It takes commitment to attempt a cross-country pack trip, and courage to attempt it on recently trained Mustangs. Yet, the four men who are creating the documentary “Unbranded” leapt at the chance to embrace a pioneer lifestyle and film their incredible journey.
Photography by Ross Hecox
Originally published in the May 2013 issue
South Texas is the perfect proving ground for the men and Mustangs of the Unbranded project. From left, Jonny Fitzsimons, Ben Masters, Ben Thamer and Thomas Glover.
Very few horsemen plan a cross-country trip horseback, and taking two such trips is almost unheard of. However, Ben Masters is not your ordinary 24-year-old. The exuberant, detail-minded Masters infects those around him with enthusiasm, which is one of the reasons he was able to recruit three others to trek with him more than 3,000 miles over six months, from Nogales, Arizona, on the Mexican border, to Glacier National Park in Montana, at the Canadian border.
Working with Masters planning, preparing for and undertaking the journey is a group of 23-year-old recent graduates of Texas A&M University—Thomas Glover, Jonny Fitzsimons and Ben Thamer. While they all hail from Texas and went to the same college, the true glue that binds the team together is Masters. Glover and Masters worked elk hunts together in Wyoming; Fitzsimons and Masters knew each other from polo events in Texas; and Thamer and Masters became friends as youth Amarillo Safari Club members and reconnected at Texas A&M. All four have led pack trips and guided hunts or trail rides in Colorado and Wyoming.
In addition to taking this risky excursion, the group decided to document their experience by also creating a film titled Unbranded. Preparation for this trip began in early 2011, only months after Masters completed his first cross-country trek from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Glacier National Park, Montana, with two other friends. As each man signed on for this new trip, the need for additional mounts grew. The solution for finding these horses was seemingly simple: adopt and train Mustangs from the Bureau of Land Management.
“The horses lived a life previous to [their] capture, an ‘unbranded’ lifestyle,” says Masters. “Then the Mustangs were rounded up. By adopting these horses, we are in a way giving them back that unbranded, Western lifestyle. We are returning them to the wild lands they came from, but this time they have a job. They are helping us live out a dream.”
In late January, the four riders, a film crew and two Mustang Heritage Foundation Trainer Incentive Program mentors, Jerry Jones and Lanny Leach, traveled to Hutchinson, Kansas, to select Mustangs at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility. The BLM houses more than 1,000 horses there and partners with inmates at the facility to gentle the animals. BLM then offers the horses for adoption through the TIP program.
“We adopted more Mustangs than we ended up taking with us; three just didn’t make the cut,” Masters says. “With our knowledge and advice from the TIP trainers, we selected horses between 4 years and 8 years of age, as judged by the BLM. Big horses with good feet were our focus.”
Leach’s and Jones’ previous experience training for Extreme Mustang Makeover and Mustang Magic competitions came in handy. The horses first traveled to Jones’ facility in Cresson, Texas, to be started under saddle by Jones and Leach.
“Working with Mustangs is like opening a present; you don’t know what you will get until you peel back the layers,” Leach says. “There is a lot of unpredictability with these horses, and it seems like the trip is unpredictable. The story Ben shared with me is interesting and I think they are going to do big things.”
After learning the basics from Jones and Leach, the horses traveled to Fitzsimons’ San Pedro Ranch in Carrizo Springs, Texas, where Fitzsimons and Thamer worked to acclimate the horses to being ridden outside. In South Texas, intensive riding and logistics took the place of early stage fund-raising and planning. The horses and riders will haul straight from Carrizo Springs to the stepping off point in Nogales, where the real adventure begins.
While traveling a route planned by Masters, the group will traverse historic paths such as the Arizona Trail, Great Western Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. Here, meet the men of Unbranded, each with his own talents and aspirations for the epic April 1 through September cross-country ride.
BEN MASTERS – THE MASTERMIND
“I’m the guy that loves maps and logistics,” says Masters, a native of Amarillo, Texas. “I like to see a trip planned and executed well.”
(L) Though ridden since mid-January, the Mustangs still challenge each rider. (R) At 24 years old, Ben Masters already has one cross-country trip under his belt, and is the mastermind for the 3,000-mile trek. His dog, Ruby, may join the ride.
Using state maps and electronic sources like Google Maps, Masters plotted the more than 3,000-mile trip with a goal of using public lands as much as possible. The majority of the trip sticks to government-owned land, with pre-arranged stops at ranches. Masters will tell you the United States is the first country to institute public lands.
“We have more than 630 million acres of land at our disposal,” he says. “We are going into the deepest backcountry we can find. Most of the trip will be on land that doesn’t have a path or road—maybe an old wagon road or logging road—but at some points we will have to use a path in a national park or state land.”
Masters bases many decisions for this trip on his experiences in 2010, when he and two other riders traversed nearly 2,000 miles. From gathering permits to cross federal and state lands, to choosing a supplemental feed for the horses, to working daily around a camera crew, Masters’ detailed list of responsibilities is daunting. Yet, he rarely seems worried.
“Last trip, the $200 tent was the most expensive thing we had, and now we have a $40,000 camera,” he says. “The challenge is getting down to the basics—what do we really need? Do we need two axes or one? There is a lot of gear to take for the cameraman that is riding with us, and we need the horses to last the entire ride.
“I broke the trip into 10-day, 200-mile segments that begin and end at a ranch. We are going to mail supplies to the ranches so we can transfer them into the panniers [on the pack saddles] and keep going.”
Whether Masters is moving around an office making calls to potential project donors or saddling a Mustang, he exudes confidence. Though none of the men know what waits over the next mountain, they know Masters will ensure they are not going off a cliff.
“There are concerns for every part of the trip. I think central Arizona is going to surprise us as a favorite part, but I’m concerned about the water quality there,” he says. “In southern Utah, we hit 11,000 feet pretty early, so I hope the snow is out of there.
“I don’t think we really know what’s going to happen until we get out there. There will be a lot of curveballs thrown at us, but that is what makes it fun.”
Logistically, Masters knows he can have the perfect plan, but in reality nothing is set in stone. That includes the horses’ ability to maintain a pace of up to 20 miles a day, every day. Weather delays and potential detours may cost the riders hours on the trail, and lengthen the trip.
“We will end up walking one-third of this trip,” he says. “It is not fair to your horse to carry that much weight all day, especially going downhill. People think that we are using Mustangs because they can carry us the whole way. Well, they can, but we have to take care of them, too.
“We are using Mustangs because they are tough and were practically free, and they are adapted to the environment we are taking them into. Really, [the trip] is about four guys who wish they’d lived 200 years ago. It is a tribute to the West.”
BEN THAMER – THE JACK-OF-ALL-TRADES
In 2010, Ben Thamer had the opportunity to join Masters on his 2,000-mile pack trip, but turned it down. It was a decision he came to regret.
Ben Thamer shifted from using a horse to work cattle in the feedlot to training Mustangs to ride and pack. The 23-year-old agriculture economics major brings his unique sense of humor and inexhaustible work ethic to the long days spent horseback.
“I thought it sounded awesome, and with Masters everyone is always invited,” Thamer says. “I took an internship and couldn’t go. Masters kind of disappeared for a while after that. Shortly after I graduated, he called me and said he was doing another trip. I had just started being an adult, but within 45 minutes I said ‘yes,’ I was in.”
Thamer, who graduated in December 2011 with a degree in agriculture economics, was working at a feedlot in Spearman, Texas. Though he worked for Sombrero Ranch in 2010 guiding trail rides in Colorado, Spearman was the first place Thamer needed a horse to complete a job.
“I spent six months feeding, doctoring and sorting feedlot cattle, all horseback,” he says. “No one taught me to ride, no one taught me to sit. You can see that, but I’ve done all right. Really, I’m a utility guy.
Thamer’s horse history is not as far-reaching as that of his companions, but recently, his days were consumed with riding.
“These guys all have unique skill sets. I don’t know where I really fit, but I like to do a little bit of everything. I feel like I’ve been on walkabout since the first of the year. I’ve done fund-raising, went to Cresson to ride [with Jones and Leach], and lately I’ve been in Carrizo Springs riding with Jonny. I like to be outside.”
The trim Thamer is quick with a comeback or solution, whichever is necessary at the time. Training Mustangs was a quick education for the once-avid rock climber and seasoned hunter.
“You can’t trust these horses too much, at least not right now,” Thamer says. “They have more of an animal instinct. Hopefully, a couple weeks into this we can get a routine going, sit back and look at the country while we ride.
“I think we will be at a trot the first few days, coming from Nogales. We sourced a lot of cattle out of there [when working at the feedlot], and I’m nervous about that part of the trip. It’s very much ‘The Border.’ The rest I’m not worried about. I just want to be in a cool place on the Fourth of July, seeing this country.”
THOMAS GLOVER – THE HANDYMAN
(L) Working in Houston, Texas, and dealing with traffic and a lack of space is the best stimulus to hit the trail, says 23-year-old Thomas Glover. A former elk-hunting guide, Glover brings camp jack skills to the group. (R) Thomas Glover’s first ride on a Mustang was uneventful, but put the horse-related challenges of the trip into perspective.
“I’m not sure what to expect, really, but it will all be new,” says Thomas Glover, a 2012 construction science graduate. “We’ll see the stars and how the country changes. You can’t beat it.”
Seeing the stars is a big deal for a city kid from Houston, Texas. However, this is not Glover’s first pack trip. In his freshman year of college, he befriended Masters who suggested he spend the summer of 2010 working for Sombrero Ranch in Grand Lake, Colorado. In the fall of 2011, the two paired up to work for elk guides in Wyoming.
“That was where I learned to pack,” says Glover. “I started out as a camp jack and I did a lot of splitting trees. I learned a lot about myself in Wyoming, and the technical side of packing. It was a crash course in how you lead a string of horses on the first day. I was thrown into the fire, but now I am able to go into the wilderness and survive.”
Glover brings his creative outlook to the group. Often, a poorly maintained, treacherous trail requires imaginative solutions.
“I’ve always been the guy in my group of friends to build a tree fort or a sled,” he says. “We all have decent horse experience, though. I knew Masters took Mustangs on his first trip, and he swears by them. Every horse I’ve ridden, the more hours you put on it, the better it gets. I’m sure the horses will fall into a routine, too, after a few weeks.
“It may be crazy with the camera guys, but packing will become second nature to us, just like it did for me in Wyoming. To actually have this trip documented is cool. I’m not concerned with how big this film is; I’m most excited about the trip. That is why we are doing it, to go on a cool ride and see what we don’t normally see.”
Glover may have already experienced Wyoming, but he is excited to see the Grand Canyon country of Arizona and Utah. More important than just sightseeing, Glover says his goal is to complete the trip.
“I regretted not going on Masters’ first trip,” he says. “I was younger and thought he was crazy, but he did it! I made up my mind to go if he did it again. There’s a part of me that likes doing something you won’t get the chance to do again. What better way to see this country than from the back of a horse?”
JONNY FITZSIMMONS – THE HORSEMAN
You would expect someone growing up on the San Pedro, a South Texas cattle ranch, to be accustomed to being horseback. However, a Mustang is not often the chosen mount on a ranch. Jonny Fitzsimons is more often mounted on a Thoroughbred or Appendix Quarter Horse while working cattle or playing polo, and for this trip his well-rounded horsemanship style will be an asset.
Jonny Fitzsimons’ main concern on the trail is the fitness and health of the 13 Mustangs carrying the men, film crew and gear. The dependable young man’s survival training and knowledge of the Mustang’s habits make him a vital member of the team.
“I’ve been around horses all my life, but it has been a huge learning curve for us,” he says. “My number-one goal is to get the horses in good enough shape and make sure they keep fitness along the way.”
Keeping in shape is important for all riders, but especially Fitzsimons, who was recently commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps after completing Officer Candidate School. Upon completing the six-month trip, he will report to The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, in early November.
“As far as logistics and leadership skills, I think the trip can only help me in my military career,” he says.
The lessons he is learning dealing with the Mustangs transfer easily into teaching opportunities. In early February, Glover took his first ride on a Mustang, and Fitzsimons was there to lead by example. He showed Glover the slow movements needed when saddling up, effective groundwork position and how to be safe in the saddle, all lessons he learned logging hours with the Mustangs.
Along with Thamer, Fitzsimons spent each day in South Texas saddling and riding at least two Mustangs, but usually averaging four. The two rode the sandy country of the ranch, legging up the animals for the 20-mile days they face on the trail.
Years in the saddle working cattle or riding polo ponies prepared Fitzsimons for the gauntlet of challenges the Mustangs lay down.
“At first, it took 30 minutes to saddle each horse, but [on the trail] about five minutes. It also took three or four rides in the corral before we could take them out to the pastures, but the horses got better every day,” Fitzsimons says of the weeks spent in preparation. “They all have good bone and frames, and they are all in the same range as far as quality.”
Fitzsimons spends summers in southern Wyoming working on a cattle ranch, and is most interested in seeing southern Utah. He knows this trip is a unique chance to see the country before committing himself to military service.
“It is going to be long days covering a lot of country, but we won’t be covering the same trail every day,” he says. “We don’t know if it is going to snow, be muddy, if the trail is going to be passable or what. The horses will be ready and so will we. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of ride.”
The trip began April 1 in Nogales, Arizona, and now the riders are navigating the brutal desert in Arizona, looking toward the towering peaks of Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. At each 10-day stop, the four riders will provide Western Horseman with exclusive stories and photographs of the adventure.
Six months on the trail is a lifetime to someone used to Internet access and cable TV, not to mention drive-thru food. These four don’t anticipate missing those modern conveniences; rather, they will miss the important people in their lives.
“I don’t think the hardest part will be not showering,” Glover says with a smile. “Where else but on the trail can you be dirty like people were back in the day? You learn to live without the things you think you need. The hardest part is riding 20 miles and being able to look back down a mountain and say, yep, that is where we started this morning.
“Not looking ahead and staying in the moment, that is important. Hopefully, we can all appreciate the opportunity we have to see this country and do this trip.”
THE FILM PROJECT
When the lightbulb went off in Ben Masters’ brain, it shone on adventure documentary films. Given the recent success of the horse-focused documentary BUCK, and having viewed many hunting and travel films, Masters believed the ride he planned would entertain a large audience.
“This film will not just be entertaining, watching us train and ride Mustangs across the country,” he says. “It will show people the awesome land we citizens have at our disposal. Why not use the land and use these Mustangs to show people what is out there?”
Teaming with Denver Miller, a cinematographer with credits from National Geographic, and Phillip Baribeau, a Montana-based cinematographer and film editor who worked on the History Channel’s Ax Men, Masters lined out a production schedule and budget for top-notch equipment. Recently, Cindy Meehl, director and producer of BUCK and 7 Clinics with Buck Brannaman, joined the creative effort to help the four riders get the most out of their time on video and audio.
The end product will be a 90- to 120-minute documentary showing the selection of the Mustangs, training in South Texas, and their adventures on the trail. The project is also funded by pledges of support through the website kickstarter.com.
For more information on the film and crew of the Unbranded documentary, visit unbrandedthefilm.com.