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Buck Brannaman, the Horse Whisperer

Your horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see. Sometimes you will.”

–Buck Brannaman

Buck Brannaman’s quiet, smooth voice, amplified by the microphone, rolled across the open arena like wind on the grasslands. It was sunny and hot; angry, swollen clouds gathered in the west and Buck, riding a big bay horse and clad in a cream plaid shirt and cream cowboy hat, was surrounded by two dozen riders who leaned on every syllable.

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All Buck Brannaman ever wanted to be was a cowboy. He was doing rope tricks at age 3, went pro at 6, and was on national television – but his early success was clouded by an abusive childhood. Buck’s father beat him mercilessly on a regular basis and once left him outside in the snow, where he would have perished if not for the family dog keeping him warm. But perhaps it was his turbulent childhood that made him uniquely capable of understanding horses, many of which were as scared as he once was.

“Horses are clever,” he explained. “They’ll think, ‘I know what’s coming, so I’ll take care of that ahead of time.’ You should ride like you’re riding for a target – like a dirt clot – and take aim. That clot should disappear right between their ears as you pass over it. I’ve learned how to become very hard to predict.” Buck watched as the riders circled around him, dust eddying around the ring.

“Be really deliberate about it. Have a reach – find that soft feel,” he said. The horses began congregating at one corner of the arena.

“Your horses are putting themselves in a herd down there, that’s what they do when they’re not getting the support from their humans,” he said. “Line them up and send them out. If they don’t move out, go to plan b; the walk is no longer acceptable. Give them a little startle like a lead horse would with them. Don’t try to scare them, but say, ‘You’d better get going.’ The only way they can relate to us is the way they would with other horses. It’s not scaring them; it’s a little startle and then they make a better choice.”

One of the riders appeared to struggle with the exercise. Noticing without noting it, Buck said, “Now I learned a lot from Ray Hunt, and he’d tell me to do six things. I’d remember three out of the six things, but then he’d say, ‘Well, you forgot this, and this, and this,’” he said.

“So be deliberate. Look for that soft feel. Think of it as a wave: start at the mouth, then to the legs, then the feet.”

Watching closely, he added, “Set your horse up to have the dignity to make a good decision. Don’t take away their dignity.”

The horse and rider who had been struggling gradually fell into line. The rider’s face softened; she smiled. Her horse’s head dropped lower, his eyes soft and his mouth relaxed.

“Instead of helping people with horse problems, I help horses with people problems,” Buck would explain after the clinic. “Becoming a good horseman doesn’t just happen – it’s a study of fine horsemanship. You take baby steps.”

Despite being the inspiration behind the movie “The Horse Whisperer” and starring in a documentary film about his life, Buck remains down to earth.

“Because I’ve been around for a long time, people are intimidated if they don’t know me,” he said. Several star struck fans had approached him with questions, which he’d patiently fielded. “When I first started out, no one knew who I was; they didn’t give a damn about me,” he said, smiling.

“Remember Bonanza? When I was a kid, I wanted to be Little Joe because he galloped everywhere. I hated trotting – it would shake the fillings out of my teeth!

“One day, when my folks were gone, I got onto our mare bareback. I got her lined up and we’d haul ass to the other end. I had my little Joe shirt on. She’d stop, I’d go splat, we’d repeat this; I must’ve fallen off fifty times. I finally stayed on, but it wasn’t pretty – I was grabbing her mane, digging in my heels, and I’d ripped up my Little Joe shirt.”

When his parents came home, they asked what had happened. “I was just training my horse,” he’d said. He laughed. “My mom would’ve fainted if she’d known!”

Nine months out of the year, Buck travels the country teaching four-day clinics. He has held clinics for 35 years, helping thousands of other riders who are interested in improving their horses’ welfare – and their own.

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“For some people, you don’t want to pass judgment too early – they’re so damn worried – worried they’ll misjudge a reaction or response. They’re all doing the best they can. If there was one thing I could tell a rider, it would be that when horses bite, kick, strike, or buck, don’t take it personal – that’s just what the horse thinks he should be doing at that time.”

Perhaps his “doing the best they can” philosophy came from his own troubled childhood where animals were often his only solace. “Because of the things I went through, horses were a refuge for me. They were the only friend I had,” he recalled. He smiled again.

And when you have that soft feel with a horse, when you look like you have one mind and body – then you’d rather do that than anything.”

It’s that mirror to your soul that can bring horse and rider together, unifying them as one and healing their past wounds.

Buck’s next Washington State clinics are Oct. 28-31 and Nov. 2-4. Learn more at www.brannaman.com/bbclinics.html.