From beginning to end, Unbranded is a wild ride. It is exactly what you would expect when you take a 3,000 mile journey from Mexico to Canada across the rugged public lands of the American west with four not-yet-ready-to-settle-down men in their 20’s and 16 newly adopted and trained wild horses. It is also a beautiful testament that the lure of the west and the iconic appeal in the lore of horse and rider.
Traveling through extraordinarily majestic, harsh and, at times, down right terrifying terrain, the men and the horses displayed enough personality, determination and bravado to keep the viewer enthralled and entertained. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have traveled through backcountry in the west on foot or horseback will immediately identify with the hardships of unrelenting sun, the lack of water and the painful consequences of lessons learned the hard way.
Even before the journey began, there were months of training for man and beast. This to me could be a whole second movie in itself. I was fascinated that the training of these beautiful wild horses could establish the level of comfort, companionship and TRUST that was necessary for the trip. (Having backpacked the Grand Canyon several times, I can not possibly imagine traveling up and down those narrow switchbacks on top of a horse who didn’t know the trail!).
This epic back country adventure was the brain child of Ben Masters, a backcountry traveler, horse trainer, photographer, author of UnBRANDED (the book) and wildlife biologist, who wanted to show the value and possibilities to be found in these wild bred horses and inspire more adoptions.
Wild horses and burros are under the care and management of the US Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management (BLM). An underlying thread throughout this story is the very real tension of multi-use public land and determining a balance between the rights of wild horses, cattle, cattle ranchers, wild horse activists, and others.
Sustainability is a complex issue. Over grazing is real. The current solution of rounding up 50,000 wild horses and burros and transporting them to penned-in pastures in Kansas and Oklahoma while awaiting adoption is considered grossly ineffective by all concerned. Adoption rates aren’t anywhere near the level of the wild horses reproductive rates. In the movie much discussion was given to an estimated 58,000 wild horses that are allowed to graze on federal lands year round. The claim was that the horses and burros were stressing the land with “over grazing” in the winter months, while cattle only graze on federal land for 6 months.
What wasn’t mentioned in that discussion was the number of cattle that graze during those six months. According to the BLM’s own website in 2014 livestock grazing on public land managed by BLM was 8.3 million AUMs. Animal Unit Months is the number of animal units multiplied by the number of months of grazing and is used to estimate the amount of forage needed to sustain one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for a month.
It is hard to compare the damage done by 8.3 million AUMs of livestock over 6 months vs 700,000 AUMs (58,000 head) of wild horses and burros over 12 months, and not think that the cattle are the real “over grazing” culprits. (Interesting side note: the grazing fee for 2012 was $1.35 per AUM, the same level as it was in 2011. Which is the minimum level that was established in 1986.)
At the end of the movie, I wanted to see more. And, with more than 500 hours of footage whittled down to two hours, maybe they will eventually release a special feature about the horses and training — and Val Geissler, of course.