I recently watched the documentary Unbranded, which follows the course of four young cowpokes who tame and ride wild mustangs from Mexico to Canada—a notable feat. Their intent was to raise awareness of the plight of tens of thousands of wild horses held in pens awaiting adoption.
The film was recommended by a friend who knew of my own month-long trail ride through the Rocky Mountain wilderness in the sixties. Of course the four fellows traveling to Canada were seasoned horsemen, while my friend Mitch and I were total greenhorns—just a couple of hippies with a thirst for adventure and a love for the outdoors. We had to learn on the fly, leading to some runaway craziness and near disasters as our horses tried their damnedest to return home.
As the cowboys in Unbranded continued on their 3,000-mile journey, they developed a strong relationship with their horses. It reminded me that even though my horse, a buckskin roan I called Geronimo, was only with me for a little more than a month, we connected on a level I had never expected. Almost wild when we first met, he transformed into a half-ton puppy dog, tagging along without being tied.
Over the time Mitch and I rode together, the differences between my horse and his became more apparent. They say dogs take on the characteristics of their owners, but I hadn’t considered that it could also apply to horses. Geronimo even learned a few things from my dog, Charlie.
Here’s an excerpt from my book Groovin’: Horses, Hopes, and Slippery Slopes to illustrate:
I saw a difference between Mitch’s animals and my own. Perhaps it had to do with our temperaments. My partner’s industrious nature lent itself to hasty, fast-moving mannerisms—at least compared to mine. Simply put, someone once paid me a compliment when he said, “If Rich was any mellower, he’d be dead.”
Unbranded reaffirmed my admiration of fine trail horses and their ability to traverse unforgiving terrain. Geronimo and Doña would dance through trees and forest debris that seemed impassable to us. But later, similar to a scene in the movie, Doña slipped on the loose dirt and shale leading up to Conundrum Pass and tumbled backward. By some miracle, she survived unharmed.
Check out Unbranded. The scenery is magnificent, and the cowboys will keep you entertained. It’s a must-see for all who love horses and the West.
And for someone who knows what it takes to ride a long distance through rough territory, the film offered renewed inspiration to set lofty goals and see them through to completion.
Note: One more thing. Some people believe that wild horses shouldn’t be removed from the wilds, that breaking a horse for riding is cruel, and that this film is a BLM propaganda piece. I respect their opinions and salute their efforts to protect animal rights. At the same time, having experienced the bond a man and a horse can share, I know that a horse can be broken, ridden, and cared for with both a firm and kind hand. When I watched this film, I didn’t witness any cruelty.
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