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Unbranded follows a group of four recent college grads who decide to make the almost 5,000-kilometre journey from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, travelling back-country trails on horseback.

3 out of 4 stars

Directed by
Phillip Baribeau
Starring
Ben Masters, Jonny Fitzsimons, Thomas Glover, Ben Thame
Country
USA
Language
English

Across the grassy plains, up the steep hillsides and into the deep canyons, four bold young cowboys sit tall on their mustangs – the wild horses they have broken and trained for an epic ride along the rocky spine of the American West.

Give them some guns or treasure and you'd have the plot of a classic western, but Unbranded is actually an engrossing documentary about four recent college grads who decide to make the almost 5,000-kilometre journey from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, travelling back-country trails on horseback.

Supported by GPS and satellite phones, pickup trucks and horse trailers, they are not quite the lonesome cowboys of yore, but there's no shortage of danger along the way, particularly because the mustangs retain some of their wildness and can revert if provoked. Travelling down a narrow hiking trail into the Grand Canyon in one of many gorgeous scenes of the western landscape, one rider observes exactly what the viewer is thinking: one blowing plastic bag or slithering snake and a rearing horse could send a rider to his death.

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But it's the mustangs that give the film, a debut effort by director Phillip Baribeau, its whole purpose: the riders' project takes place in the context of a debate over the treatment of the wild horses that roam public lands in the American West.

Some activists argue that the wild horses are endangered – Unbranded doesn't delve into the history of these descendants of the Spanish mustangs introduced by the conquistadors and once numbering in the millions – but experts interviewed here argue pretty convincingly that the herds are currently expanding at an unsustainable rate, stripping the land of grass.

That's a problem because ranchers also rely on the public land to graze cattle. Enter the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which, relying on estimates that the herds are twice as big as sustainable, rounds up the excess horses. They are kept in the kind of holding facility from which the four riders in the film adopted their mustangs before handing them over to a trainer for several months. The horses are cheap and hardy, but they need to be broken in professionally and the reality is that there are thousands more waiting in pens than there are takers.

Ben Masters, the engaging leader of the ride, offers various explanations for what he is doing: perhaps he's proving how mustangs outperform domestic horses; maybe he's just committed to getting his team of four humans and a rotating cast of horses from border to border.

He emerges as a classic American figure, the outdoorsman-conservationist deeply committed to the land but, in truth, the cross-continent ride seems like a bit of a gap-year lark. The film seems to give its larger motivation as a potential publicity campaign for mustangs in need of adoption: it's impossible not to admire the animals' resilience and loyalty.

The camera, however, can't follow them everywhere and Baribeau is not always present for key developments on the ride, including an injury to Masters' horse caused by an incorrectly positioned bridle and the mysterious death of another horse.

Meanwhile, some key decisions, such as the varying number of horses the team includes alongside the four they are riding, remain opaque while personal disputes between the four young men take centre stage as though the doc were some reality show.

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Perhaps what is missing here is a larger discussion of our attitudes toward the animals. The save-the-mustangs activists often seem naive about the herds they claim are threatened; horse people and academic experts seem more clear-eyed about the over-population, yet nobody seems ready to face tough solutions.

Very belatedly in the documentary, one official mentions birth control, but nobody dare says the word "cull." Whether or not Baribeau's subjects articulate it, all sides share a deep attachment to wild horses in a film that proves how the romance of the West never dies.

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