A journey of self-discovery
BY ANJA FAHS
Four friends travel from Mexico to the Canadian border across the North American continent on horseback: 3,000 miles through the largely unspoilt hinterland of five US states. As four-legged companions they have chosen mustangs – American wild horses that symbolise freedom and adventure in the Wild West like no other animal. That is why Ben Masters, Thomas Glover, Ben Thamer and Jonny Fitzsimons chose mustangs to draw their homeland’s attention to the problems surrounding the population management of wild horses.
Mustangs multiply rapidly. In order to curb the population, many animals are caught on behalf of the US Bureau of Land Management, trained as riding horses and given up for adoption by horse lovers. In the United States, there are currently about 50,000 mustangs, held in several institutions, waiting to be given into private hands. Mustangs are perfectly adapted to difficult and rough terrain; they deal well with different climatic conditions and make for loyal and reliable riding horses. Precisely for these reasons – and to raise awareness of these magnificent animals – Ben Masters and his friends took adopted mustangs and went on the adventurous trip of a lifetime.
They were accompanied by a cameraman. The result was the book ‘Unbranded’ and the film of the same name, which will be released on DVD in Germany this autumn. It not only shows fantastic images of the great American wilderness but also documents the wonderful friendship and team spirit, which developed between rider and horse on this epic trip. ‘Unbranded’ initiator Ben Masters, who first came up with the idea for this journey one evening, here tells us the story of four men and sixteen mustangs on a ride through the American Wild West.
3,000 miles across the United States from Mexico to Canada on a wild horse – is this your idea of “freedom and adventure”?
Ben Masters: Absolutely. Exploring massive open landscapes that still exist in the American West has always been a dream of mine. Doing the journey on horseback just added to the experience. It was incredible.
How did this idea come up?
B. M.: I did a similar journey in 2010 by going 2,000 miles along a different route. That trip inspired the Unbranded ride of going all the way from Mexico to Canada through the deepest backcountry that still exists.
You initiated a very successful Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the project and the filming of this trip. Why a film?
B. M.: Making a movie seemed like a great idea at the time. If I had known how difficult and time consumptive it is to make a documentary then, I don’t know if I would’ve taken the plunge. In my opinion, film is a medium that really allows the audience to experience the journey in the most realistic manner. The motion, sounds, music, voices, drama, facial expressions, and landscapes can be told much better in a movie than only a photograph or the written word. ‘Unbranded’ the book we wrote because it allowed us to be much more specific about certain aspects of the journey.
Why did you choose wild mustangs and not trained horses or surefooted mules?
B. M.: The wild mustangs in the United States are in a really bad shape. There are 50,000 wild horses and burros that have been rounded up for population control and are up for adoption. We wanted to show that these horses can make great riding horses and are perfect for mountain travel. During the ride, the horses definitely proved their toughness! They did a great job and I’m incredibly proud of them.
How did you know the other men that went on that trip?
B. M.: Ben Thamer, Thomas Glover and Jonny Fitzsimons were friends of mine. We were together at Texas A&M University, where we all went to school. The timing was perfect in our lives to go on a big adventure, so we did it!
How long did it take to get a mustang used to people, a saddle, bridle and a horeseman sitting on it?
B. M.: We trained the horses for four months leading up to the ride and they knew pretty well what was going on by then. Once the ride started and we were travelling 20 miles a day that burned a lot of their extra energy. I would say a month into the ride we got really good and got used to each other.
Which was the most difficult section of the trip?
B. M.: Southern Utah was the most difficult leg of the trip. Graze and fodder was scarce, there was only little water, and our horses kept running away from us. One day, they ran 14 miles away and a week later bolted on another 42 mile run.
With all the daily hard work on the trail, stubborn horses, bad weather, stress and emotional exertions – did you ever think of giving up?
B. M.: Yes. When some of our horses bolted and ran off 42 miles, we had to split up in teams and search scattered across a mountain range. We could hardly communicate or find each other again, were very tired and depressed. There were some moments during that time when we didn’t know if we were going to make it.
What was your happiest or most emotional moment on the trail? Where you knew: Yes, this is all worth it?
B. M.: The greatest moment for me was fly fishing off my pinto horse Luke and catching a big trout from his back in the middle of a lake. Now that is a well-trained horse with lots of miles on him!
How did you work out the route? Did you use maps or a special digital mapping software? Were tools like Google Earth helpful?
B. M..: We used maps, word of mouth, GPS, Google Earth and Garmin 24K mapping software.
“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness” said environmentalist John Muir. Did the trip change your view of nature or did it change you personally in any way?
B. M.: Absolutely. When you travel at three miles an hour you can really see the landscape unfolding and it’s very obvious seeing mankind’s impact on the planet. Fortunately for Americans, we have over 600 million acres of public land that is largely undeveloped and will likely stay that way. Going on the trip through these untamed landscapes really gave me a huge respect for the land and the conservationists that have fought so hard to protect them. I think about my impact on the planet a lot more now since the ride than I did beforehand.
Are the guys and the horses already keen on going out again? Do you want to go again?
B. M.: I don’t know about another five month journey. That will probably be the last horse journey to that extent that I’ll go on, but I’m definitely planning on doing one to three week trips for the rest of my life.
Ben Masters is CEO of Fin & Fur Films, LLC. He is a passionate rider, angler, hunter and traveller as well as an experienced photographer and diehard environmentalist. Masters comes from San Angelo, Texas and now lives in Bozeman, Montana, USA.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q2 2015. Picture credit © www.unbrandedthefilm.com / Ben Master