Out West

Helping Horse and Human Relationships

Buck Brannaman explains the eight characteristics of horses that he believes humans should have as well to build good relationships.

A Conversation with Buck Brannaman — Part 2.

In part 2, we continue our chat with Wyoming clinician Buck Brannaman and his examination of the eight characteristics of horses that he believes effective humans should have as well.

 Buck and his horse Pet in the late 1990s. Pet was featured as the horse “Pilgrim” in the film, “The Horse Whisperer.” Photo by Mary Brannaman

No. 5 A Non-Aggressive Attitude

“Don’t be a butthead. Be assertive but not arrogant or demanding. Focus on your goal and work toward stepping with care — but stepping forward always. No horse or man ever got very far being a jerk.”

No. 6 Determination

“The ability to stick to something through thick and thin. Even when things get very difficult, determination is the ability to stay on course. Now, that’s one of those very individual things — some folks just have that inner core of determination that helps them push on, even when the odds seem their worst, even when it seems they have no chance of succeeding. I’m going to say one thing now, and I want folks to think about it: Smarty Jones.” (Note: Smarty Jones is a champion Thoroughbred racehorse who won the 2005 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and came in second in the Belmont Stakes after coming back from a starting gate accident, the year before that left him with a fractured skull.)

Buck at home, The Houlihan Ranch in Sheridan, Wyoming, early 2000s. Photo by AJ Mangum

No. 7 Humility

“The concept of humility is so important, I’d probably underline it as being pivotal to a person’s success or failure in the world. I think of humility as the ability to listen to and really hear what is being said, regardless of status or standing. That almost needs no explanation, but the following three words could sum up how to gain this humility: observe, remember and compare. Observe what is taking place, whether with man or beast; remember what you’ve done to cause others to make a certain decision or take a certain action; and compare the results of your actions — this time around with the results of actions you may have taken in the past. Which outcome was better? Learn from it! If you can observe, remember and compare effectively, and then have the ability to change course based on the outcome of what you’ve done, you will map out your course for success, regardless of species.”

No. 8 Love

“Love as a complete and powerful thing — and it includes the ability to love without being a victim. Sometimes loving can end up being an excuse for being victimized, taken advantage of or pushed around. But you can still have a huge capacity for love without being a victim or being taken advantage of. These are some characteristics I have found in horses that humans can utilize to become better people.”

Buck roping, the early 2000s. Photo by AJ Mangum

I asked Buck, given those qualities — all admirable traits — are there people out there that you may have run across in your clinics, or just in life, that would probably never get along with horses?

“Yes,” he told me. “I’ve run across a lot, unfortunately, and not just in my clinics.”

I asked what qualities, or lack of qualities, were tipoffs.

“It’s a pretty consistent list,” he told me, shaking his head, and he started counting them out:

No. 1 Lack of Intuition

Buck and his friend, legendary Wyoming cowboy Bob Douglas, at the 2013 Brannaman Pro-Am Vaquero Roping. Image by Una Photo 805

“[The] people who have no insight or ability to see beyond their own needs or wants. An expectation that what is on the surface is all there is to see.”

No. 2 Lack of Sensitivity

“Those who lack the ability or the confidence to feel or understand anything that isn’t in their immediate sphere of existence. [These people have] a lack of compassion for others.”

No. 3 Stiffness

“This refers to people who make up their mind that they’re going to do something a certain way and regardless of results, will continue to operate that particular way, even if it doesn’t work because their pride makes them unable to back down or change course. This will almost guarantee failure every time.”

No. 4 Presence

“Presence. I’ve spoken many times of the almost magical presence of a person who is peaceful, self-confident and completely at ease in his environment. At the other end of this spectrum, we have people who project a powerful,
unconquerable presence, believing that their inner “might” will make them right. I’ve never found that to be true.”

Buck Brannaman explains the eight characteristics of horses that he believes humans should have as well to build good relationships.
Working cattle. Photo by AJ Mangum

No. 5 An Aggressive Attitude

“Some folks go beyond projecting power and begin exhibiting it. This sort of threatening behavior often backfires because the natural reaction to this is a feeling of extreme danger. Folks don’t generally respond well to threats. Neither do horses.”

No. 6 Lack of Determination

“Obviously, people who don’t put their back into it, don’t get much out of it, whatever it might be.”

No. 7 Lack of Humility

“We’ve all met people who spend an entire conversation thinking about the importance of what they’re going to say, and then trampling all over us to say it. You can actually see their minds working, thinking feverishly about how to drag the conversation back to them and what they think about everything under the sun. How can people who will not listen [expect to] teach? Furthermore, how can they learn if all they hear is themselves?”

No. 8 Anger, Rage, Hate

Those who cannot love often believe the only way to avoid being hurt is to hurt others first. Victimize, or be victimized.

Buck Brannaman explains the eight characteristics of horses that he believes humans should have as well to build good relationships.
Buck roping at the 2014 Brannaman Pro-Am Vaquero Roping in Santa Ynez, California. Image by Una Photo 805

“It’s pretty easy to sort out what kind of a person you’d rather be in the same room with. It’s just as easy for horses to figure out what kind of person they can learn from. It’s amazing the amount of things horses and people have in common and how we all learn best if taught with patience, humility and understanding. I have found most of my students have learned the importance of the items I’ve talked about here in working with their horses. Many had reached a point where they were in a life-threatening situation and had come for help. Sadly, this is the state many of my students arrive in at my clinics. They’re scared, worried, intimidated and confused — literally at the end of their ropes.

“Sometimes, with a lot of hard work and dedication, many of these dangerous relationships between man and horse can be repaired. One truly important lesson many students need to work [on] is understanding the idea of changing eyes. A horse can see behind him up to a point. There’s a blind spot directly to the rear and out to about 10 feet. If a horse doesn’t really trust his rider [or] if he’s bothered by him, he’ll become very insecure every time the rider passes through that blind spot because Mother Nature tells the horse that he is vulnerable to whatever he can’t see back there.

Buck Brannaman explains the eight characteristics of horses that he believes humans should have as well to build good relationships.
PR photo for Buck during the late 1970s for his trick roping appearances. Photo by Mark Chester

However, a horse that is comfortable with his rider and trusts him completely will have no problem with the rider moving through his blind spot. So, the notion of getting a horse to change eyes, to be comfortable keeping you in view by turning his head slightly and watching you first with one eye and then the other is something that needs to be repeated thousands of times for the horse to become fully at ease with his rider’s movements. When riders learn how simple this concept is, it changes their relationship with their horses dramatically.

“It’s all about being sensitive and open. It highlights the importance of getting a horse to hook on to you. That begins by driving the horse around a round corral, the idea being that in a round corral, there are no abrupt corners to force the horse to change stride or break his pace, which enables him to focus his attention on you. The round corral enables you to direct the horse’s energy into a smooth, continuous, flowing circle.

“You can then position yourself in the corral, so that you literally draw the horse’s energy toward you, first by moving in the same general direction that the horse is going, and then by slightly increasing your distance from him, so he feels compelled to move toward you. This is the essence of hooking on; it’s simply a matter of getting a horse’s undivided attention and being able to keep it. I know it works as I have seen it thousands of times.”

I asked him if that applies to humans as well.

He smiled and nodded, saying, “In building a better relationship with our horses — and with other humans we care about —  that lesson will serve us all well, in the round corral and in life.”

1 thought on “Helping Horse and Human Relationships”

  1. Please teach me how to be a good horse owner! I love my horse, Cowboy, so much! I just want to do right by him! He’s a good boy

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