By Lisa Bockholt
Dan “Buck” Brannaman is just your ordinary, average forty-two year old guy. Sort of. At first glance one would think he’s just a laid-back, quiet sort of fellow who’s comfortable swinging a rope, wearing boots and chaps, and working around horses. Sounds simple enough. But that’s just on the surface.
Buck Brannaman is not just someone who has gained more knowledge and developed more skill about horses than most, eager to share what he’s learned. He is a master horseman. To really get to know Buck one has to spend some time with him. Not necessarily a lot of time. In some cases there is no doubt just a brief encounter would do. But the more time one might be able to spend, the more rarely they might be blessed by the opportunity to have done so. Of course, one way to get to know Buck is by reading his autobiography “The Faraway Horses”. The book chronicles his life with an abusive father, devastating loss of his mother at an early age, the removal and placement of he and his older brother into foster care, his career as a trick roper (he holds two titles in the Guinness Book of World’s Records), his entry into the clinician circuit, marriage, divorce, re-marriage and parenthood. Entwined throughout the book are stories of the horses he’s met and helped along the way, and those that have helped him too. And, while many in the industry have tried to creatively find ways to personally connect themselves to the best-selling book ”The Horse Whisperer” (and subsequent movie by the same name), “The Faraway Horses” also serves to set the record straight. The characters “The Horse Whisperer’s” author Nicholas Evans created are fictional in nature, but Evans needed a basis for their development. The substance of Tom Booker, the novel’s main character is indeed, Buck Brannaman. Not only did Brannaman provide novelist Evans with the life-like inner make up and hands-on techniques of a real-life horse whisperer, Brannaman was later hired as a consultant on the movie set by Robert Redford who purchased the rights to turn the book into a blockbuster film. (One of Buck’s own horses played Rimrock, Redford’s mount in the movie). Whether or not you even own a horse, Buck’s book, “The Faraway Horses” is, itself, a great read, placing you squarely in the middle of Buck’s world as he lived it. But to be in the middle of Buck’s world as he has come to realize it for what it is today, well, you need to do that in person.
Brannaman recently gave a four-day clinic at an indoor arena in San Angelo, Texas. Hosts Jeannie and Ben Choate have sponsored the event for the past four years. They had ordered one of Brannaman’s roping videos and Jeannie’s husband Ben liked Bucks teaching style. They checked Buck out on web. The closest clinic to them was in Arizona. Ben wanted to go. Once there, he invited Buck to come to Texas, offering up a site in San Angelo as a possible clinic host facility. Sometime later, Buck contacted the Choate’s with an interest in coming to Texas. The Choate’s agreed to sponsor the clinic, which basically meant securing an arena and helping with the advertising. “The first few years were tough”, said Jeannie. “We weren’t always sure we would have enough to fill the clinic”. This year Brannaman offered two programs throughout the four-days: Horsemanship I and Advanced Horsemanship. Twenty-two people signed up for Horsemanship I with fifteen registering for the Advanced Class. Jeannie considers Brannaman her mentor. Anytime she gets stuck with a horse, or gets a question in her head “I’ll just knead on it awhile, and think, what would Buck do,” says Jeannie.
On day one, as if none were needed, there were no introductions. No fancy speeches, no reading of his biography, no one came out, microphone in hand, “ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mr. Buck Brannaman”. Buck simply stepped into the arena, glanced around at the participants who waited anxiously with their horses in hand for instruction, and got right down to business. “Okay, I’m gonna show you some things I do with my horses that have worked well for me over the years, and I hope they work well for you too,” Brannaman began. This was no dog and pony show. Buck was clear, concise and matter-of-fact from the get-go. You wouldn’t say he had a “My way or the highway approach,” yet he reeked with a likeable air of cockiness and confidence that left you feeling as if he does, indeed, know everything about horses. But let no one doubt where his knowledge has come from. He is constantly reminding everyone that what he teaches and shares are not necessarily things he’s come up with on his own, rather, those of his mentors Tom and Bill Dorrance and Ray Hunt. He spoke of Hunt and the Dorrance brothers, and others he has learned from throughout his lifetime with fondness and admiration. He is careful to give credit where credit is due.
Like himself, and his clinic introduction, Buck’s advertising was no nonsense and to the point. “Develop your timing, feel and harmony with your horse. All participants will be fully challenged”. About four and a half inches wide by two inches tall. Not terribly large, eye-catching, creative or even well designed. Just cleverly vague enough to peak a person’s curiosity. Okay, so what exactly is feel and how does one learn and develop it. Participants in the Horsemanship I morning session were thrown one bite of abstract concept after another. As Buck demonstrated and explained a variety of groundwork maneuvers, “soft feel” continuously rolled off his tongue. Practice sessions emphasized teaching the horse to respect the handler’s space, teaching the horse to become cooperative and responsive on the end of the halter and lead line, improving lateral flexion, and untracking the horse’s hind and front quarters in a soft, collected, controlled manner. The afternoon’s Advanced Class emphasized balance under saddle, better control, and improved softness and collection. On the Advanced Group’s first day Brannaman had the riders working at both the trot and the canter.
Buck approached everything in an orderly manner. Although there were no handouts, you could have sworn there must have been an agenda posted somewhere. Yet there was never a sense that the participants were being rushed. Challenged, yes. Rushed, no. Day two’s Horsemanship I students were still struggling with some of the groundwork, so groundwork dominated much of the second day’s morning session. Where Buck saw that more work in certain areas was needed, time was spent accordingly. There was a lot of work on what Buck referred to as the “bubble”. Seemed that several participants’ horses had a tendency to be all over them, on top of them at times. In addition to untracking the hind end, Buck showed them how to move the horse’s front quarters away as well. Some might have debated whether or not the majority in Horsemanship I was ready to mount up on day two. It was questionable at best. But just as he knows precisely how far to push a horse, Brannaman’s abilities extend to the rider as well. This was Brent Graef from Amarillo’s first time to ride with Buck. “’Soft feel’ is a new concept for me, learning how to ask for it and be polite about it,” said Graef. Graef has wanted to ride with Brannaman for some time. He has some Parelli training under his belt along with things he’s learned from folks such as Leon Harrell, Ronnie Willisa from Montana (now deceased) and his Grandpap. “Buck has a good way of teaching in spite of all the different students’ personalities and their backgrounds. He can teach you regardless of your skill level. He has the ability to challenge everyone. No one is overwhelmed. No one is bored. Buck sees everything, remembers everything. He can show you how to find a good deal for the horse that’s effective and says it to you in a way that makes you think,” Graef reflected. By day two even the greenest of riders was on the greenest of horses, even if only for a short time. “Everything he (Buck) does has a purpose, (which is) to get you on the horse, safely, and have it be a good deal for you both. He may have pushed a few people’s buttons but he never pushes em past where they need to be,” said Graef.
Day two’s Advanced Class focused on walking the horse up into the trot, incorporating leg yields, backing the horse up in a collected frame, chin dropped, noses down, changing direction with the front quarters, repeatedly changing gaits from walk to stop, stop to walk, walk to trot, trot to canter back down to a trot, down to a walk and to a stop. And with every transition came the instructions: “and do so with a ‘soft feel’”. It was as if you could see the horse’s settle in, riders relax, focus, concentrate and work better together.
Overnight a front had blown in, causing the weather to change quite a bit. The winds had kicked up, creating all sorts of eerie sounds, which echoed throughout the large metal arena. By day three one of the participants’ horses, a little black quarter horse mare, seemed a bit more boogery and bothered. Many participants had arrived a bit early to warm their horse’s up on the groundwork exercises, but overall, from the start, the class was ready to work in saddle. That was, until something set off the nervous mare. The owner had someone else holding the horse while they were taking notes. Participants gathered in a circle to listen for Buck’s instruction. Everyone stood quietly alongside his or her horse. Without warning and for no obvious reason, the mare spooked, knocked down the handler and took off mildly bucking and running about the arena. Course agenda deviated somewhat at that point. Buck took the mare through a series of his groundwork maneuvers. As he pushed the horse harder and harder to work with him, “holes” in the horse’s training (areas in training where the horse needs more work) stood out like a sore thumb. It seems the owner had babied the horse a bit too much. Participants stood in silent awe watching the master horseman help the horse work through her fears. He challenged the horse to work harder than most horse owners believe they are capable of doing. “Most of you don’t have enough hide left on your hand,” he barked. He made his point. He then tied the mare up to the arena rail and worked on untracking her hindquarters. Using a tool he calls a “flag” (long stick with a loop on one end with piece of fabric attached) he moved the horse from side to side. At first everyone gasped, certain the mare was going to fly to the other side, hit the end of the lead rope hard, jerk her neck, bust her mouth, or somehow otherwise injure herself on the rail. “What do you do if you’re working a horse up close like that and they try to kick out at you?” one participant shouted out. “To quote my friend Tom Dorrance, ‘you stand about that far away from the foot that’s about to kick you,” Brannaman replied. Simply put, it meant just know where you are. And know how far to go, how far to push the horse. Within minutes, the horse was figuring out how to use her hind end in a better, more comfortable way, making smooth, fluid changes of direction, no longer in a panic. Knowing how to use their hindquarters properly is an integral part of what Brannaman teaches on the ground and in the saddle. “When working your horse in a halter on the end of the lead line, watch if the horse’s hind end just whips away in an escaping sort of manner. If it does, keep working with it, till the hind end slows down and gets relaxed. Don’t rush bringing the hind end through, get it right. Make it a good deal for them,” Brannaman explained. In this way, he emphasized how the earlier wreck might have been avoided had the horse spooked but known better how to move off her hind end, rather than trample over someone. Buck talked some more in abstract terms, about something called presence. You know, presence. It’s what we know someone’s got when they’ve got it. It’s when someone walks up to you and has it. You can’t describe it; you just feel their presence in the room. Presence is power, you just feel it, and you just know it. “If a horse spooks in a herd, watch. He’s not gonna spook into another horse, especially the leader, the one he respects the most. Presence to the horse is perceived as confidence and you can give the horse confidence through your presence,” Buck explained. “If you create an image of presence with a horse, you create an image of power,” he added. Admittedly, the owner had concerns about riding the horse, which she considered green-broke at best. “The only way you get over your fear is knowledge,” Brannaman emphasized to his students.
By the afternoon, folks in the Advanced Class were cutting cattle, heeling calves, and dragging logs. Dressage riders were learning how to rope off a horse, and timid horses were learning how to enter a herd and separate out a cow. In short, it would have made for a good clip on “America’s Funniest Home Videos”. Regardless of their experience or skill level, everyone took part and everyone tried. “I’m not trying to turn you into cowboys, I’m just trying to get you better coordinated, get your horse used to things, get your horse comfortable,” stressed Brannaman. “Heck, on the first ride you should be swinging a rope off a horse. You should be doing this not so you can rope a cow, but just to get him (your horse) gentle,” added Brannaman. Buck wants people to have different standards than perhaps what you come to his clinics with. “You can’t think of everything in life your horse might encounter that might make him afraid so you’d better prepare em for it in other ways,” Brannaman explained. Everything Brannaman asked the students to do had some sort of future application, regardless of whether or not they would ever twirl a rope or see a cow again. In the end, it wasn’t about the log dragging, the cow cutting, or the rope work. It was about getting your horse gentle and well rounded.
By day four Brannaman had covered everything from picking up a horse’s feet, to saddle construction and selection. His personal saddle was designed by Tom Dorrance and a well-known tree-maker by the name of Wade to fit like an English saddle. He addressed everything from how thick he likes the leather to be and why, to the style of seat design and rigging. And Buck doesn’t recommend anyone ride in junk. “Normal base price for a good custom-made saddle is around $3000,” he said. “Don’t get a saddle built for just one horse. Get a saddle made that’s gonna fit the majority of horses. Real round-backed horses will need a wider tree. You need free-swinging stirrups and be sure to get a rawhide tree over wood. They’re strong but don’t hold the heat,” said Brannaman. Honest, blunt, to the point. He wasn’t trying to sell a saddle or capitalize on an endorsement. He just wanted you to learn about saddles. He wanted you to learn how to post correctly, safe ways and tips for getting the bridle on and off, even how beneficial rope work can be in the overall scheme of things. “Rope work is often left out of a horse’s training if the owners simply aren’t agile or comfortable enough in handling one. But when a horse gets trapped, gets their feet caught up in something, all the rope work you have done makes a difference,” says Brannaman. So “Buckshot” Brannaman, world famous trick roper and former Kellogg’s Sugar Pops cereal commercial child TV star that he is — matter of factly encourages people to cowboy up to the challenge. Brannaman expects a lot out of his students. And it was his high expectations that literally gave them the ability to expect more out of themselves and their horse, which changed each participant in some way. “Don’t be a victim. Be busy with your horse so you stay out of trouble – otherwise, trouble will come and find you”, Brannaman would say. “Be assertive but don’t be aggressive, if you are aggressive you’ll make the horse flighty. The horse needs perimeters like anyone else. Give them guidance, support, rules. The same rules. Don’t change the game. Don’t let them have excuses just cause of their past. And love them.” said Brannaman. His remarks gave you the chilling impression he was trying to say something to his dad.
Throughout the clinic, you never heard him use the word safe. Not exactly. Yet everything Buck covered incorporated suggestions as to how to stay safe. For instance, mounting. “If you are about to mount and a horse takes a step back with the inside hind leg then don’t mount the horse. In this position the horse is braced. You’ve got to get the horse to relax, get em to move forward,” said Brannaman. So he never actually used the word safe, but students got the point. Think, and be safe. Buck is also highly critical of his students. When he saw someone doing something he considered unsafe it’d usually be the start of a pretty good story. Without making a big deal, Brannaman would address the individual. At first you weren’t quite sure where he was going as he recalled a situation he’d seen previously. It didn’t take long before you’d clearly start to see the correlation between someone he saw one time who had done something quite similar and how it turned into a big wreck. So, rather than outwardly criticize someone doing something incorrect, instead he gave them something to chew on, something to think about, something to internalize, in the hope they could take it home with them for life.
Ironically, as full as this clinic was, many horse people have never heard the name Buck Brannaman. Perhaps it’s because there isn’t a lick of commercialism about the man. With little exception you won’t catch Buck at the large nationally syndicated equine expos. “I don’t like em much, cause I’m not a circus act,” he’ll tell you, bluntly. And, although he has numerous training tapes and a published autobiography, even at his own clinic, there was nothing much to buy. No aisles filled with vendors or lots of Buck Brannaman branded merchandise for sale. “Buck has never commercialized himself. You practically have to beg to buy something at his programs,” said Marta Mattox, a third time clinic participant, and CEO of Texas Crystal Water Co. in Austin. “He’s so genuine, so down to earth, so real in today’s slick commercial world.” A rare breed, nowadays.
It pleases Brannaman that people are interested enough in what he’s doing to come to his clinics. He doesn’t so much care as to whether or not they actually “got it” within the clinic’s time frame, rather, did they try to get it. Then, students can take it all home and work with what they can remember.
False advertising runs rampant in today’s society. It’s a challenge to find a product or service that truly lives up to its advertising claims. But there is nothing false or phony about Buck Brannaman. He is a true horseman, an honest horseman. It’s obvious Buck enjoys what he does, enjoys teaching the clinics and enjoys the horses. Somehow you get the feeling he even enjoys the people. Bottom line, if you want to be personally challenged, if you want to develop your timing, feel, and harmony with your horse, Buck Brannaman’s clinics deliver.
Buck Brannaman talking with Ralph Lehr of San Antonio.
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