Saturday, June 13, 2009

Horse Gentler: Buck Brannaman


Buck Brannaman is all cowboy, soft-spoken with a tall and lean physique that pours just right into a pair of Wranglers. But when it comes to working horses, he's hardly from the spur-and-jerkschool of training.

"Work with a horse using his language, " says Mr. Brannaman, who wasin Dallas recently to sign his new book. "Horses have a peckingorder, but there is very little violence [between horses]."

The trainer needs to establish himself at the top of the pecking order.The horse has to learn he can't be boss. "Riding should be like dancing with someone who wants to dance withyou, " he says. To accomplish this, a relationship has to be built between the rider and the horse.

Mr. Brannaman is a horse gentler - not breaker. He has become famous as the man Nicholas Evans based his character on in The Horse Whisperer (Mr. Brannaman served as an adviser on Robert Redford's 1998 film of the same name).

Now Mr. Brannaman has written his memoir, "The Faraway Horses" (LyonsPress, $29.95), which explores his early years as a trick roper and rider, his life with an abusive father, and how horses taught him to live a peaceful life.

"A horse responds to calmness, " says Mr. Brannaman. "You have to be able to control your presence. It's not OK to lose your temper."

That doesn't mean everything is always "fuzzy and warm, " though. "Just like with children, sometimes you can't be a best friend, " he says. "You have to enforce the rules. All problems can't be cured with love."

It takes patience, discipline and consistency. "A well-trained, halter-broken horse should be able to be trailer-loaded from the end of a 60-foot rope, " says Mr. Brannaman, who teaches horsemanship classes and trains horses. He swears this isn't just a parlor trick to impress clients. It's a matter of teaching the basics on the ground, or without the horse being mounted (details on this can be found in Mr. Brannaman's Groundwork video and his Trailer Loading and Problem Solving video).

Longeing a horse can help a fiery colt settle down before the rider climbs aboard. (Longeing is when the trainer works a horse in a circle on the end of a long rope, asking the equine to vary its pace.) "But if it's used just to get the horse out of breath, their gas tanks just get bigger, " he says. "I've seen people longe ahorse for two hours just to ride for an hour."

He suggests doing precision groundwork with a shorter halter leadrope instead of a 30-foot longe line. The emphasis is on refining the horse's agility rather than merely tiring the animal. A trainer can expect "a well-trained horse to be pretty solid by the time he's age 5 or 6," he says. "A few horses will take longer.It doesn't make them bad. Sometimes the horse that takes the longest ends up exceptional. I tend to learn a little slow myself, but once I have it down, I got it."

Mr. Brannaman hesitates to tell riders to circle a horse that is running away or bucking. "For someone who doesn't know how to do it, it's a good way to get them hurt or killed. But if you know how to bend a horse and disengage his hindquarters, it can help out intough situations."

One of the most common problems he sees with riders is fear. "I help them understand why the horse is doing what he's doing." "How many times have I heard, 'My horse just started doing this for no reason at all'? "It's never the horse. It's always something the person has done."

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