Auctioning Off a Piece of Unbranded

September 30th, 2013  / Author: Kate Bradley

Time on the trail is over, but the adventure continues: The Unbranded Project

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Last night I auctioned off Luke, my Paint Mustang, at the Mustang Million contest in Ft. Worth, Texas!  The O’Brien family of Tulsa, Oklahoma, purchased Luke for $25,000, all proceeds will go to the Mustang Heritage Foundation to promote more mustang adoptions. I knew Luke would sell high but $25,000 blew away all expectations.  Now more than 12 hours later, with Luke in the hands of his new owner, I’m trying to figure out why in the world I gave away a horse that I deeply cared for. I know the answer but I still miss my horse.

The mustangs are in a bad spot right now. There are nearly 50,000 wild horses in holding pens and long term pastures that will live out their lives unused and in captivity. Your tax dollars buy their hay. Legally, the Bureau of Land Management is mandated to maintain the Mustang population in the wild to 27,000 animals. This number has already been exceeded, possibly to 40,000, but the BLM cannot continue gathering horses because there is no place to put horses that are rounded up. Too many horses can cause rangeland degradation that negatively affects native wildlife, plants and rural communities that depend on range health. Currently, the only method of reducing the numbers of horses in holding facilities is adoption. I put Luke up for auction because I want to see more wild horses get adopted. The O’Brien family donated $25,000 to see more wild horses get adopted. The non-profit Mustang Heritage Foundation’s sole purpose is to get more wild horses adopted.  Adoption gives these horses better homes, reduces taxpayer expense, and alleviates western rangelands of potential ecological harm. What can you do to help?

The BLM, Mustang Heritage Foundation and other mustang organizations have different ways to acquire gentled, formerly “wild” horses. A lot of mustangs are really good horses, especially for people looking for ranch or trail horses where a good mindset is more important than a timed event. They really aren’t that hard to train. People train mustangs all the time. It takes time, dedication, and a lot of hard work but it’s an incredibly rewarding experience that you have to experience to believe.

Can’t train, adopt or buy a mustang? Dive deeper than a Google web search and learn the facts about the impact of the wild horses, different methods of population control and the options available to correcting a bad predicament. The Mustang issue, which is growing daily, is an incredibly emotional debate. People connect with horses more so than any other animal, except possibly dogs. Lots of people allow emotion to overpower rational thinking, and they value the momentary happiness of an animal over the long term ecological health that the future of that animal depends on.

Get educated, learn the issues, they’re your horses on your land.

—Ben Masters

The Unbranded Adventure Reaches Canada

September 11th, 2013  / Author: Kate Bradley

Goal Reached: Four men and their Mustangs reach the Canadian Border.

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We reached the Canadian Border at Chief Mountain Trailhead in Glacier National Park at 3:15 p.m. on Friday, September 6. It feels good! Glacier National Park was as epic of a finale as we could have asked for and we got all our horses there safe and sound. Now its time to take a rest, put our ponies to pasture and edit our documentary footage.

The last 100 miles of the trip was the most dangerous terrain of the route. Glacier National Park is notorious for early snowfall, constant rain, icy passes, vertical cliffs and steep narrow trails. It’s the type of place that you’re wary of in the best of weather and terrified of as soon as the rocks get iced over. The passes in Glacier are where the Mountain Goats live, above the Bighorn, where you can look down at 10,000-year-old glaciers nearly 2,000 feet in elevation below you. Mirror lakes surrounded by vertical cliffs are found at the headwaters of the different drainages. We saw bald eagles, huge bull moose, bugling elk, Rocky Mountain Bighorn, deer, grizzly and black bears, and dozens of Mountain Goats. The phrase “pictures can’t do it justice” was likely coined in Glacier National Park.

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Our route was ambitious, especially with tired horses, tired people, nasty trail and our minds on the Canadian border. Our permit was for 100 miles with only 5 campsites. The National Park Service prohibits grazing stock on the trails, in hobbles or picketed, which forced us to carry our own feed and tie our ponies to hitch racks at night. To make matters worse, the weather forecast called for rain every day we were there and freezing temperatures at night. I was not looking forward to being soaked going over icy rocks on vertical cliffs with tired, underfed horses.

Our first day through the park started off beautifully but turned overcast and drizzly before noon. Thunder shook off the sheer rock walls throughout the afternoon, but fortunately the downpour never occurred over the craggy scenic ridge just west of East Glacier. We made it over the first pass without any horses slipping on wet rocks and in to our campsite at Oldman Lake without problems. The second day was a beast: 20 miles and 7,000 feet of elevation change over both Pitimakan and Triple Divide Passes. We started shortly after dawn to a fog-filled landscape that occasionally showed towering crags of rock and snow thousands of feet above us. Our first obstacle of the day, Pitimakan Pass, looked impossible and would have been so if the Park Service hadn’t cut a trail into the rock. As we rounded the first switchback, we saw a Park Ranger and after a moment of conversation learned that she had never heard of horses going over Pitimakan Pass. What a reassurance.

The uphill part of the pass had a lot of downward sloping rocks to scramble across but our mustangs and special tungsten carbide shoes did an excellent job of keeping our ponies on all four feet. Reaching the top of the pass was a relief and the view to the north was unforgettable. Directly below us, about 800 feet, was a huge lake without a ripple on the surface reflecting the glacier filled peaks beyond. We stopped for a quick look but moved on as the clouds began to build and drizzle slowly turned raindrops. The second pass, Triple Divide Pass, was equally as scenic and the trails were in remarkable shape and it presented no difficulty. That night we camped at Red Eagle Lake and watched a bull moose feeding in the lake as the sun went down and the stars began to shine through the clouds.

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The following morning I woke up to bugling elk, my favorite animal. Hopping out of my sleeping bag and running towards the sound, I spooked some cow elk out of camp and took off towards the sound of bugles. I caught up to the bull, got in front of him, and watched as he approached from 500 yards to within 10 yards of me and my camera. He bugled at least 2 dozen times challenging the other elk in the valley before he caught scent of myself and vanished into the dark timber. On my way back to camp I encountered two massive bull moose grunting and raking the last remnants of summer velvet into the willows and jack pines—excellent start to the day. The remainder of the day was easy, 20 miles of travel, no passes and only brief afternoon showers. We took our horses to the Going to the Sun Road and trailered them to the town of St. Mary in order to get them grass for the night to give their digestive system a break from alfalfa pellets.

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We got up at 4:00 a.m. the next morning, trailered our horses back to where we left, and departed on our second to last day of the trip. It began raining immediately as we began the ascent up Piegan Pass and intensified as we got closer to the top. Fortunately the pass didn’t have too much rock to slip on, and we made it up and over without incident. We saw bands of mountain goats and a herd of Bighorn when the rain slackened and the glacial water melt made the lakes below us an unworldly turquoise blue. We reached Many Glacier that afternoon, ate and headed up the last pass of the trip, Ptarmigan Pass. On top of Ptarmigan pass is a tunnel about 9 feet tall, 4 feet wide, and 150 feet long, just large enough to get a horse and rider through. The switchbacks were rocky and steep but the rain was gone and one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen greeted us on the other side of the tunnel. Part of the beauty was due to the fact that to the north of us, in plain sight, was our final destination—the Canadian Border.

We broke camp at Elizabeth Lake on the north side of Ptarmigan Pass just 10 miles from Canada for the final night. Anticipation was high and rightfully so, the border had seemed like an imaginary unreachable object that just recently came within our grasp at the first sight of Canadian Mountains. A sense of euphoria, followed by sadness, would come over me occasionally when I thought about how close we were to the finish line and all it represented.

The final day started with coffee, like all good days do, but that day I took a little extra time drinking my coffee and thought about all the people, hard work and planning it took to get to that moment. I realized that I wouldn’t be enjoying that moment without the support of over 1,000 Kickstarter donors, a dream team of production staff, investors, dozens of people who gave a helping hand along the way, and organizations like the Mustang Heritage Foundation and Western Horseman magazine who helped get this monumental project on its feet. To all the folks that helped along the way, thank you, and I wish you could have been there for that cup of coffee. It was the best I’ve ever had.

We headed for the border at 10:00 a.m that morning at an ambling walk soaking in every step of the last 10 miles. Douglas Fir trees gave way to Aspen groves as we dropped in elevation along the Belly River, which opened up to beautiful pocket meadows with waist high grass as we approached the border. The last mile was an uphill climb to Chief Mountain Trailhead and the horses must have sensed our excitement as their feet gained momentum and our speed increased. Eventually we lost all self-control and went faster and faster as the border came closer and closer. We burst through the trees at Chief Mountain Trailhead and to the north was the sight we’ve been imagining since Day 1: “LEAVING USA STOP AND REPORT TO CANADIAN CUSTOMS.”

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We ran across traffic with abandon and flew across the sign as Canadian Customs officials scratched their heads. It was a great feeling that only a person who has finished a long adventure can truly relate to. All the hard work, freezing nights, burning days, injuries, heartache and sickness was worth that one moment of euphoric joy. It was awesome!

For all of you who’ve helped along the way:  That border crossing was yours as well. Thank you.

Ben Masters

Unbranded: The Last Stretch

September 3rd, 2013  / Author: Kate Bradley

Nearing the finish: Four men, 13 Mustangs and more than 3,000 miles.

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We just got finished with the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, a 2.5-million-acre roadless area south of Glacier National Park. Two big fires, the Damnation and Red Shale, threw a wrench into our plans and forced us into a huge reroute to steer clear of the spreading forest fires. Our original route took us through remote but easy trails through the center of the “Bob.” The reroute forced us east into the Sawtooth Range, well named for its lack of plateaus, ridges and large drainages. The Sawtooths aren’t that tall but they make up for height in huge elevation changes, massive rock faces and a lack of grazing meadows. The views are stunning, but the going was slow and it often took twenty miles of trail travel to traverse 5 miles of straight line travel. Our horses, as well as we, had Canada on our mind and it was agonizing to accomplish so little distance with so much effort.

We’re currently five days and about 100 miles from the Canadian Border. Excited is an understatement! All that remains of our journey are seven 9,000-foot passes, 100 miles of cliff face switchbacks exposed to the forecasted afternoon thunderstorms, and possibly the most incredible scenery in the Lower 48, Glacier National Park. The Canadian Border has been a vague dream of ours for the past six months and as we get closer reality has begun to set in that the adventure will be drawing to a close. It’s a bittersweet feeling, I’m ready to get to that border, but it’ll be a hard transition from such a carefree way of living.

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Even though we aren’t finished with the trip it’s impossible not to reflect on the experiences that have brought us to this point. Less than a year ago I was working 90-hour weeks on the oil rigs to save up for this trip. Since then, we’ve worked with 11 wild horses and ridden 2,900 miles through the most incredible landscapes in the West.

One of the most common questions we get is what was the hardest part of the trip? It’s a tough question, we’ve gone over some nasty terrain, gotten kicked, bit, bucked off, evaded forest fires, snow storms, heat, etc… but we would never encountered any of the pains, or joys, had we not gotten started. Making up my mind to begin, execute, and finish a trip of this magnitude was easily the most difficult part of the trip. I knew what I was getting into but the hard part is the lost wages, the cocked eyebrows, and the determination to finish a started project. Now that the trip is almost completed its easy to say that it was an excellent decision but jumping off that cliff, refusing job offers, and ignoring the pressure people and society put on you to pursue a career, 401(k), and a big house was an extremely tough decision.

I’ve heard it from at least a dozen people thus far on the trip: “I wish I could do something like that.”  There’s absolutely no reason why they can’t. There are 773 million acres of public land in the United States to explore. There are 50,000 wild horses in holding facilities that need jobs. All it takes is a little saving (a mustang is $125), some planning, and the hard part—creating the determination to turn your dream into a reality. The sunrises, people, adventures and terrain I’ve encountered over the past couple months is worth more to me than any salary I could’ve acquired over the last year.

Equine Fly Fishing with Unbranded

August 21st, 2013  / Author: Kate Bradley

The trek draws to a close: Four men, 13 Mustangs and more than 3,000 miles.

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I’d rather fly fish than just about anything in life—with the exception being exploring new country horseback—but I think that the two go well together. The best trout streams are at least a couple miles off the nearest road and the best way to travel through mountains, where the trout live, is horseback. Sure there are a lot of trout next to rivers with highways on the banks, stocked trout in ponds, or big trout in lakes. But trout fishing really isn’t about the trout, it’s the experience of getting to water that doesn’t get fished, casting a fly to a fish that hasn’t ever seen one, and having the bustling world stop and focus on your line.

Thomas Glover fishing on the trail.

Thomas Glover fishing on the trail.

On my birthday, August 8, we traveled about 18 miles of mountain passes, meadows, and cliffs in the Madison Range East of Ennis, Montana, to a high mountain lake reflecting snow-clad peaks above. One of those mountain lakes where you can attempt to describe its beauty or take a representative picture but you just can’t do it justice. We broke camp quickly because trout were jumping out of the water across the glass lake with a layer of bustling bugs just above the surface. Keep it classic, size-16 Parachute Adams fly.

The fishing was easy and the trout were hungry. My picket horse, Luke, was dirty and watching us catch one trout after another. He stopped eating after a while and I just couldn’t help but saddle him and try to catch a trout a-horseback. Luke is a great horse and you can do just about anything on him, open a map, take a nap, etc… and he’s rock solid. His one vice is that he’s buddy bound and can get kind of worked up when he’s not with his pals.

I put the rod in my teeth, traveled around the lake to where a sandbar jutted into the water, and directed Luke to head in. He went in to the lake without much coaxing and I pointed him towards the center to get more area behind me for a backcast. Another horse whinnied and Luke decided he’d rather be with his friends and out of a lake so we struggled to get our missions in alignment and during that struggle he slipped on a rock and went face first into the lake, falling so far my saddle horn almost got wet. I couldn’t stop laughing, almost bit through my rod, but it had a calming effect on Luke who looked like a cat that finally submits to taking a bath and just stood to get it over with faster. Excellent time to begin casting.

Trout were rising all around me and I positioned Luke towards a spot where a bigger fish kept striking the surface. Holding the reins in my teeth I let out line, wished I had a strip basket, and watched the coils go under his belly.  After false casting for a couple repetitions Luke got acclimatized to the whirring above his head, relaxed and watched the neon green line swirl above him. Three or four casts later I got into the rhythm, let out enough line, and watched my Adams fly land in the same spot a trout rose just moments before. Two seconds didn’t go by and a ten-inch trout catapulted out of the air, fly in mouth! I set the hook and the fight was on. Normally on a small fish I would just bring it in by stripping in line, but the more line I stripped in the more line went under Luke, and I knew that would be a big wreck if he got tangled. Pulling back on the reins with my teeth, I managed to reel in the fish to within 15 feet before I couldn’t go any further because I couldn’t stop laughing. The trout was swimming back and forth in front of Luke and he was following the fish with his head like a cat watching a toy swing on a string. I let him follow the trout for a while before bringing it closer, lifting it out of the water, and holding it in front of Luke’s head with my rod. Luke looked cross-eyed at the flopping fish in front of his face and followed it as I brought it over his head and into my hands. That is a broke horse!

Ben Masters fly fishing off Luke.

Ben Masters fly fishing off Luke.

I’d like to say that we had a trout feast that night but after I unhooked it, it slipped through my fingers and back into the lake before I could get it into my saddlebags.

I was pretty proud of my horse for standing in a lake with fly line zooming over his head. These horses have come a long way, both in distance and in mindset. I’m giving Luke to the Mustang Heritage Foundation for them to auction off at the Mustang Million Contest in Fort Worth, Texas, on September 21. Money raised will go towards Mustang adoptions. If you want a great broke horse that has seen just about everything the wild can throw at a trail horse, come take a look at him.
Ben Masters

For more on Unbranded, visit unbrandedthefilm.com.

Unbranded: Riding with Ryan

August 13th, 2013  / Author: Western Horseman

In the home stretch: Four men, 13 Mustangs and more than 3,000 miles.

Photo by Ryan T. Bell

Photo by Ryan T. Bell

When Western Horseman told me they wanted to send along a writer with us for a few days on the trail, my first thought was that they’d better be pretty tough. Ryan T. Bell, contributing editor, came to meet us near Emigrant, Montana. He showed up horseless to go on a pack trip, brought more gear than a fashion designer, took more pictures than a photographer in Yellowstone, and immediately decided that he wanted to ride my best horse. “Oh well,” I thought, lets just see how this goes.

The first day we got a late start but managed to get moving right in time for a big thunderstorm. After a couple hours of drizzle and rain the weather cleared for a beautiful ride up Big Creek in the Gallatin Mountains. Just before the sun set down we saw a mature Bull Elk on a timber-filled ridge standing on a rock outcropping—maybe this Ryan guy is good luck!  We broke camp after 15 miles, an easy day, and we set up a tent to block the rain. Ryan decided to sleep under the stars and looming thunderstorm, which I thought was odd, but had more than a little respect when I noted how he laid out his bedroll using a mantie to block out potential rain. He’d done this before.

Ryan Bell riding Chief.

Ryan Bell riding Chief.

The next morning broke crystal clear and beautiful. When I rolled out of bed Ryan already had a fire crackling with coffee boiling, it was pretty nice really. After tracking a mile, I found the horses, brought them back to camp and noticed he already had his gear all laid out and ready to pack. He immediately grabbed my gray horse, Chief, and was the first one saddled and ready to go. He took at least 200 pictures by the time we poured out the last of our coffee. Interestingly enough he was wearing a saddle blanket with a hole cut out in the middle to stick his head through. Inquiring, I learned that it came from Argentina: he’d spent 3 years and three additional summers down there working cattle and horses. I began feeling like the amateur.

For the next couple of days we traveled through some gorgeous but gnarly country in the Gallatin and Madison mountain ranges. We rode up the raging Gallatin River for a mile and a half to avoid the highway, crossed multiple passes over 10,000 feet in elevation, looked at Bighorn Sheep below us, and got rained on every afternoon. I never heard a complaint out of Ryan and he lent a helping hand every step of the way. Turns out he’s pretty punchy. He’s worked cattle in Argentina, Russia, all over the West, and has packed extensively, including in some of the areas on our route. To say the least we hit it off, even if he did take my best horse.

Ryan is one of those guys who makes you want to do stupid things to get a good photograph, like swimming your horse into a lake to get a shot fly fishing off a horse. He stayed behind to get good shots, ran ahead to get better shots, and pulled more than his weight in camp. He has an open invitation to go with us any time and is a testament to why Western Horseman has great material and photographs. Here are a couple shots from that stretch.

Ben Masters

Look for Ryan T. Bell’s “Unbranded” update in a winter issue of Western Horseman.
For more information on the ride, visit unbrandedthefilm.com.

The Best of Unbranded: Teton Wilderness, Yellowstone Park and the Absaroka-Beartooths

August 6th, 2013  / Author: Western Horseman

The adventure in the north: Four men, 13 Mustangs and more than 3,000 miles.

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The best two-week pack trip I can think of? Easy: Through the Teton Wilderness, into Yellowstone Park and then on to the Absaroka-Beartooths. If you’re looking for a great backcountry trek, here’s a step-by-step, or destination-by-destination, guide to some of the most beautiful land we’ve seen. Unlike most wilderness areas that contain little more than rocks and ice, this stretch had huge grass-filled valleys, large rivers and lower elevations, and goes through the largest intact ecosystem in the Lower 48. We saw bears, bison, bald eagles, elk, deer and a variety of terrain. If I had two weeks to go on a pack trip this is the route that I would take.

We left Red Rock Dude Ranch on July 16 on the Gros Ventre River close to Jackson, Wyoming, for a two-week, non-stop ride all the way to Emigrant, Montana. We just now got out of the backcountry and it has been the most epic part of the ride to date. We traveled almost 300 miles and crossed only three roads. For those of you looking for an incredible horse pack trip this one would be my most suggested—at least from what we’ve traveled through thus far.

I’d start at the Togwotee Lodge on Highway 287 east of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and go north into the Buffalo River area. From the Buffalo, follow the North Fork of the Buffalo River, a beautiful tributary filled with massive native Cutthroat Trout that even a bunch of cowboys can catch dozens of fish in. Head north up the Buffalo fork to Trail Creek and over Two Ocean Pass to the Parting of the Waters. The Parting of the Waters is what Lewis and Clark searched for: the only waterway from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  Two Ocean Creek is the only creek that is diverted in half; one side goes to the Atlantic and the other to the Pacific. The creek literally splits in half at a rock pile and this is significant because fish species can pass over the Continental Divide at this location. It’s the only place in North America where this happens.

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From Two Ocean Pass head east on Atlantic Creek to the Yellowstone River near its headwaters. The Yellowstone, at this point, is only a large creek and it winds its way north through a valley a half-mile wide filled with waist-high grass, elk, moose, wolves and grizzlies. Continue north on the Yellowstone River to Hawk’s Rest, the furthest point from a road in the Lower 48 at more than 30 miles. If you wind up here you either know what you’re doing in the backcountry or you’re extremely lost. The fishing at Bridger Lake, near Hawk’s Rest, is simply unbelievable. You can patrol the shorelines and see huge Cutthroats up to 20 inches also patrolling the shoreline. We used wooly buggers to catch them and they looked like sharks attacking our flies, sight fishing at its best. From Hawk’s Rest keep going north on the Yellowstone, past the famously wild Thorofare, and on to Yellowstone Lake inside of Yellowstone National Park, one of the largest natural lakes in the area at 136 square miles.

It takes at least one full day to travel on the east side of Yellowstone Lake and get to the northern edge. From there keep heading north up the Pelican Valley, which is loaded with Buffalo and ridiculously scenic views. Go over Mist Creek Pass into the Lamar River drainage, which is home to one of the largest Bison herds in the world. Keep heading north along the Lamar until it intersects with Cache Creek. Head east on Cache Creek (another stream loaded with native Cutthroats eager to eat a fly) to the trail turnoff headed to the Soda Butte drainage. At the Soda Butte, head west to the confluence of Pebble Creek. Go north on Pebble Creek to Bliss Pass and get ready for some tight switchbacks where the Bighorn Sheep live. After Bliss Pass go into the Slough Creek drainage, another huge valley filled with Bison and even better Cutthroat fishery in North America. The views here are unparalleled, with young Aspens growing in the wasteland of the historic 1988 fire. Go north on Slough Creek, exit Yellowstone National Park at the northern edge, and enter into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

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Once you’re in the wilderness, continue north up Slough Creek before branching off onto Bull Creek, which will take you into the Buffalo Drainage (there’s a lot of creeks and landmarks called buffalo in this area). From the Buffalo Drainage continue west into the Hellroaring Canyon, a gnarly steep canyon with huge cliff walls above water that would make the cleanest aquarium look like a mud pit. From the Hellroaring go up Specimen Creek to the Ash Mountain Trail above the timberline with views of huge mountains every direction you look. The grass up here is strong, thigh-high, and filled with Indian Paintbrush, Blue Lupine, and so many types of yellow and white flowers that its impossible to keep up with all the species.

From Ash Mountain stay on the crest of the Absaroka range to Knox Lake, Fish Lake, and the massive Monitor Peak. On top of the Monitor you can see all through the Absaroka Range, the Beartooths, the Gallatins, and the mighty Yellowstone making its way through the aptly named Paradise Valley. From the Monitor head northeast along Six Mile Creek to the Yellowstone River.

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We just now finished this stretch of our trip, but it won’t be the last time I go along this route. All of our campsites were filled with strong, abundant mountain grass, the rivers teamed with fish, the wildlife was abundant and the scenery was unbelievable. The Park Service, Forest Service and outfitters keep excellent trails in this area, and it’s horse country at its finest. Enjoy!

Ben Masters

For more on Unbranded Film Project, visit unbrandedthefilm.com.

NOTE: Backcountry editor Ryan T. Bell is currently riding with the crew.
Be on the lookout for upcoming articles featuring his time on the trail.

The View from Unbranded

July 30th, 2013  / Author: Western Horseman

The trek continues: Four men, 13 Mustangs and more than 3,000 miles.

Sometimes an image is worth more than words, and such is the case for the visuals coming in from the Unbranded trail. The crew is now in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. The guys sent in the following photos from their last few days on the trail. Beautiful scenery, men at work, and horses back in the wilderness. Enjoy the view from Unbranded’s lens.

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Continue to follow Western Horseman’s exclusive “Unbranded” blog here, and stay tuned for more print coverage in the winter issues.

Unbranded: Filming Mustangs with Helicopters

July 23rd, 2013  / Author: Western Horseman

The adventure continues: Four men, 13 Mustangs and more than 3,000 miles.

Photo courtesy Ben Masters

Photo courtesy Ben Masters

When we decided to embark on more than 3,000-mile trek through the deepest backcountry left in the West, we thought we’d spice it up a little by tossing a bunch of green broke Mustangs in the mix and thousands of dollars of cameras to make a documentary film. We’ve made it a long way, but looking back we’ve mixed some things together that probably shouldn’t ever be mixed, like Mustangs and remote control, camera-carrying helicopters.

To control the population of wild horses, the BLM gathers wild horses off their rangelands with helicopters and puts them into corrals. Sometimes the wild horses aren’t easy to herd and they’ll get pretty exhausted by the time they get in the corrals. Once in the corrals, the horses are branded, castrated, sorted by sex and age, given shots, and distributed around the country to be adopted. All of our mustangs went through this process.

When Phill Baribeau, our director and camera wizard, suggested that we get a remote control helicopter to get aerial footage of our pack string going through some beautiful terrain the first adjective that came to mind was madness. The only time our horses had ever seen a helicopter it ran them to exhaustion, they were split from their herd, had needles poked into them, lost their manhood, and got shipped off to some foreign pipe corral—probably not their fondest memory. That being said, we’ve bitten off more than we can chew since day one so why not go for it. Sanity isn’t our strong suit and aerial footage would be pretty neat!

The folks from On Location Aerial in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, met us on the Pariah River in southern Utah right as the morning sun was beginning to spill over the canyon rims. We awoke early, shook our gear free of the spiders and scorpions that infest that country, and had our ponies tacked up when they got there. The remote control helicopter was surprisingly small, battery operated and a camera hung where the pilot would normally sit. One person operated the helicopter and flew it on a predetermined flight path while another person looked through goggles at a screen of what the camera was seeing and could adjust the camera up or down and side to side.

I was pretty nervous when I slung my leg over my horse as thoughts of stampeding, Mustangs flying through the canyons running from a helicopter raced through my head. The horses must have felt my nerves and anticipation because they were on edge and dancing in place; they knew something was up. I looked back at my two packhorses and down at the one lead rope I was holding: There was no control of the rear packhorse and I was praying that he wouldn’t lose his mind and blow through my string.

The sound of the RC helicopter starting up was similar to a whiny high pitch lawn mower. All ears picked up and the Mustangs looked towards the sound. I began to move my horses out, trying to get them into trail mode and their mind off the foreign sound. I had gone about 10 yards before the helicopter topped a rise and my horses began to blow. Utter confusion and the horse’s fear was palpatable at the sight of this loud monstrous dragonfly-looking contraption. I could only think, “Oh boy, here it comes.”

All the horses began to move in an unorganized blob as the helicopter came closer. We couldn’t keep them at a walk, so they broke into a trot, and as the helicopter passed over our heads they stopped and stared into the sky with a confused look. As we talked and rubbed them into comfort the Mustangs began to ease down in demeanor. Whew! One shot down and we didn’t have a stampede.

As the day went on we traveled up the Pariah River and a tributary, Cottonwood Creek, where the truck/helicopter combo went ahead of us to scout out aerial shots. We managed to get about a dozen good ones and the horses became more and more relaxed as the day went on. I was pretty proud of my string, they kept their heads and trusted us even thought they wanted to stampede.

Stay tuned for a video update from our adventure!
Ben Masters

For more on the “Unbranded” project, visit unbrandedthefilm.com.
Look for detailed information on “Unbranded” in the winter issues of Western Horseman.

Unbranded Up North

July 16th, 2013  / Author: Western Horseman

The trek pushes north: Four men, 13 Mustangs and more than 3,000 miles.

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It has been a relatively smooth trip so far, and we have covered 2,000 miles of our planned 3,000 mile-plus trip. Currently, we are bedding down at Red Rock Ranch, a guest ranch on the Gros Ventre River just east of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  The sun sets over the Grand Teton Mountains here. Looking north, we’re about to go through one of the largest expanses of Wilderness in the lower 48. For the next 300 miles we will cross only two roads, see no power lines, very few people and go through some of the most incredible landscapes in the world.

Our route will take us through the Bridger-Teton National Forests, the Teton Wilderness, Yellowstone National Park, Gallatin National Forest and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. We’ll pass Hawk’s Rest—the furthest point from a road in the lower 48 at 33 miles—Yellowstone Lake, dozens of thermal hotspots, hundreds of bison, Two Ocean Pass—the only place where water splits to go to the Pacific and to the Atlantic—and arguably the best Cutthroat Trout fly fishing in North America.  Excited is an understatement, this is the jewel of the trip!

For the past 4 days we’ve rested our horses at Red Rock Ranch in preparation for going through this massive stretch of land without any stops. The horses are in incredible athletic condition, their feet are holding up like steel, and their legs look like a body builder’s bicep.  I wish I looked as good as our stock.

Ben Masters

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For more information on the Unbranded Film Project, visit unbrandedthefilm.com.

Look for follow-up articles on the trek in winter Western Horseman issues.

Unbranded: An All-American Holiday

July 9th, 2013  / Author: Western Horseman

The journey continues: Four men, 13 Mustangs and more than 3,000 miles.

Thomas Glover looks back at the camera as the rider's cross into Wyoming.

Thomas Glover looks back at the camera as the rider's cross into Wyoming.

The Fourth of July was an eventful weekend for Jonny Fitzsimons, Thomas Glover, Ben Masters and Ben Thamer. The men crossed into Wyoming from Idaho—still 10 days ahead of schedule—and met their families in Jackson Hole for the holiday. While there, they took part in the historic Jackson Hole Rodeo! The rodeo’s slogan, “Where the West is still wild!,” definitely fits this crew. Take a look at these shots sent in from their rodeo experience.

Thomas Glover and Ben Masters prepare for the event.

Thomas Glover and Ben Masters prepare for the event.

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