by Jenn Zeller
I would like to consider myself a professional horseman. But the truth is, I’m hardly there. Yes, it’s true that I get to ride horses and colts for a living, but just because someone makes a living doing something, doesn’t mean they’re as good at it now, as they will be in 10 years or even 20. There’s always something new to learn when it comes to riding and teaching horses. I know a lot of people that train horses for a living that could care less about the horse, and even less about whether or not they’re considered a horseman. That’s not me. To me, horsemanship is about the human taking responsibility for the horse. It’s about timing. Softness. Foot Cadence. Balance. Harmony. You learn to realize that any shortcoming in the horse’s performance is your fault. It’s about looking at things from the horse’s perspective, instead of, in the words of Buck- “Anthropomorphizing the horse”. Look it up.
So how is it, that someone like me chooses which clinics to attend and why? Why did I ride with Buck twice in 2010? And why am I planning to ride with him at least that many times in 2011?
Let’s back up.
Horsemanship is a life-long journey and while some people might consider me to be a horseman, I pale in comparison to Mr. Brannaman. Let’s just say, I’m on the journey. Thankfully, Buck is wise enough, dedicated enough and kind enough to share his knowledge with the world. And I do mean the world! He spends about 40 weeks a year on the road, so chances are there’s a clinic near you! And if you’ve never been to a Buck Brannaman Clinic, I would highly recommend it- with the caveat that they’re not for everyone. They’re not for the weak-hearted, the easily offended, the impatient, or anyone who isn’t ready to take full responsibility for their horse’s shortcomings. And some would consider them spendy- last year’s prices were $600 for the four day clinic- and that’s only 3 hours a day. Trust me though, that three hours is some of the most challenging time you’ll ever spend horseback, and it’s worth every penny.
So who is Buck Brannaman?
In the words of journalist Tom Brokaw- “[he] is part guru, part psychologist and all cowboy. He is a nineteenth-century man in a twenty-first-century world…”
He isn’t just your ordinary, run of the mill horseman/clinician and to me he certainly stands taller than anyone you see on RFD Tv. Not that there aren’t some handy folks on that channel. But there’s a difference between mechanics and feel. You can see it in his horses. You can see it in him. He’s a master at reading the horse’s mind, body and soul and he is able not only to communicate that effectively to the horse, he’s able to help you, as a student, learn to think, learn to communicate, and learn to take responsibility for your horse’s shortcomings. He, is a student of horsemanship that goes above and beyond most, by studying classical dressage all the way to the early masters such as Xenophon (as close to that classical dressage as we’ll get today is the modern Bridle Horse). He’s played polo, rides with George Morris (world renowned jumping horse trainer), helps dressage riders, buckaroos (who cowboy for a living), professional horsemen (even other clinicians), to the greenest of the green riders, the world around. There isn’t one thing he does best- he is a master of communication with horse and rider. By choice he’s one of the less commercialized clinicians of the Natural Horsemanship movement, and if you were to ask me I’d say he’s the only one that you need follow. I have reasons for that, which we’ll delve into as we get further along in these discussions.
How is it, that someone, like me, who makes their living riding horses, chooses to attend a clinic in the first place?
Some might think I already know enough. I will be the first to tell you that I learn something new in this business everyday. But more important than that is this question, which I ask myself before I listen to anyone: “Do I like the way this individual’s horse reacts/behaves/responds/leads/rides around? Is their horse a willing, happy participant with a kind, happy, expression?”
If the answer is yes, and ultimately you’d like to have your horse ride around like that clinician’s horses then by all means go to their clinic. But to take it a step further, I like to look at whether or not that clinician is pushy, jerks, snatches, or is less than subtle about the cues they give the horse.
- Are their hands kind?
- Do they wait enough?
- Do they put a spur in their horse’s side every time they want something?
- Do they punish the horse for not doing what they asked for immediately?
- Do they refer to the horse as bad or naughty?
- Do they give the horse the benefit of the doubt?
- Does what they say make sense from an equine physiological perspective?
- Can your horse comfortably do that and have it make sense to them?
- Does logic prevail in this maneuver?
Personally, I’d prefer to have someone have to ask me “what’d you do to get your horse to do that?” because I’m in such harmony with my horse that a spectator wouldn’t even see the cue I give. But most important when choosing a clinic, don’t forget to look at the horse. That is, ultimately what we’re all searching for- a happy willing partner in our horse. Riding with Buck you see just that- nothing. Yet his horses do all kinds of fancy things- canter pirouettes, side-passes, beautiful, cadenced turn-arounds. And you have no idea what he did to get that beautiful movement.
Practicality, Safety and Confidence.
Taking the above a step further, I think it’s important to look at what it is you want to accomplish with your horse. That’s not to say that if you’re a barrel racer (me, I run barrels, but I’m less likely to call myself a barrel racer these days), a calf roper, or a trail rider you won’t benefit. It’s quite the contrary. Though there are those that would say, “well what he’s teaching doesn’t apply to me.” Those are the people that need not attend a clinic like this. Because it absolutely applies.
Four or five years ago, when I was training barrel horses for the public full-time, I probably could have learned something from his clinics, but I would have been offended by some of the things he said, because frankly I had a chip on my shoulder. I thought I was getting my horses *broke. I know now that I had barely touched the tip of the iceberg. My attitude and mindset would have had me not gleaning as much as I could have from the clinic. Honestly, I thought I knew that what I was doing was best for myself and the horse; and as such, my feelings would have been hurt. I said you can’t be thinned skinned to attend. I would have missed the spiritual connection that he’s trying to teach you as well, because while I did what I thought was best for my horses, I wasn’t always putting their thoughts or feelings first.
*As an aside, one of the most misused terms in the horse-world is “broke”. It is often confused with gentle. They’re not the same thing, however. You can have a broke horse that isn’t gentle and a gentle horse that isn’t broke. With the best combination being a broke horse that is gentle. And broke means different things to different people, but to true horsemen it ultimately should mean a soft, willing horse, who correctly moves in a collected manner. He’s safe to ride in any circumstance and is so tuned into you that the world could fall down around you in a wreck and if you’re not bothered by that wreck, then he’ll stand there solid as as the most immoveable boulder.
If you’re interested in riding your horse, as opposed to playing with your horse, and your horseneeds to be practical for you or you simply want him to be practical- i.e. the time you spend with him you want to spend on his back- then the Brannaman Clinics are great, because he too needs his horses to be practical since he runs yearling cattle on his Wyoming ranch. Here on our ranch, we want to give our colts a job as soon as we can. So if they’re riding around safe and soft at all three gaits, we might take them out to the pasture at ride 7, 10 or 12 and move cows on them, or sort bulls, or even flag another colt from their back. His clinics teach safety (which is a key part of horsemanship) and through that safety you undoubtedly gain confidence.
Without going into ridiculous detail, let’s just say that confidence is something I’ve gained from both clinics. Take riding colts for example. I had ridden a few colts in my life prior to my moving to the ranch here in South Dakota (I had even started my own from the ground up), but riding colts wasn’t something that I thought I wanted to do and it wasn’t something that I was comfortable doing. You could put me on barrel horse that had alley issues though, and I’d be right at home. Frankly, the barrel horse is more dangerous than the colt that knows nothing, but mentally I couldn’t wrap my head around that. By reviewing the fundamentals on my “go to” saddle horse (many of them were fundamentals I already knew), at the first clinic I attended in the Spring of 2010, helped me realize how everything we do on our horses is related. I had known that, but I hadn’t really believed it. Pardon me if I’ve lost you. I can’t think of another way to explain it. Because of the first clinic experience, I became confident enough in what I believed and in my ability to have it happen, that I took a 40 ride colt to the second clinic I attended in the Fall of 2010. It was that colt’s first trip to town.
When I got back to the ranch after the Spring clinic, I began to ride all my going saddle horses with a daily review of the fundamentals. It wasn’t too much longer and I began to see a difference in my confidence level on my colts. One colt in particular (the one mentioned above) had bucked me off twice already and I knew it was my lack of confidence that had caused that. It’s a hard thing to do- sit on a colt and stay relaxed while letting them travel where they will, at the speed they want to travel, while quietly directing them when it’s the easiest thing for them to do. But it’s something that Buck is good at getting you to do on the horses you take to his clinics- regardless of the rider’s level. Making the right thing the easiest for your horse sounds so simple, right? that is yet another principle of “natural horsemanship”.
Understanding how to keep yourself safe using a one-rein stop (which I knew of before hand) and by waiting on your colt to find what you’re looking for has helped my confidence. I assure you that had I never ridden with Buck, my summer this year would have consisted of me riding the same old saddle horses, and putting a ride or two on my colts when I was confident enough to do it. Instead I found myself getting on more and more colts, believing and knowing to my core that it would all be good. The second week of October, I took my 2 year old filly out to the pasture for her 5th ride. Her 5th ride since the fourth of July. We covered about 4 miles- up hills, down creeks through draws, all the while with cows milling around. I would have never done that a year ago. Don’t think, however, that I don’t still struggle- I figure when I’ve thrown my leg over another 100 colts there will still be struggles but they’ll be different than the ones I’ve had recently of whether or not I’m going to survive this ride.
Practicality, confidence and safety are all related and they’re all things that increased in myself as a result of the clinics. Buck oozes positivity and there’s something about him that helps you believe that you too can do whatever you want with your horse. They sky is the limit if you set yourself up for success with good fundamentals, patience and a learning attitude.