Unbranded review

By Maddy Butcher

Every tax-paying American should know more about the mustang crisis and the exquisite, yet threatened wilderness of the western U.S.

You can do like I’ve done:maxresdefault

  • speak to scores of stakeholders
  • read volumes of documents
  • travel to wilderness spots and Bureau of Land Management facilities.

Or, you can watch Unbranded, the soon-to-be released documentary feature film of the 3,000-mile journey by four Texans and their adopted wild horses, from the Mexican to Canadian borders. Check out our library of Unbranded content.

The film, whittled down to a remarkable 105 minutes from about 500 hours of footage, takes you on an adventure “for crazy people” notes Ben Thamer, one of the four Texas A & M University graduates who signed on. The trek is one of calamities, horse and human injury, wildfires, lost horses, beer chugging, testosterone flexing, and death.

Along the way, it treats you to a stunning overview of public lands and schools you with the fairest film presentation yet of the

Horses at the BLM's Delta, UT facility.

Horses at the BLM’s Delta, UT facility.

mustang situation. Read more on mustangs here.

Think of it as a gateway drug to your craving to learn more about these essential concerns of the western U.S.

Watch it. Then, learn more about mustangs (whose care costs taxpayers $75 million annually), and pick up a copy of Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, and Beyond the 100th Meridian by Wallace Stegner.

Unbranded, the brainchild of Ben Masters, directed by Phill Baribeau, succeeds because of what it isn’t as well as what it is.

  • It isn’t another bleeding-heart, docu-drama about those beautiful, suffering American icons (wild horses).
  • It doesn’t take one polarizing viewpoint.
  • It doesn’t turn into a mud-slinging, reality-TV episode as tensions erupt and friendships fray.

Unbranded succeeds because it skims those territories but never gets mired down in them.

L to R, director Phill Baribeau, business manager Paul Quigley, editor Scott Chestnut

L to R, director Phill Baribeau, business manager Paul Quigley, editor Scott Chestnut

In one of the opening scenes, Ben Masters explains how he dreamed up this adventure coverage as a way to help the mustang cause and draw attention to the need for conservation and preservation.

“We have a lot in common,” he says. “There’s not enough room for them and there’s not enough room for us.”

Soaking up Unbranded’s stunning panoramic and fly-over shots of the Grand Canyon, the Skyline Trail, the Bridger Teton range, and Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, it’d be easy to think otherwise. There are, after all 600 million acres of public land.

But when the camera and film’s narrative thread hone their focus, it’s not as pretty:

  • Lands overgrazed by cattle and wild horses
  • Lands cut off by highways, train tracks, and fences.
  • Lands opened to motorized vehicles (a dirt biker spooks half the herd, sending team members on a two-day, 40-mile search to round them up.)ambookcowboysoncliff

In one of many poignant moments, we see Masters making a satellite phone call to the owner of Salina Canyon Ranch in central Utah. He stands at the ranch’s fenced border, politely asking permission to cross through a quarter mile of the privately-held land. The then 24-year old, looking shaggy, stinky, and spent, shakes his head in frustration and disappointment.

They will have to go around, adding “a 2,000 foot elevation gain and half-a-day’s travel,” says Masters. “This is the perfect example of public/private land in the west. You have this beautiful, nice valley that’s private. Then steep hillsides and cliff faces that are public.”

Those 600 million acres of public land? They are mostly “gnarly places,” says Masters.

Despite the serious theme, there are plenty of light moments. Heck, the opening sequence is how NOT to start a 3,000 mile trip:

  • Get kicked in the face whilst trying to remove cactus from your horse’s lips
  • Watch another horse buck and buck and buck and buck off into the sunset.

When I interviewed them last year, Masters and producer Dennis Aig warned me that the burro, adopted by Ben Thamer midway through the trip, steals the show.

burro copyI concur. Donquita, the team’s only female unit, strongly represents:

  • Watch her now as she vociferously announces her arrival.
  • Watch Thamer bond and assume he’s got her figured out. “Take that, Buck Brannaman! I’m a Donkey Whisperer.”
  • Watch Donquita beg to differ.

By the end, it’s safe to say the burro has stolen everyone’s heart with her fiercely protective spirit, comedic behavior, and all around lovability.

The film’s editor Scott Chestnut offers up a cinematic golden nugget as we watch one of the film’s few quiet moments: Masters fly-fishing while a lightning storm approaches. We learn how became hooked as a boy, how he skipped school to fish more. In dying light, Masters catches a big, beautiful Cutthroat trout and releases it, saying, “See ya, buddy.”

He continues in a voice-over: “There’s a lot of work to be done to make sure the wild lands of America have a viable future. The opportunities we have are just unbelievable. I don’t think most people understand that.”

Easterners – who cherish this open space they, themselves squandered generations ago – have been singing this tune for a while. But now, this awe-inspiring story of four Texas boys is helping to put a new face on conservation and mustang advocacy.

Read more about Unbranded, including scores on interviews with team members.




  1. Glad to hear this will be fair treatment of an issue which deserves a civil and honest conversation. Also nice to see a reference to Ed Abbey. His books changed the course of my life. Thanks for making sure he is not forgotten. Looking forward to seeing the movie!

    • Matt, thank you so much for your comment. Ed Abbey has had a similar impact on me. I hope you might take a chance to read All the West that Remains by David Gessner and maybe to check out my interview with Gessner on UtahOutsider

  2. I really wanted to “bond” with these guys, but the film is badly biased, at one point it references the report by the Academy of Sciences and it says that the document says there are too many horses. I have read the report and what it says is that BLM has badly bungled managing wild horses and caused huge increases in their numbers because of roundups. These guys also push the horses in ways that they would not push themselves in the wild. It’s clear that the horses are expendable. Not surprising that they have lost 3 before they are half way to their destination.

  3. Hey bros lets get some money from our dads and hit the internet up and make a documentary and maybe we can make a bunch of money,go on an adventure, get drunk and ride horses into the ground . We can edit in the conservation parts later on to counter any concern for our lack of care and concern for the animals. Oh hey hikers how long did it take you…only took us half the time cuz where sitting on horses let’s shoot our pistols now!!!

  4. I am your typical Midwestern urban dweller and have only ridden a horse once for a couple of hours when I was fifteen so what do I know. This was a beautiful movie visually and morally. A horse was injured but this guy genuinely regretted the cause. Another horse was injured, and again these guys displayed genuine concern for its well being. I found it neutral on the subject of wild horses and fair to the horse activists, the BLM, and private ranchers. I did notice any finger pointing.

    Ignore the negative pissers and watch the movie, five stars!

  5. I have watched this film several times. It is absolutely the best edge of the seat, real life horse film that I have ever seen. This is real, no bs theatrics.
    I have to mention the part of the riders at the gate of the
    Salina Canyon Ranch. He is a total A$$HOLE! He put those horses through so much more crap because he was too crappy of a monster to allow them to pass. It is not like they are going to harm anything. They just care about their horses. They called and asked nicely to cross. Only to get shot down for it. Who the heck does that?
    I sure hope that ranch owner has seen this movie. So he can see the hell he put those horses through for being a snobby punk. I hope he gets called out for it the rest of his life.

    MEAT EATERS! THEY ARE RESPONSIBLE. The cattle must be grazed and there isn’t enough land to graze them. The land is already in use for corn, wheat, soy, etc. Basically, feed for meat animals just before they go to slaughter and are brutally murdered for someones appetite. There is never a reason to inflict suffering on animal animal for ones appetite. Never!
    . The demand for beef increases the number of cattle and that must decrease the number of horses on the range. The meat eaters take precedence over the horses who was there first. They take precedence because of selfishness and money. People think one steak or one burger isn’t going to make a difference. Well it does. Every one makes a difference. That is one cow that died and for what? So someone can have one dinner, one selfish dinner. That life could have been saved. There is no need for killing, never has been.

    Animal agriculture is the #1 reason for global warming and the death of our planet. So the next time you want to complain about the killing of our Mustangs. Ask yourself if you eat meat. If you do, you have no complaint to make. That is a fact. It is a well known fact, the BLM are not hiding it but the meat eaters are. How stupid is that?

    You want to save the Mustangs and our wonderful planet? STOP EATING ANIMALS AND ANIMAL BYPRODUCTS LIKE EGGS & MILK. Then you can complain all you want.
    And yes, before you ask. I am a vegan and have been a very long time. I do it for the animals and our planet. I do it for my kids, grand-kids and so ons future.
    The question is, Why aren’t you doing it? if you are thank you!!!!!

    Do you have type 2 diabetes? Go vegan and it will be gone in less than 14 days! That is no joke, it is not an opinion it is fact. This too is also a well known fact.Look up the medical journals. I have four friends who had type 2 diabetes and one also had a father with it. I told them to go cold turkey vegan. Get rid of everything that has animal ingredients in it in the home. All of it! Then go to the doctor between day 9 and 14 and it will be gone.






    Finally, watch SEEDS OF DEATH. The truth about Monsanto and Bayer.

    Search Youtube for more vegan documentaries. You will learn more in a day than you have your whole life watching these.

    The horrors that Monsanto is doing to farmers who want to farm non gmo soy beans are being stalked, raided, shut down, sued and their farms taken away from them. Even friends of 50 years can’t speak to one another as one grows non-gmos and the other doesn’t. How is that for America?

    Do something and do it now. Before it is too late.

  6. I recently watched the movie and thought it was fantastic. But I do have one problem being and Rancher at one time owning land in the state of Texas it is fenced it is fenced. But what bothers me and I’m highly disgusted of and do not appreciate what the owners of the ranch did by telling them they could not go through. I have never had another Ranch tell me that I couldn’t go through their property I explain the reason for doing it. Well to you the owners of Salina Canyon Ranch absolutely disgusted with you couldn’t let them through for one time and finish something that meant so much to them absolutely disgusted and despise you way to go I’m sure to tell people about that ranch

  7. I don’t know if my other one went through so I’ll make this short and sweet I am absolutely disgusted and despise the owners of Salina Canyon Ranch being a rancher in Texas when I asked I can cross other lands you took a documentary that traveled from the border of Mexico to the Canadian border and absolutely put a nail in the coffin I’m so disgusted and two spies and I’ll be sharing this on every website I have

  8. What a wonderful documentary. Showing the heart of the Mustangs and the determination of the young men. And I was totally disgusted also that Salina Canyon Ranch would not give permission to let the guys go through the property. God is watching you! Hope they that own that ranch never need a helping hand from any of their neighbors.

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