Unbranded: Filming Mustangs with Helicopters

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.

One Response to “Unbranded: Filming Mustangs with Helicopters”

  1. Tony Henrie says:

    Great idea. Glad it worked. Can’t wait to see the full video presentation.

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