There’s only one Buck Brannaman, for sure. This legendary horseman, featured in the documentary Buck, held a clinic in North Carolina in mid-October. I headed to Sullivan Farm in Walkertown on a rainy Sunday afternoon to audit Horsemanship I. The riders—all 21 of them—had each paid $700 for 12 hours of instruction. I got off lightly with a $30 auditor’s fee.
It was worth every penny just to hear Buck’s unexpurgated take on horses and people–with expletives reserved for people and the stupid things they do to horses. “As you know, I don’t really hold back much,” he offered. You don’t say.
The students, like their horses, represented a wide variety of breeds, sizes, and ages. All used snaffle bits and most rode with western saddles, although a few English riders were in the mix. Some riders had a soft and gentle touch, while others kicked their horses and pulled hard on the reins. The horses’ affect ranged from nervous and high-headed to relaxed and willing. More than a few chewed anxiously at their bits throughout the clinic.
Buck began the session by fielding questions while sitting on a red roan in training. His answers turned into ruminations and anecdotes, like the time his sister-in-law called about a horse that refused jumps. Buck advised her to leg yield the horse in circles around the jump and then take him over it; that way the jump would be a release from the pressure of all those circles. She called him back two weeks later to say he was a genius, which he aw-shucked but did not entirely deny.
“When it’s the horse’s idea, it’s not a big thing,” Buck pointed out. “When it’s your idea—well, good luck with that.”
He spoke about the need to synchronize flexion with movement: “If you have one without the other, it ain’t worth three rotten eggs.” He emphasized the importance of fully engaging your horse, which in turn brings elevation. Raised withers, he said, are a sign of elevation and engagement.
Buck also talked about lightness. “Right behind the bridle and right ahead of my leg—that’s where the lightness is found. To have the horse centered between the snaffle bit and the withers—that’s true balance. I look for that perfect place in the middle, and then I get out of the way.”
When Buck demonstrated drifting his horse laterally with leg pressure behind the girth, a student mentioned that, according to the dressage protocol she’d learned, the inside leg should be forward. Buck paused a moment, then spoke with cutting clarity. “Well, let’s just clear this up. I don’t give a shit what they say.”
He talked with equal vehemence about the unimportance of categories. “I don’t give a fat rat’s ass what you call yourselves—jumper, dressage, hunter, western pleasure—it’s all about you how you interact with the horse. Don’t get so damn cranial that you forget about riding and feeling the horse. Most of the stuff you need to learn, you can’t get in a book, because it’s feel and it’s timing. F-E-E-L. You can read it a million times and still not have any.”
After an hour of talking, Buck assigned a sequence of riding exercises.
1) Ride your horse as slowly as possibly without stopping. Slow your body down and act like you have less energy while riding—if your horse doesn’t slow with you, follow through with the reins. Your horse should feel as if he’s walking on eggs without breaking them. Keep your horse walking slowly until you feel lightness.
2) Stop your horse by using your seat. Back him up until he’s light.
3) Flex your horse so that he moves just one foot, remembering that every turn starts with a reach.
4) Back up your horse until his left front leg and right hind leg are back. Ask him to spring into a lope to the left; keep him going until you get a soft feel, then bring the energy down. For a lope to the right, back him until his right front leg and left hind leg are back, then ask for a springy lope. Through this process, you are bringing his energy up and asking him to “lope toward peace.”
As students followed the drills, Buck mostly observed. He made a positive comment here (“Looks like you have a light touch with your mule”) , an observation there (“Your toes are pointing straight down”), and an occasional sharp remonstrance (“Whoa, you just did a damn barrel rider’s turn—now why on earth would you do that?”). He ruled the arena with his flinty-yet-warm presence, watchful for human transgressions against their mounts.
Even though I stood in light rain for three hours, craning my neck to see inside the arena, time flew past. I found the experience simultaneously humbling and enlightening; Buck’s extraordinary skills and knowledge made me despair at my own inadequacies while also sending me daydreaming about horsemanship possibilities. If only I had the know-how. If only I had the F-E-E-L. Instead of getting discouraged, however, I’ve decided to apply Buck’s words about a horse’s progress to my own slow learning curve: “I don’t care where the horse starts off. I don’t care if he’s’s bucking. That’s no big deal. It’ll go away eventually. I just care where the horse finishes at the end of the day.”