spend huge amounts of time and money trying to take care of my horses as properly as possible. Did we make mistakes? Yes. Could we have done better? Yes. But hindsight is 20/20, and I don’t know anyone who’s spent a long time around horses who hasn’t experienced a horse injury, despite their best efforts, of some kind.
In Blanchard’s defense, she didn’t know the full story behind her accusations of neglect, because the contents of the movie were constrained by time, and she apparently didn’t read the book, Unbranded, published by Texas A&M University Press, or contact anyone for fact-checking. In her opinion article, she recounted a scene from the film in which a mustang fell off a cliff.
“But the most egregious scene is when the boys force their horses up dangerous terrain,” Blanchard writes. “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.”
While the scene was hard to watch in the film, it was infinitely worse in real life. What Blanchard may not have known is that the mustang who fell off the cliff wasn’t our horse or under our care at the time. The horse belonged to, and was under the care of, a man we met along the trail who wanted to ride with us for a day or two. He later gave us that horse, Dinosaur, to use on the journey. Should we have turned around and found a different route? In hindsight, probably so. I wish I could go back and tell myself that. Hopefully, by showing this scene in the film, we showed viewers the importance of extensive mapping research in route-finding.
For the horses that were under our care, we experienced one torn muscle, which was my fault, because I left a halter on it, one bowed tendon that was a non-human induced injury, and one natural death. During 3,000 backcountry miles in some of the most remote stretches of the American West, our horses experienced no lacerations, punctures, or hoof problems, a testament to the intelligence and heartiness of mustangs. Other than the halter related torn-muscle injury that was my fault, the only other human-induced injuries were saddle sores, which we tried our best to mitigate by taking extra horses to switch out, and hobble abrasions on the pasterns. Eventually, we found excellent hobbles that don’t create friction-rubbing. There is always room for improvement with horsemanship, and I hope some of our mistakes provide a learning opportunity for others. Caring for our horses was a full time job and the only arguments of the entire trip revolved around what was the best way to take care of our horses.
Blanchard also writes that “negligence and ignorance” caused the death of one of our horses. This is misleading. The horse, Cricket, died unsaddled in a meadow in daylight near a few scattered trees. While there is no way to know, a veterinarian we talked to said the cause of death could’ve possibly been an aneurysm. Water hemlock, a poisonous plant that grows in the area and kills a few horses annually, could’ve also been the culprit. We will never know.
I take offense with claims we treated our mustangs like cheap, easily replaceable commodities available for irresponsible use. The mustangs were individually featured in the film and in the book. I donated my favorite horse, Luke, to the Mustang Heritage Foundation to be auctioned to raise money for Wild Horse Adoptions. He raised $25,000. Simmie was later given to the Texas A&M Parsons Mounted Cavalry to represent mustangs at football games. I still own five of the Unbranded mustangs and love them deeply. They spend their summers in Montana, where they’re used as therapy horses for a veterans program, and their winters in Texas, out of the cold. We structured an entire theatrical release nationwide to promote mustang adoptions where every single cent we made went towards Wild Horse Adoptions. We raised nearly $100,000 for the mustang adoption organizations and inspired hundreds of people to adopt wild horses.
One of the biggest critiques I have towards the horse world, especially the mustang world, is how critical, hateful, and finger-pointing individuals and organizations can be towards each other. While there are definitely appropriate times to raise concerns about horse training techniques and ethics, is it really appropriate to label us “mustang neglecters” when after a 3,000-mile backcountry ride with 16 newly trained mustangs, we were only responsible for one serious human induced horse injury?
I’m proud of Unbranded and its roots as a Kickstarter campaign. I’m proud of the amazing team that came together to make the film and journey possible. I’m especially proud of the horses that we adopted, who now have a great life full of purpose and don’t live in a government holding pen. I’m proud of the fact that we left vulnerable moments in the film that we could’ve easily edited—which would’ve made us look better or more knowledgeable. I’m proud that we didn’t lie to the audience, or turn the film into a butterflies-and-rainbows horse movie, and that we showed the mistakes we made for others to learn from. I’m proud of the mustangs we’ve gotten adopted, the money we’ve raised, and the awareness we’ve received for Wild Horse adoptions. I’m proud of the conservation message in the film and how we tried our best to show the wild horse issue as complex, and having high ecological consequences. I’m proud that a lot of people have told me that after watching the film, they’ve gotten involved in horses and riding.
Blanchard believes mustangs deserve a better film than Unbranded. The hundreds of mustangs that were adopted because of the film might disagree.