Cross-Country on Wild Horses
Credit: Photograph by Cory Richards

Last April, Ben Masters and three buddies from Texas A&M University saddled 12 wild mustangs for a six-month, 3,000-mile journey from Mexico to Canada. Masters, 24, and his friends – only one of whom grew up on a ranch – are undertaking the sort of long-range horseback expedition not seen since the closing of the West's open range, around 1890. They're following a Google Earth-routed patchwork of public land from Nogales, Arizona, to Montana's Glacier National Park, crossing the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone along the way. In addition to navigating obstacles like icy 400-foot cliffs and the occasional grizzly bear, Masters is racing against time to cross the Canadian border before heavy snow covers

Glacier's high mountain passes this month. "It may be 2013," Masters says, "but, incredibly, there's still enough land to do this kind of stuff."

Masters is making the journey for two reasons: to showcase the West's remaining tracts of wildland and to expose the plight of its most iconic inhabitant – the wild mustang. For the first time in U.S. history, there are more mustangs in captivity than in the wild. At an annual taxpayer cost of $75 million, the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is currently caring for about 50,000 mustangs in corrals and pastures in Kansas and Oklahoma – compared with the 30,000 mustangs that run freely on public land in the West. First introduced by the Spanish in the 16th century, the mustangs became imperiled in the early 20th century as "mustangers" rounded up western herds, slaughtered them, and sold the meat to a growing pet-food industry (as immortalized in John Huston's 1961 film 'The Misfits'). In 1971 – spurred by a letter-writing campaign – Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, a protective measure that soon caused the fast-breeding mustang population to balloon to unsustainable numbers (if left unchecked, the herd grows by 20 percent a year).

To combat overpopulation, the BLM herds mustangs by helicopter into funnel-shaped pens, administers the sterility drug PZP-22 via jab sticks, and then releases them. "It isn't a magical solution," BLM representative Tom Gorey says, noting that the drug works for only 22 months, and it's impossible to capture all herds in the West. Additionally, the BLM rounds up herds and trucks them to the corrals and pastures in Kansas and Oklahoma. But the BLM will soon have no remaining room to take in mustangs from the region, resulting in massive die-offs as a growing wild mustang population competes for limited resources. "We're reaching critical mass," Gorey says. "Fifty-three thousand mustangs is our maximum capacity."

In an unprecedented effort to shed its mustangs, the BLM has begun offering wild-horse adoption online, where customers can peruse individual photos and purchase a ready-to-ride mustang – often trained by Colorado prisoners – starting at $125. After potential buyers demonstrate they can adequately shelter the mustang with a 400-square-foot corral and a 144-square-foot stall, the BLM will help arrange for trailer transport from its facilities in the South and West (horses may also be adopted at traveling events along the East Coast). Having already survived in the wild, mustangs tend to be smarter and more sure-footed than domestic horses, leading agencies like the U.S. Border Patrol to adopt them for use in the field. "Mustangs are such loyal animals," BLM adoption manager Sally Spencer says. "You become part of their herd."

The son of an Amarillo, Texas, mortgage banker, Masters didn't ride his first horse until four years ago. But after alternating semesters at Texas A&M University with months working as a fly-fishing and elk-hunting guide, he decided to mark his college graduation with the most epic of road trips. Showcasing the mustang, he hopes the journey will spur more adoptions. In order to reach as many people as possible, he is recording his cross-country adventure as a documentary. Last December, Masters created an online trailer explaining his intentions, posted it to Kickstarter, and raised more than $170,000 in 45 days to hire an accompanying three-man coterie of seasoned National Geographic cameramen. Masters then fought government red tape for months: "Dealing with permits was a massive logistical undertaking," he says. Whereas 19th-century explorers like Lewis and Clark traveled by easily navigable river bottoms, Masters and his crew are heading north through the remaining uninhabited stretches of desert and rocky forested mountains. Masters bought state maps, identified BLM and forest service tracts, and contacted area outfitters about trail conditions. After plugging in a route on his Garmin BaseCamp software, he overlaid it onto Google Earth, scanning the topography for horse-friendly campsites. He broke the trip into 10 segments, with daylong rests at remote ranches. He bought 21st-century provisions like GPS systems and satellite phones along with traditional cowboy fare like tungsten-carbide horseshoes and a Dutch oven. Still, he knew no amount of preparation could account for everything. "Yellowstone Park can shut down a trail we need for a week because a wolf kills an elk on it," he says. "You're going to come across barbed-wire fences, flooding rivers, and mountain passes with too much snow, but you've got to figure it out on the way."

For the journey's final preparations, Masters spent weeks bonding with 12 mustangs through physical conditioning at a ranch in Laredo, Texas. While he bought pretrained horses for $125 apiece, he still needed to prepare them for the weights they would carry on the journey. To do so, he placed a pack saddle and halter on each animal, letting it buck until it gradually became accustomed to the setup, at which point it could be ridden.

For six months, the mustangs and their riders have relied on each other to survive, traveling an average of four miles an hour through dangers like southern Arizona's 10-foot-tall cholla-cactus forests, the Grand Canyon's 4,000-foot cliffs, and Utah's high-mountain deep snows on their way to Canada. "When you ride through a rocky mountain pass where a slip of the foot means a 300-foot fall," Masters says, "your mustang has to look at you and say, 'OK, I'm going to do this because I trust you.'"