The real horse whisperer has a lot to offer all riders

Claudia Stack

Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

A Long Tradition

“There’s only one real horse whisperer… and that’s Robert Redford!” Joked Buck Brannaman during a clinic in North Carolina. As the inspiration for Nicholas Evan’s bestselling novel The Horse Whisperer , and as the double during the training scenes in the movie by the same name, Brannaman is in a unique position to comment. Far from trying to build a mystique, however, Brannaman openly shares his training methods and his enthusiasm for the California Vaquero tradition in which he is rooted. This Western system of training was influenced by Spanish classical riding, and spread from Mexico into California in the 1700’s. It is a system that plays on the horse’s herd skills in order to gain his cooperation and understanding.

The Whole Relationship

Training methods based on the Vaquero approach have gained increased popularity in the past two decades, and some noted trainers in the English riding disciplines have recognized their value. It is an approach that is conducive to a calm, comprehending attitude in the horse. This state of mind allows a horse to use his athletic ability to the fullest extent. The Vaquero tradition encourages us to realize that every interaction we have with a horse matters, and that brilliance is most likely to grow out of harmony between horse and rider.

Dressage judge and trainer Jan Leitschuh incorporated techniques from the Vaquero tradition after seeing some work done by Brannaman and some of his mentors, among them Tom Dorrance. A USEF/ American Horse Show Association “r” rated dressage judge, Leitschuh has shown at the FEI level and earned her United States Dressage Federation silver medal. She says of her cowboy teachers that “Their goal, working stock, was ultimately different from mine… But at the core, we all wanted the same thing, that turning loose mentally and physically, that sense of dancing. And they could get it when no one else could. Now I see it all over, in the older dressage literature especially, in masters such as the late Klimke. For me, it’s become more of a way to think about a horse.”

In November 1998, Brannaman and former grand prix jumper rider Rodney Jenkins gave a unique clinic together in Buffalo, NY at the Buffalo Therapeutic Riding Center. The clinic also featured a group of world class hunter and jumper riders who demonstrated the exercises on the flat and over fences. Among these was former USET team member Melanie Smith Taylor, who along with her husband Lee has been hosting clinics led by masters of the Vaquero approach, including Brannaman, for many years.

When asked why they use this approach at their Thoroughbred breeding and training operation, Taylor says she loves “The challenge of doing the best we can for the horses,” and adds that this kind of training means “we’re [also] working on ourselves all the time.”

Different Disciplines, Common Goals

Brannaman observes that “In most areas of riding, the common denominator is that the horse needs to wait on you. The cutting horse is the exception.” With its emphasis on self-carriage and responsiveness to the rider, the Vaquero tradition offers English riders a different yet complementary perspective on how to reach their goals.

Jenkins lamented the trend toward ever increasing specialization among American riders. He spoke favorably of discipline crossover, reminiscing about decades past when amateurs might show halter one weekend, over fences the next, and stockseat the weekend after that.

When asked what he thinks riders in the English disciplines can gain from his approach, Brannaman stresses above all the importance of trying to understand things from the horse’s point of view. He notes that many of his English riding students first come to his clinics as a last resort for a problem horse, “But then they discover that I might have other things to offer them.”

Responsibility and Real Solutions

A spoiled, older chesnut gelding is led from the stable area, barely under control despite the chain over his nose. As soon as he is turned loose in the round pen he dashes off, kicking and bucking. His reported problems include refusing to be caught in the paddock, bad ground manners, and unpredictability under saddle. Within a few minutes Brannaman has the horse facing him respectfully. A few minutes more and the horse lowers his head, allowing Brannaman to halter him.

“When is a horse too old to learn these things?” An amazed spectator calls out.

Brannaman doesn’t pause or look up from this work, but answers instantly “When he no longer has a pulse!” With this one wry remark he demolishes the usual excuses for a horse’s bad behavior, such as saying the horse is too old to learn any better, or that a certain breed always acts this way.

Brannaman’s answer is hard to hear, because it puts the responsibility for our horse’s state of mind and behavior squarely on our shoulders. The Vaquero tradition prods us to examine whatever is currently happening with our horses, good and bad. It challenges us to see that horses don’t compartmentalize. A problem on the ground will also be manifested under saddle. It also offers a way to think about and solve problems, regardless of the horse’s breed or the rider’s chosen discipline. As Melanie Smith Taylor observes, “If you can keep your horse’s mind with you, you can do anything.”

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I am an educator and filmmaker. My documentary films on historic African American schools have screened at film festivals, colleges, libraries, and other venues. In Fall, 2017 I completed SHARECROP and SHARECROP: DELTA COTTON, documentaries that showcase oral history of the South’s “forgotten farmers.” These films have screened at festivals in major cities including London, Atlanta, Detroit.


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