Thursday, November 12, 2015

Sometimes Bad Judgement Can Be Pretty Horriffic: Unbranded the Film Review

"Good judgement comes from experience.
Experience comes from bad Judgement.
And sometimes that bad judgement can be pretty horrific."
Val Geissler, Unbranded

I have been waiting so long to watch the Unbranded film: four guys riding fresh-out-of-the-holding-pen BLM Mustangs from Texas to Canada, and I was not disappointed.

I can still remember when Cindy Meehl, director of the "Buck" documentary and Executive Producer of Unbranded, first told me about it, just as they were getting started on the journey, and I thought--how fantastic...and scary!  Actually, I thought someone might get killed.

Last night I downloaded it from Amazon, and finally got to see how they did.  I knew it was going to be a tough ride, but I wasn't prepared for the amount of bush-whacking and treacherous mountain climbs.  The path to Canada by horse is not well traveled and, in fact, crosses through private lands, steep mountains, and dangerous rivers.

Much of the movie seemed like my bucket list...

Of things I never want to do on a horse.

For example, riding through the Grand Canyon. 

Through the Arizona cactus. (Spoiler: they spent a lot of time pulling these out of the Mustangs.)

Leading a string of horses across this river.
The suspension bridge.

Some of the situations they got into were "horriffic" and deadly and, in fact, they did lose a horse, and two were injured badly enough to be pulled off the ride.

It was a long (over 5 months, 5 states, and 3,000 miles), tough, emotionally turbulent and stinky journey for the young men, who were friends when they started out, but were strained by the trip's end.  

The riders were:

Ben Masters (wildlife biologist, CEO of Fin and Fur Films and the mastermind behind the ride and corresponding, Unbranded, book). 

Thomas Glover (Construction Science degree, horseback guide).

Ben Thamer (Agricultural Economics degree, vet and cooking skills).

Jonny Fitzsimons (History degree and worked on dude and cattle ranches and, surprisingly, purposely ended his journey one mile short of Canada for "too many reasons to enumerate".  

I'm curious, since it's been a while, if any of them would like to do it again.  I'd also like to hear Jonny Fitzsimons enumerate the reasons he ended his journey one mile short of the Canadian border, leaving his buddies to celebrate without him.  And, why is it called "Unbranded" when all the horses are branded from the BLM?

The best part of the movie, for me, as an American Mustang adopter, was its exploration of wild horses in the United States.

What is their value?  
What is their history?
What are their rights?
What do we do to achieve a balance for the wild horses, federal land, and the cattle?
What do we do with the 50,000 Mustangs in holding when we're only adopting out 3,000 a year, and they're still rounding them up?

They didn't give a black and white answer to those tough questions, but towards the end they did bring up wild horse birth control--PZP, a topic we've discussed on this blog, and maybe the only humane course--though not without its own set of issues.

I think the Mustangs answered the "value" question themselves all along the ride.  What other horses could have survived those scenes where they were scaling sheer rock?

The Mustangs gave them their hearts and souls, and I loved to see the relationships develop.  In fact, I got teary-eyed at the beginning of the movie as they were selecting them from the pens and then starting the training.  Mustangs have more to lose and more to give than domestic horses.  They don't know much or anything about humans and they're incredibly vulnerable.  (Read the story about Tom Davis buying and selling 1,800 wild horses from the BLM and taking them to slaughter in Mexico.)


Fly fishing on horseback.  Everyone's got to try that someday.  You can read about Ben's fly fishing (it didn't go as smoothly as you see in the movie) at his Western Horseman Blog.

Luke, the Mustang pictured above and below, was auctioned, two weeks after the adventure, for $25,000, to support the Mustang Heritage Foundation. The winning bidder then donated him back to Ben Masters.

You can watch a clip from the Unbranded horse Luke's auction below.

Luke Auction-H.264 for Apple TV from Unbranded The Film on Vimeo.

Here's an update on where all the Unbranded horses are now:

Donquita is the queen leader of a six mustang pack (Luke, Tuf, Violet, C-Star, Stumbles, and Dinosaur) near Fayetteville, TX.  Simmie and Gilley are cowboying in the Texas Panhandle. Django and Tamale are living in south Texas. And JR and Bam Bam are teaching kids to ride at a guest ranch in Wyoming. These horses found their home but most mustangs don't. In fact, there's almost 50,000 in holding. Go here to learn how to adopt:

And here's a trailer if you'd like to see what it's all about.  You'll love it.


  1. I too had heard about this project - can't wait to watch the film, & now my curiousity is really piqued by why Fitzsimons quit where he did!

    1. If you ever find out, let me know. They were starting to get on each other's nerves pretty bad toward the end, and it kept Ben from realizing his goal of getting all four to Canada. Whether that's what Jonny had in mind or, if it was more of keeping a dream alive or pure...only he knows. I'd like to ask him. No surprise, I loved ever minute of this movie and would watch it in a longer form if they ever release more footage.

    2. I think that without ever finishing the ride the journey never ends for him.

    3. Yes,I agree , the goal of "finishing" wasn't his goal. It was all about the experience.

    4. I would like to think Jonny had that sort of mentality about leaving "the journey open," but I don't think that was it. In fact the only reason we ever here him offer was to his father who sounded surprised - and then a little confused, when he told him he quite a mile for the end "for luck." He was the least bonded to the group (and to horses) at the beginning - and he did not know Masters at all...and I think he couldn't stand him by the end of the trip. I also think that the kerfuffle between them about whether or not to bring the 2 recuperated horses back - and how it eventually played out (with Jonny berating Masters for even considering it....and then Jonny making his own poor decision to bring his back in...even the aspect of Master's NOT rubbing in in Jonny's face I believe bothered Jonny. In the end Jonny had the "last word." He knew exactly how important it was for Master's that they make "every inch" of the trip as a unit. The last mile was Jonny's message to Masters: This was my journey as much as it was yours - and I'm not here to fulfill *your* goal. Not exactly a FU....but it was definitely and Alpha-to-Alpha play. It surprised me to learn about his Marine would have thought he would have done the last mile for the sake of the the other two guys who had nothing to do with the Masters-Jonny dynamic. They were hurt by Jonny's selfishness at the end - and had a right to be. They had all agreed at the start to make the trip together - "only a mile" or not - Jonny bailed on his unit at the end. Other than that - I LOVED the movie!!!

    5. I enjoyed reading your detailed and thoughtful analysis of why Jonny quit. I saw that alpha to alpha aspect, too. And, "I control my own journey". It was Ben's baby, and anyone who signed up for the trip should have, by all rights, finished what they'd promised to do for each other. By not finishing, it's as if another story was created that detracted from the movie itself. But, oh well, I loved it, too. GREAT movie. I hope they release more footage and we can see more of what was happening behind the scenes.

    6. “Why did jonny fitzsimons quit” is the search words I used and it brought me to this site. It appears that many others have used that same phrase as it autocompleted for me but I couldn’t find any information about why. (A friend recently recommended the movie and I rented it on Amazon this week.)
      In agreement with the other comments, I thought I’d add to them. I was shocked and surprised about the ending with Jonny quiting/finishing in a different way. It seemed that he did it to stick it to da man, Masters, who seemed like he could drive anyone crazy. However, I think the greater work of the documentary would have won out and they all would have talked to Jonny and reasoned with Jonny not to finish how he did. It seems like there were greater ramifications to think about like: how many people will watch it and think, what a schmuck Jonny is, that the movie was supposed to be a documentary about mustangs, and consider all the people listed in the credits of the movie who helped, donated, and made the entire thing happen and about how hurt the man Val would be. Val even wrote a song about “border to border….”
      So I wondered if maybe ‘they’ wrote it/scripted it to end that way. Think back when the horses ran back 22 miles or so and Jonny and nice-Ben and Tom went after them, finally getting the horses and arranging for their meet up with Masters. Masters had zero sympathy as to what an ordeal it was to go thru all of that and made them meet and ride the 30 miles. In the truck, nice-Ben says, that he (Masters) was creating drama.
      When Jonny’s horse died, again I was surprised at how un-sympathetic Masters was when Masters told Jonny bluntly that his horse died. And why was Master’s the one to tell Jonny?
      Also, why was there a camera crew with Jonny’s father when he got the phone call about meeting at a different trail head? It seemed that Jonny’s father didn’t know of this plot but the camera was in the cab with a close-up of the phone call. Did the film crew know?
      I just wonder if Master’s was creating drama for his movie. But if it was true, that Jonny quit that way, would you hire a fellow like that? Jonny seemed very capable and looked good in the saddle but to throw the whole movie like that is deplorable.

    7. I'm a few years late, I just saw this documentary on Netflix. found this reply to Jonny quitting a mile short: Here is the quote:

      "I'm not a horse person, but I know a few who are concerned with the politics depicted in this film. It seems like a balanced representation to me. There is a very moving plot twist that seems unrecognized by a couple early reviewers here, and I'll admit that I missed it as was pointed out to me the next day. Recall the early movie reference to one of the cowboy's grandfather's achievements. He was an old man who had climbed the highest summit on all but one continent, then fell just short of the summit of Everest while in his 70's. The cowboy(Johnny)quit the trail a mile short in honor of his grandfather's achievements. The grandfather appears and the end of the trail. Johnny tells him he's leaving that "mile" for good luck."

  2. This sounds really interesting. Your picture of the cactus cracked me up because I just experienced my first collision between horse leg and cholla ball today. Not good, but I survived.

    1. Well, you'll be even more sympathetic when you see what happens to them. ;) Arizona was a tough crossing for the Unbranded horses...and men.

  3. I'd love for a lot of people to see this movie and have lots of questions answered about the mustangs. Especially, those rounded up and kept in holding pens for no good reason. It's not fair how these horses are treated and sold to slaughter.

    I'm sure it's a great movie and I would like to see it too. I almost took that ride down the Grand Canyon years ago but we didn't have the time and needed to get home. Don't think I would do it now that I'm older and more of a chicken than I used to be! As for the cactus I had the pleasure of picking a bunch of those needles out of one of my kid's butts who fell on one. Not a good time for either of us.

    1. You're a brave soul to think about going through the Grand Canyon on horseback! That is funny that you had to pull them out of your kid!!! That had to hurt judging by how the horses responded.

      I'm curious to know what people who watch the movie think about Mustangs afterward. The movie didn't really take sides--in fact, it seemed to concentrate more on the damage to the land from the horses overgrazing it. I came away thinking we need to do something to control herds, but proactively--like contraception. The holding is expensive, cruel, and ripe for slaughter if the winds of politics blow the wrong way. Horses live for 20-30 years...that's a lot of politicians in and out of office.

      If you watch it, let me know what you think.

    2. The only mustangs headed to slaughter are the ones sent their by the private owners who hold the titles. What Tom Whatshisface did was deplorable, but the BLM did tighten the rules a lot afterward and it hasn't happened again. Even though the Burns Amendment allows the BLM to sell the excess horses to slaughter, the BLM has not done so, hence to tens of thousands in holding.

      The horses in holding are actually treated pretty well. Not as well as in a private home, but they are kept in herds, fed, watered, and vetted when needed. Long term holding is like Horse Heaven - they get turned out on thousands of acres of private land and are guaranteed food, water and vet care. It's like being free on the range, but without the risk of starvation or death by dehydration.

      I definitely lean more toward reproductive management, which I think will decrease the need for round ups and help keep the holding pens from getting any more crowded, especially with events like the EMMs where mustangs are showcased.

      I loved that the movie concentrated on the environmental impact of the horse - a lot of people forget that horses can destroy a range - and it's important to see. I found that it was a fairly neutral movie - not pushing one agenda over another.

    3. Yeah, the movie was very neutral, maybe leaning a little toward birth control, maybe not. I lean toward birth control. The movie did highlight the high cost of keeping them in the pens. It's always a little bit of a worry because you never know how the political climate will change. It was a great movie.

  4. Cannot wait to see this!! I get teary-eyed and tight-chested just thinking about the relationships between horses and riders...for me, this is what it's all about. Don't think I could read about somebody taking that many magnificent horses to slaughter - for any reason. Just heartless...If people are too blind to see their incredible value, then who can explain it to them? The pictures are just amazing! And this is something I have absolutely no interest in doing. Ever. Probably not even in my youth was I ever that gutsy. I just love riding and caring for, and loving my horses. They enrich my life beyond measure. And personally, I'd rather see them shot and buried before going to slaughter. Just my 2 cents. I hate slaughter...

    1. I kind of agree with you, depending on how it's done. I actually heard of a guy who did that rather than send his horses to the auction. (He'd run out of money and didn't want them going to slaughter.)

  5. In 1971 my family rode down to the Havasupia Reservation in the Grand Canyon. My Dad had a real sense of adventure. The trails were similar to the ones seen in Unbranded. As a horse owner and lover (I was 16) the treatment of the horses seemed cruel. The horses were skinny and had untended wounds. From what I see on Trip Advisor, this may still be true. But the mustangs they used were tough! I believe that reproductive control will be the best solution to the over population.

    1. I was talking to our trail guide, Buck, in Palm Springs and he said he's going to take a job leading rides in the Grand Canyon starting 2/2016...and it will be all mules. It was his opinion that horses don't belong on those trails...mustangs are quite different though, as you point out.

  6. Great documentary. I especially love how they killed a horse and injured another due to poor horsemanship.

    1. I liked parts of the documentary (bringing to attention mustangs and management, etc, not to mention the pure beauty of the land), but I agree with you - poor horsemanship, some incredibly stupid actions, and I wouldn't allow any of them near one of my horses ��

  7. I am from the same hometown as Ben Masters and Ben Thamer. I have mutual friends from here and from Texas A&M. The word is that Johnny's family funded almost 50% of the movie and used their own ranch and trainers to train the mustangs. Masters, who was in charge of the way the movie was edited, made Johnny out to be the villain which really upset Johnny's family. And there is a specific reason why Johnny didn't finish and didn't want it on camera why. Masters was aware of this reason and yet they edited it to make him look like he wasn't a team player. So there's a lot of small details that aren't shared. Apparently no one from the trek speaks with Masters anymore

    1. Is the reason Johnny quit somewhere in the extended film? I wonder if he'd be willing to share his side with us.

  8. It may be more interesting to hear from Ben Masters to see if the final edit is true (authentic) - that he actually knew the real reason JF abridged his forgoing of the crossing of the border but, edited his film to to his own liking regardless; fiction. Mustangs or men?

  9. Keep in mind how young and inexperienced these guys are! The horses paid a pretty big price for that. It was very hard to watch the cactus scene, the horse falling scene, & the dead horse scene, as well as the other injuries. The kid's justification for the animal's life & death was understandable, but not the whole story. Their arguments looked to me like immaturity, stress from the ordeal, too much desire for power from Masters, & numerous other things - some explained above in the comments. Editing can certainly skew what is known. The photography was gorgeous, the discussion about the problem of the range lands pretty good - but there is so much more to it. I, too, think humane birth control is the best option - but I believe it's difficult to accomplish.

    Ranchers have been running cattle on public lands for so long, that they believe it is their right. How much beef do we need? Why is slaughtering a horse so much worse than slaughtering a cow?

  10. David BlickenstaffNovember 7, 2017 at 5:02 PM

    Could it be that Jonny Fitzsimons (who was facing active duty in The Marine Corps at the end of this ride) wanted to leave one day of the trail-ride unfinished for good luck (something to come home to later). He clearly stated in the film that one of his reasons was "for luck".

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