HN Book Review: ‘Unbranded’
Even a full-length documentary can’t capture the whole story of a three thousand mile journey with sixteen mustangs – but the book can.
In February we introduced Horse Nation to Unbranded, the soon-to-be-premiered documentary about four friends who took sixteen mustangs on a three thousand mile backcountry pack trip through the most remote parts of the American West. The documentary resonates not just with those interested in the convoluted tale of the American mustang, but with the wild in all of us that yearns to know simply that open spaces are out there, whether or not we will get to see them.
While the Kickstarter trailer, the documentary trailer and the exquisite photographs bring the landscape of the journey to life, it’s no easy feat to bring every piece of the story to the big screen. As always, something will be left out, whether it’s something as simple as a quiet moment along the trail or something as complex as the reasoning behind a decision. There’s always more to be said, more story left to be told. Ben Masters, the chief adventurer behind the creation of Unbranded, published the “full” story, as much as could be told, through Texas A&M University Press. His three companions Ben Thamer, Jonny Fitzsimmons and Tom Glover as well as producers, cameramen and advisors all contributed chapters and essays for the book as well, with particular stories “told by the person who lived the experience the closest.”
Those experiences — including anything from tracking the mustangs for 48 hours on foot after an escape to fly-fishing from horseback — sound incredible enough that they’re almost hard to believe, except for the simple and uncomplicated way in which they’re told. Each of the men knew that what they were experiencing was truly a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, and retold the tale without embellishment — because none was needed. Flowery language and sweeping prose would not have done the story any justice at all; instead, the book is told as though you were sitting down with Masters and his friends at the campfire, recounting the day’s adventures.
While the prose of the book tells the backstory, the photos peppering the pages provide stunning visuals of the rugged west, including the landscape, weather and wildlife. The horses, the entire reason for the trip, are both beautiful subjects in their own right as well as natural parts of the western landscape themselves. The book functions both as story and a collection of artwork.
However, what’s most important to take away from the book is not the tales of adventure nor the breathtaking photography, but the plight of both our mustangs and our wild spaces. This current runs through each vignette and each chapter, warning us that there is no easy solution to either the preservation of wild horses or open country. Masters’ reflections on the complex and often emotional subject of mustang management presents multiple sides to the argument, respecting that the wild horse has a place in the American west but cannot be left to run without control: “even scarier is the possibility that overpopulated herds will destroy vulnerable ecosystems that native plants and animals have relied on for thousands of years.”
Masters’ closing essay “Looking Back” resonated deeply with me as a reader as he reflected on the true reasons for a three-thousand-mile nomadic lifestyle for a summer. The critical issue facing the four friends, sixteen mustangs, miles of trail, and all of us as equestrians is conservation, the wise management of our natural resources. Masters’ physical journey became a mental one as well as he found his life’s purpose as a conservationist, helping to preserve the natural spaces that each one of us appreciates as a lover of horses. Whether we ride the western ranges or hack around the woods behind our suburban farms, we are relying on the work of conservationists to keep these spaces free and wild. What higher calling can there be?
Unbanded is well deserving of a place on your bookshelf. See the documentary website for more information and to order a hardcover or softcover copy for yourself!
The film’s world premier takes place this Saturday, April 25 at the HotDocs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Tickets are still available!
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