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The real deal horse whisperer

CHARLIE BRISTER attends a clinic with Buck Brannaman and finds that timing is everything.

There are not many horse trainers running a clinic in Tamworth, in New South Wales, who would draw riders from Darwin, Hobart, Adelaide, Canada and everywhere in between.

Then again, Buck Brannaman is not most horse trainers. He is the real deal horse whisperer ™ (please don’t tell him I said that). But it is true, and in 1998 he inspired the Robert Redford movie based on the original novel, The Horse Whisperer, by Nicholas Evans.

But when word spread of his talent with horses, instead of moving to Hollywood, Buck kept on the road, driving across America with his gooseneck full of horses and his training program, all in an effort to improve the kindness and effectiveness of working together with your horse instead of imposing control and losing battles.

Buck has also been coming to Australia for the past 20 years, but only became really well known here after the 2011 documentary, simply called Buck. He seems to have come across and fixed every  problem one could have with a horse. The way he deals with the horses (and people) is inspirational for professionals and amateurs.

Somehow while teaching 60 riders a day he manages to remain calm despite some horses and riders behaving less than perfectly. Buck’s ability to control his emotions is one of the main reasons he can be such a consistent training partner for the horse. Lesson One for me as a trainer: Stay quiet and think.

What happened before what happened happened?  It turned out this was a classic Buck phrase, repeated often during the clinic, usually when something had gone wrong.

What he wanted us to understand was that something had happened before the issue to indicate or cause the problem.  His focus was on the handler’s lack of preparation or holes in the training, not what the horse might have been perceived as doing wrong.

It brought up the difference between a problem and a symptom. When something goes wrong with their horse, riders usually blame the symptom (what’s gone wrong) rather than the problem (what  went wrong before the symptom).

For example:  A horse stops at a jump. Excuse one might be that the horse wasn’t trying hard enough, or excuse two that the horse was distracted by a dog. Whereas the problem may actually be that the horse hasn’t been trained to go forward off a light leg aid. Or maybe the jump was higher than usual and the horse was surprised by the size.

Key principles: Many of Buck’s principles would not be that surprising to those of us who want to improve our relationship with our horse, or horses.  He is a big believer in asking everything of the horse as softly as possible. Then he is as firm (pressure on) as necessary to get a response followed by instantaneous reward (pressure off).

The timing of the aid should coincide with the corresponding footfalls which makes the aid clearer, shorter and more effective. If an aid has pinpoint accuracy it can be extremely soft, which creates a swift reaction in the horse, and subsequently an immediate reward.

Buck also discussed separating the leg and rein aids as originally advocated by Baucher in the 1800’s. If you didn’t read my October 2019 article, you are going to hear it now, and probably again and again. Leg and rein are for different instructions so under no circumstances kick and pull at the same time.

Buck worked with us all to get our horses understanding the pressure to stop, the pressure to go and the pressure to turn. These three things need to be honed to perfection before worrying about the horse’s head position and/or frame. You need to go through the feet to get to the head, he said to us all on more than one occasion.

His approach to working with the horse from the foundation is surprisingly similar to Andrew McLean’s teaching to create an adjustable, light horse that is free of confusion.

Simple gear/no gadgets: Buck also focused on using simple gear. A rope halter, training flag, saddle and a snaffle bridle. All his horses are consistent in the contact and he is strongly opposed to the popular trend of over-tightening the noseband or using draw reins. He is also, he says, against going to a stronger bit because the horse isn’t going well in a snaffle. Work out the problem rather than change the gear. (Remember – what happened before what happened happened?)

The Buck Brannaman clinic and the Legacy of Legends: There were actually two clinics in Tamworth. There are a large number of repeat students in Buck’s clinics, and to be honest it was hard to grab a spot in either of them.

The first clinic was the Legacy of Legends designed to pass on the knowledge and compassion towards horses developed by Buck’s mentors Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance.

The main clinic was split into two sections. A groundwork section for the greener horse and a ridden section for those of us who already thought they had the basics covered (but I’ve got news for you, none of us did!).

Each section had around 30 people in it for the two-and-a-half hour lesson. This was a daunting prospect to consider. How can you justify paying a considerable entry fee when there will be little personalised instruction?

It turns out you have to think for yourself a bit more and that was no bad thing! Buck would talk to the group, demonstrate what he wanted on his horse then send us out to practice on our own horses. All the while talking about horse training to the crowd or throwing a helpful comment to the riders as we went past.

It turned out that all of us in the advanced clinic needed to refine our groundwork and basics. Our foundations were not solid enough. We were not consistent enough. And our soft feel ™ techniques needed practice, practice, practice. So we spent nearly three hours each day working on it, watching others battle through their mental blocks and facing up to the bad habits we all collect.

By getting each horse working softly on the ground, it gave riders a way to ride more comfortably and easily and that suddenly brought  a lot of joy back to riders helping each horse reach their full potential under saddle.

Even though I’d watched several DVDs on Buck training and teaching it was still impressive to see how well he got his own horse working.

On day one Buck met his loan horse – an unbalanced, down-hill Quarter Horse who spent plenty of time calling out to his friends. After three days in the clinic the little horse was amazingly responsive, uphill, and very calm. If I’m going to be truly honest it had improved about as much as everyone else’s horses combined!

So after spending three days watching Buck, what was my big take out?  Simply this: He has developed an amazing control of his body. He is completely coordinated and fluid, and each part of him works as directed, especially his clearly separated hand and leg aids.

Buck’s methods are very simple, but it’s just not that easy to do if we are burdened with years of bad habits. However, it was definitely worth it and has led to my show jumping mare improving her balance and responses phenomenally.

If you haven’t watched any of Buck’s DVD’s you might dip in and have a look. His lessons apply to any discipline, as they are about good training and clear riding.

The clinics were organized by the incredibly warm and helpful Anthony and Deb Desreaux a big shout out to the great team in Tamworth. Yee Haw!

Don’t get put off by the chaps worn by most people in the Country Music Capital of Oz. A good horseman doesn’t just chase cows. They can gallop Thoroughbreds, dance Warmbloods or ride a show horse in a Royal Show Ring.  I can attest to that.  And also that training is everything, absolutely everything.

Charlie Brister of Brister Equestrian is an all-round horseman based in western Sydney. His expertise is in re-training problem horses, as well as coaching riders in the art of cross-country, show jumping and dressage.

For more of Charlie’s tips on good hoof manners, plus other great content, come and join the HorseVibes tribe!

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