Out West

Helping Horse and Human Relationships

A Conversation with Buck Brannaman — Part 1

It was a pivotal scene in “The Horse Whisperer,” Robert Redford’s 1998 film adaptation of the best-selling book by Nicholas Evans. Redford’s character, Tom Booker, was speaking on the phone with Annie MacLean, played by Kristin Scott-Thomas. MacLean was asking Booker if it was true that he helped people with horse problems. Booker’s response was, “Actually, I help horses with people problems.” It was a comment that writer Evans had heard at one of the many Buck Brannaman clinics he attended to get background for his book’s main character — a person who had a unique way of working with horses.

In Brannaman, Evans found his inspiration — as did Redford — for Tom Booker’s character. (Brannaman acted as technical advisor on the film as well as Redford’s double.) What Evans witnessed at those clinics was nothing different than what Brannaman has been doing since the early 1980s on the road doing his colt starting and horsemanship clinics across America, Europe and Australia, never straying from his approach of “helping horses with people problems.”

Buck Brannaman and his philosophy of working with horses helps horses accept humans and work confidently and responsively.
Buck working his horse “Biff” before a California clinic in 1989. Photo by the author.

Brannaman’s philosophy of working with horses within their place in nature and understanding how horses think and communicate is all helping horses accept humans and work confidently and responsively with them. His approach continues to be based on the work he did with Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance. Since their passing, he has, at the age of 61, become the senior statesman of a method that helps the horse feel safe and secure around humans, helping both achieve a “proper and equal relationship.” A supportive relationship where things get done safely and efficiently, whether in the show ring, on the ranch or just riding to get the mail.

I sat down with Brannaman recently during a clinic swing through California and asked him to revisit his basic premise for working with horses to see — after 40-sum years — what has been revealed to him. He was wonderfully clear about things he has discovered over the years that make for supportive relationships, be they human and horse or human and human.

Here are some of his thoughts.

Buck Brannaman. Photo by Ross Hecox

“My horsemanship clinics offer me so many opportunities to watch how folks operate around their horses, and I am always fascinated by the different human and psychological characteristics these folks are discovering about themselves, working through issues with their horses,” Brannaman says. “So many folks take a lesson about working with a horse and turn it into a lesson for themselves. Many don’t even realize the inner troubles they need to work on, but working with horses always seems to bring personal issues into focus for most of my students. I am always thinking about the things that are important in making a person a good horseman — no surprise there — but those things are also necessary in finding a good companion or friend, someone real desirable to be around. Over the years, I have found eight solid characteristics or qualities that horses have that I believe effective humans should have as well.”

I asked Brannaman if I could list those characteristics and a description folks could hold on to.

No. 1 Intuition

“Intuition is a gut feeling about something intangible, an unspoken sensitivity to what you’re dealing with. As a result of evolution, horses and other animals have a natural ability to sense the emotional state of people and other horses around them. In fact, they seem to have instinctual gut feelings about almost everything they come across. Unfortunately, people often don’t listen to their inner voices the way animals do. I think it’s very important to be open to your instincts because it helps us get in touch with things that aren’t on the surface. Whether men like to admit it or not, women seem to have quite a bit more of this instinctual inner knowledge, although I believe men can acquire it. I often joke that ‘A man can acquire intuition if he listens to his wife long enough,’ but it’s really more than that. Human intuition is a feeling of being able to look ahead and clearly see things in a very objective way. Everyone has a little of it, but I think women have more of it than men.”

No. 2 Sensitivity

“When I speak of sensitivity, I’m talking about emotional sensitivity. Horses are very intelligent creatures, and emotional sensitivity is something that all intelligent, thinking creatures possess. Everything around us can impact our horses and us emotionally in some way. If we are sensitive and observant of our horse’s emotions, we can better anticipate and respond to their movements and actions. The same is true of humans: If we are sensitive and observant of our own emotions and those of the people around us, we can better anticipate and respond to whatever comes our way. Now again, this is something that’s going to weigh a little heavier toward the females in terms of quantity. Truly, the female of any species tends to be a little more sensitive and nurturing than the male. This generally holds true for human beings as well — women are generally more emotionally sensitive than men.”

Buck Brannaman and his philosophy of working with horses helps horses accept humans and work confidently and responsively.
Buck Brannaman at the inaugural Brannaman Pro-Am Vaquero Roping in Santa Ynez, California, 2013. Image by Una Photo 805

No. 3 Adaptability

“Change is the ability to back up, back down and alter course if necessary, as opposed to beating your head against a wall and doing the same old thing, hoping this time it might turn out different. Horses take each new thing as it comes and are bright enough to think through a given situation. If the situation requires the horse to take a different course, he will generally take that different course, and this is what has helped keep horses alive through the ages. We humans can be a stubborn bunch, and if someone is going to back down and change course, it’s usually the woman and not the man. Women seem to be better able to change their minds about things, and men tend to get stuck on one idea and insist on staying there, come hell or high water. I think men are more inclined to be steadfast in their beliefs, even when their beliefs turn out to be wrong or foolish. Change just seems like one more of those things that women are better at.

Now I know there are some men out there who’ve been married 20 or 30 or 40 years who would argue that with me and insist that women lose the ability to change as they grow older, but let’s be honest — if you’ve ever been lost while driving in a big, confusing city with your wife, you know that she is more willing to change course (or stop and ask where the course actually is) than you are. This just seems to be our nature. The important thing to remember is that the ability to adjust your actions or outlook to fit whatever situation comes along is a great asset. Showing humility, respect and lack of ego is not only a very pleasant and effective thing for people, but horses react positively to it, too.”

No. 4 Presence

“By presence, I mean the feeling that flows off of any person who truly believes in himself and his abilities and who is at peace with himself and his environment —someone who humbly but truly believes. It’s not about superiority, intimidation or aggression; it is about being confident and at peace with your life, where you are at that moment in time. A healthy, well-treated horse exudes this self-confident, calm with a sure presence, just like a healthy, well-treated human does.”

Next month, we will continue with our chat with Buck Brannaman. I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with him for most of his career, and he is constantly trying to be better at what he does. As he says himself, “I am learning every day and every horse is different as is every rider that comes to my clinics. It’s my job to help them learn together, so they can enjoy the ‘dance’ with each other in mutual respect.”

Buck Brannaman and his philosophy of working with horses helps horses accept humans and work confidently and responsively.
Buck Brannaman during his summer colt starting clinic at his Houlihan Ranch in Sheridan, Wyoming. Photo by Nicole Poyo

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