On Life, Horses and Fly-fishing: An Interview with Buck Brannaman

Posted by on Apr 13, 2015 in Reading, Writing | No Comments

Horses of all shapes and sizes are being led by their owners into the cavernous indoor arena at the Egmont Showgrounds in Hawera, New Zealand. It is day one of the three day horse clinic which Buck Brannaman is holding in the North Island of New Zealand, and which has attracted riders from as far away as Australia, and from all corners of New Zealand.

Buck – who was the main inspiration for the 1995 novel The Horse Whisperer and the subsequent Robert Redford movie – was most recently the subject of the 2011 multiple award winning documentary Buck, which presents the compelling and poignant journey from Buck’s early traumatic childhood to becoming one of the world’s most renowned teachers of horsemanship.

Buck’s meeting with early practitioners of natural horsemanship Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt gave him the practical skills and philosophical framework on which to base his instinctual non-violent, non-coercive approach to horses, and which showed him how to work with a horse’s natural disposition, rather than force the horse into submission. Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, states of Buck that his “understanding and his gentle, loving heart have parted the clouds for countless troubled creatures. Buck is the Zen master of the horse world.”

Buck’s belief that “it is for the human to change, not the horse” has seen him help horses and people all around the world. With a relentless nine-month of the year touring schedule, Buck has just completed a clinic in Australia before coming to teach the two clinics in New Zealand, after which he will be flying back to the USA to continue the clinic circuit. I caught up with Buck at the end of the Hawera clinic, just before being on his way to take some rare time off to indulge in another passion: fly-fishing.

You have been coming to New Zealand regularly for about ten years now – which is a long way to travel – so what makes you keep coming back to New Zealand?

Well, there are quite a lot of people in New Zealand who have been students for a while, they sort of depend on me coming back so they can continue to improve and learn, so now I feel a bit of an obligation, you know, to keep it going – it would be a shame to stop going now, because it’s an ongoing thing, it never ends, so as long as I am kind of able to come I’ll keep going.

And there is the fly-fishing?

Yeah, you know, we have plenty of fly fishing at home, but the fly fishing here is amazing, it’s great, so it’s fun to do that when I come.

What are some of the differences that you find here at the New Zealand clinics – the people, the horsemanship?

You know, as far as comparing the students here to the students in America, not much difference, other than you guys talk kind of funny. No, it’s pretty much the same, it would surprise you. People here, you see a lot of different levels of horses and riders, different degrees of experience, pretty much the same at home.

Some of the people riding for the first time were saying how they were initially really star-struck, or they felt like you were a living legend – then as the day progressed and you said that “well, I am just like you,” that made them feel much more comfortable, and you could see the whole atmosphere relax.

Yeah, the first day, a lot of times they will be kind of nervous and it makes me laugh, because sometimes I even have to tell people, I say “you could make a little better job making me feel comfortable being here by responding to me and stuff, don’t act so scared to death of me,” then they will kind of relax a little bit.

And of course there are people who are into natural horsemanship who are kind of introverted, so they are not the kind of people to easily be drawn out.

Yeah, most of the time if your introverted, you don’t really want to be that way, you just kind of are that way – and sometimes just the fellowship and camaraderie of being around these clinics helps people to be acquainted with one another and then they tend to be a little less that way – make some friends.

So riders come to the clinics here in New Zealand every two years, and then they go home – what would you hope they achieved that they can then do at home?

Well, you know, they tend to be pretty good about this in New Zealand. Obviously I am sending them home with things to work on, that they didn’t necessarily achieve everything right in the clinic, but they understand it, and then they know they need to go practice. And most of the people that have been going to these for a while, when I see them again they have got quite a bit of it working, they have been practicing, and they are really trying to improve. And there are some clinics I do in the States that I will occasionally get someone and I think “I am showing you the same damn thing this year that I did last year, and I did ten years ago”. They enjoy being at the clinic, but then they may not try very hard at home, they may not work at it much, so it’s like, “all right, you wanna pay your money to learn the same damn thing again, fine.” But I found here in New Zealand, you show people something and they will go home and practice. And they are always a lot better. I’m anxious to see that group on the South Island, cause a lot of them have ridden with me quite a lot longer [than in the North Island], and they are always better, every time I get back, so that’s cool.

That leads me onto another question, which is about lifestyle – I think you have said that horsemanship, what you are teaching, has to be a lifestyle it can’t just be you go to the paddock once a week to ride…


So what does that lifestyle look like, given we can’t all be on ranches all day?

Well, you know what? Some of the best students I have, that have the most to offer a horse, surprisingly are not ranch people, some of my best students are backyard horse owners; but it just happens to be their passion that they have chosen, the art that they have chosen to study, so it’d be nice if everybody could be on a ranch and riding and roping and shooting like all the cowboys do, but not everybody has that, but is doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t succeed with horses.

I’ve also heard you say that to be with a horse you have to be in the present, or it brings you into the present.


What do you mean by that?

Horses live in the moment. When you have to deal with things it’s in the moment – now you might understand some things that have happened to them, before, in the past, and so that you have an understanding of why they are the way they are in the moment, but you can’t dwell on the past – you have to help them right where they are. I think that is a pretty good life lesson for people too, there is a point, you know, where everybody has to go through some things in their life, or seems like a lot of people do – some people dodge a bullet and are lucky and have an easy life, most of us don’t, sometime or other its gonna be our turn. But you can’t live in two places at once, if your gonna dwell on the past, your living in the past, your not gonna make very much out of your life, so you learn from it, and then you keep it where it belongs, in the past. Seems to work for me.

Is that where you get your strength from? I mean in regards to your personal background, the strength to overcome that and be a better person, and be out there and actually help people and animals in this way?

Yeah, you know, doing this for a living you are given the opportunity to sometimes change someone’s life for the better, in a way that transcends the horses. And it’s not going to be a life changing thing for every person who goes to the clinic, some just want to ride a little better, and they are happy – but every once in a while it’s a bigger thing to some people, and it really, profoundly helps them in their life. Well, that’s a pretty humbling thing to be a part of, and I don’t take it lightly and I don’t take the responsibility of it lightly either. So that’s the kind of the cool part of the job really.

Do you think that if you hadn’t undergone your own personal trauma you would have still been the same horseman/teacher that you are today?

No. No, cause I just don’t think that I would have innately had the empathy for the horse or the person. I just don’t think that without that sort of conditioning that I would have been empathetic. For some people, maybe you’re born that way, but I think some of those characteristics, you have to earn them. Sometimes the hard way.

And what about your personal strength to travel for nine months out of the year, away from your family and on the road – how do you do it?

It’s a sacrifice…Now my daughter, she is twenty at the end of March, and we are very close. Anybody that sees us interact, a lot of times a year people will come up and go “you have the coolest thing going on with your daughter, that’s like a dream relationship with your daughter,” and I do. Its sometimes a little crazy to me because at the same rate I missed out on a lot, being gone and on the road. But we have also had some real quality time together too, when she is with me in the summer travelling with the clinics. So I don’t know, maybe if you come right down to it, maybe I have had more quality time with my daughter than most people, even though I was gone most of the time, because when we are around each other it is true quality time. So maybe that’s what it is. Sometimes you want to feel sorry for yourself that you missed out on some things, but I don’t know, I have a pretty good thing going on with my daughter. And it’s hard on a relationship, you know, when your married, gosh dang, that’s hard. And it isn’t without any strain that’s for sure, but this is what I do. I feel like it’s what I was chosen to do, I’m supposed to be doing this while I am here, and I guess if I wasn’t doing it I wouldn’t have much reason to be around anymore – so even though it’s not easy being married to a guy like me, she kind of knew that when she got into the deal too, it wasn’t a new thing, I’d always done these clinics, so she knew what she was signing up for.

She’s obviously a very patient woman.

Yeah, either that or a little bit of me goes a long way. Someone said, “are you ever gonna stay home” I said “jeez, that’ll be risky” – I don’t know if she’d want me home all the time.

Yeah, you’d be interfering with her normal routine.

Wouldn’t be long and she would be kinda like “why don’t you get that clinic thing kinda kicked into gear again, you know, this isn’t really working for me.”

I think it’s a huge blessing to be able to know what you want to do.

Yeah and I am fortunate that way, I’ve never not know what I wanted to do, ever. I never went through that period of being lost or wondering what I was going to do with my life – I always knew. Cause that’s a hard time for a young person about the time they get out of school and they think “well, it’s a big ole world, but I don’t know how I’m gonna fit into it, I don’t know what I am supposed to do with my life.” That’s gotta be a very uncomfortable feeling, but I never experienced that.

So, and with your daughter, did you being a father to her influence the way you work with the horses?

No, it’s probably the horses that have influenced how I was a father, because I’ve had a lot more experience in that.

Right, because you make a lot of analogies and comparisons between childrearing and horses, which rings very true.

Well, for years before I had a daughter I’d still draw analogies and comparisons between horses and kids, and I’m sure in the back of my mind I thought that “man if I have a child I hope to hell this works out, cause if she or he turns out just to be a spoilt brat that nobody can stand, I’m gonna have some explaining to do.”

I was also wondering about the wider relationship between humans and animals, and I remember reading in one of your books how you tried to train a cat with the same methods as a horse. So do you think what your doing would transcend the horse world and could apply to how we relate to animals in general?

Well I think, philosophically you’d approach things kind of the same, but for instance a lot of people say it’s the same for dogs- well, yes and no – philosophically you’d approach them with that same humanity and consistency, but a dog is a predator, so it is a different animal, and there is some different rules for them. But I think you’d approach things kind of in a similar way, by being consistent, logical and kind of methodical and allowing them to think. Yeah, all of those things are the same.

And does that then also translate into the way that people interact with each other?

Yeah, because when you’re working with humans, they are predators – they are predators whether they would like to admit it or not. They are more predator than anything else. But this kind of thing really is something they can relate to, they feel attracted to.

I think a lot of people are looking for a new way of being with each other and with animals, which you model for people.

Yeah, and I’m kind of real about stuff – it’s not always fuzzy and warm, and doves flying around your head, it’s not always that way – it’s difficult, frustrating, heart breaking, and exhilarating, and there are so many emotions that you experience, so it’s not always like everything always goes perfect. Sometimes it’s kind of like being a parent, sometimes things don’t go so well, you doing the best you can but things don’t go so well. Maybe I bring a little dose of reality into it for people, because some people feel “nothing really ever goes wrong and we never have conflict” – yeah you do, that’s just life. But I don’t live in conflict – if there is a little something going on between me and the horse and things are not going well – well that won’t last long, but it might be there. No different than the horse I worked [during the clinic] this morning, there was all kinds of trouble. That poor gal had horse tracks up the middle of her all morning, she was getting nowhere, that horse was having her for lunch, but he didn’t wanna be that way, he just didn’t know any other way to be. Everything that he was doing wrong was a product of what the humans taught him, but nevertheless you still had to fix it – you felt sorry for him that he hadn’t had any better leadership than that, but you can’t feel so damn sorry for him that you just give him a free pass. So you say “well, that was them, and this is me, things are going to be different between us so that we offer each other something.” It’s no different to friendship, it has to be mutual, can’t have one person doing all the giving.

I was also thinking about the practices in the various horse industries, racing, polo etc., where there are often still very antiquated methods of working with horses – if you could get one message out about those industries, about maybe approaching things differently, what would that be?

Well, I’ve been involved in the polo at different times, just for example, and there are some people playing polo that do a good job with their horse – they just try and do the best they can, try to improve, so I just don’t think you can generalise about anybody. And there might be some things with horses that would be their interest, that maybe doesn’t interest me much, but at the same rate, if they can find a way to do it with the horse where the horse enjoyed what he was doing, understood what he was doing, was relaxed about what he was doing – it doesn’t make that particular activity with horses bad, it’s just kind of how you might approach it. So but I encourage all the different things that people do with horses – whatever it might be, because now most people don’t make a living on a horse, cowboying or like years ago, so all of those activities that people do on horses it are important, because if all those were eliminated, wouldn’t it be a shame to take your children to the zoo to see a horse? Because once people aren’t using horses for things – jumping, racing, dressage, whatever it might be – if they are no longer using them for that, nobody is gonna keep them around, they are too expensive just to have as a lawn ornament, you know, so pretty soon the species would be gone. And that would be a horrible thing, considering over the eons what the horse has done for the human being – the horses have helped them conquer continents, and he’s gone places with the human just because of the ancient bond between the horse and the human, he went there with him. So, the human being owes the horse a lot, in how the world has been settled, so it would be a shame if they were no longer around anymore – so anything people do with horses, I’m glad about that – I just would hope that they find a way to do it that was fitting to the horse.

That’s a good way to look at it. And my last question is you have already achieved so much, what is your next challenge?

Well, I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m not lost.

Okay, so it’s out there somewhere, but you’re not pinning it down?

There are little things that I’m gonna do, we are going to do a feature film on the Faraway Horses, that’s kind of been in the works for a while. I’m pretty sure we are gonna get that done, but that’s just a little thing, I mean it’s a big thing but it’s not, it’s another thing that I have. I feel like the Faraway Horses isn’t done until I get the film done on it, and then I’m finished with it. But I’m just trying to get better and learn more about horses. I still study, I study hard – I spend a lot of time thinking about it, and I sure would like to be a lot better than what I am. So I will be.

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