Buck Brannaman is a man who possesses a deep reserve of empathy that allows him to connect with horses as well as people. He has started more than 10.000 young horses and his mission is simple; to help horses live a happier and less troubled life.
Text maria graae Photography anne mie dreves / The Horse Rider’s Journal No. 13
It was something to see Buck – he alone was well worth the admission fee,” says a man passing by with his family. It’s the Dublin Horse Show – Ireland’s leading equestrian event and one of Dublin’s most loved ones, which has attracted generations of visitors over the years. A highlight of the summer, it runs annually for five days in August. Here are showcased the best show horses, national and international show-jumpers and this year, the world renowned horseman Buck Brannaman has agreed to do daily horsemanship demonstrations.
He is a man who has been through a lot, but equally has turned losses into gains, sorrow into happiness. He was the main inspiration for Robert Redford’s character in the movie version of Nicholas Evans’ novel by the same name, The Horse Whisperer, that also featured Scarlett Johansson and Kristen Scott Thomas. A movie, where Buck himself coached Redford for the part of the horse whisper, Tom Booker. And in 2011 the documentary, Buck, won the U.S. Documentary Competition Audience Award at the Sundance Festival, reaching a worldwide audience outside the equestrian world.
Born January 1962 in Wisconsin, Buck started his first young horse at age 12 and by now the number has reached more than 10.000. As a child, after the early death of his mother, he suffered horrific beatings and abuse by his alcoholic father, who drilled him and his brother in the showbiz art of rope trick. Ultimately, he and his older brother, were placed in foster homes, and Buck emerged from the ordeal a painfully shy person with an uncanny connection to horses. With the help of his foster family, he grew up to not only help horses, but to help their human counterparts in the process. When briefly talking about his childhood, his expression changes and his forehead wrinkles.
The clear blue eyes is set off by his pale grey shirt, and a firm handshake is the first thing one notices. But it’s the warmth of his smile which makes the lasting impression. Wearing a light cowboy hat, red jacket, immaculate blue jeans, and tanned boots, he’s every inch a true to life cowboy. He speaks slowly, taking his time to pronounce the words with his calm American accent – a self-assured man who’s accustomed to take his time.
Are you a horse whisperer or a horse listener?
I would say neither. To me Robert Redford is the horse whisperer and Monty Roberts is the horse listener. I would describe myself as a horseman.
Is there a link between being good with people and being good with horses? Early in my life, my favourite part working with horses, was that they where my only friends in the world. I never thought being the kid I was, that I would be able to do what i do now; stand in front of so many people like today. It came gradually, and I discovered that working with horses was something I was good at, and I became more comfortable with myself and being me.
What is your philosophy?
Simply put, I’m trying to see what I can get done with the horse without him being troubled. You arrange it so your idea become the horse’s idea. When you give him dignity and reward him, soon he will try their heart out. I want the horse to have a peaceful life, working for a living and being in a partnership.
Which horses do you enjoy working with the most?
I like all horses, I don’t have a favourite breed or type of horse I prefer. A lot of my life I have often chosen the troubled and difficult horses who were given up by others, because they´ve had the most to offer, into making me a better man.
You work with people on different continents and different equestrian disciplines – are there some worldwide similarities?
I travel about 40 weeks a year – Japan, Australia, US, and Europe and even though the languages may be different, you’ll soon discover that people are more alike that one would think. Similar to horses, human evolutionise slowly over hundreds and hundreds of years and are pretty much the same and share the same problems. I’m trying to help people from failing with their horses to get them to be successful with the horses.
During the three months each year that he’s not on the road, Buck lives with his wife and three daughters on a ranch in Sheridan, Wyoming. A student of the natural-horsemanship pioneers Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance, he’s method is about earning a horse’s respect and trust, something that becomes clear during the demonstration we watch in warm August air on the stands that are packed with people.
Johnny Cash is playing from the speakers, when the presenter needlessly ask the crowd to give Buck a warm welcome. The cowboy hat keeps the sun away from his eyes, as he enters the arena on horseback; “Horses are very keen on whether they can move your feet, or whether you can move theirs. A lot of times the horse will have learned that if it puts pressure on you, you will move your feet in respond to the horse. Take time to do some decent groundwork then you won’t have any trouble when your on their backs. Because, let’s be honest; how many here can really ride a bucking horse? Probably not too many. Therefore you have to get the horse comfortable with you before you get on,” Buck calmly says in his Western American accent.
The horse he’s riding is a young bay Irish show jumper. The change in that horse during the time of the course of the demonstrations, shifts from visible being tense and troubled to soft, comfortable, and happy. “A horse don’t learn from pressure, he learns when you take the pressure off. The horse should never have to discover that he can shut down and quit on you. You should be able to let the horse go, riding walk, trot, canter, and gallop on a loose rein. Before you’re able to do just that, you’re not ready to work on collection. Remember confinement and collection are two very different things. Don’t think I don’t collect my horses, I do, but it’s a devotion that happens over years.”
“Always offer the horse a good deal, offer him less aid than it takes to get the job done, be light and in time it will be enough,” Buck says to the crowd and as he demonstrates a smooth transition from trot to halt, he explains; “I let her get soft, I’m slowing my body, I don’t use my hands. If she doesn’t make it then I will use my hands, but I know she will.” For each exercise the horse slowly comes closer to the tribune and audience, becoming more relaxed.
Buck explains: “The life and energy of my body should carry the horse forward, not my legs. To me spurs are something always worn but seldom used. When I ride my trained horses at home, there will go months and months between I touch them with my spur. I’ve never owned a whip in my life, I don’t even know what they cost. If I’m going to ask a lady for a dance, I would not want to bring a whip,” Buck says with a smile, making the audience burst into laughter. “It’s all about supporting the horse, not getting it worried. The horse should keep its dignity and never be forced. She gives to me, because she knows I’ll give to her. When I sit down on my tailbone, she will stop and I will release. The horse should always work towards release. Or else you and your horse will be caught in no mans land, neither of you never letting go.”
The horse with Buck on its back is now working on loose rein, showing a flexion and softness that any dressage rider, or in fact any rider, would be envious of. “It doesn’t matter which discipline you do; if you wear a cowboy hat or a crash helmet it´s all about the feel and connection with the horse. If you ride English or western – good riding is good riding.” The passion for horses is obvious and heartfelt. Buck’s voice reveals emotion when he says; “If a horse is cranky, I feel terrible. They should not have to live like that, and there’s no reason why work should feel unpleasant for any horse. A troubled mouth is a warning light and tying the mouth shut will not solve the problem. If your oil display light is on in your car, you can either fill up oil or you can smash the light bulb to make the light stop, but in the end your car will still need oil.” Buck unmounts and Johnny Cash’s Get Rhythm starts playing. It’s time for a demonstration of the roping skills his father started drilling him at age three. As the audience cheer and clap, Buck’s rope is spinning in ever changing directions. Then he jumps in the loop, while the rope is still spinning, ever so elegant, like a dancer.• for More info brannaman.com