Equine expert is the original horse whisperer

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Buck Brannaman

Buck Brannaman was the inspiration for the equine expert in "The Horse Whisperer."

Equine expert Buck Brannaman might not be a household name outside the tack room. But non-equestrians' ears prick at the mention of "The Horse Whisperer," the novel and film whose horse expert, played by Robert Redford, is modeled after Brannaman.

By kindness and intuition instead of force or intimidation, Brannaman has made a living sharing his gentle approach to horsemanship that has earned a devoted following.

Brannaman instructs in the vaquero riding tradition, which is Spanish for cowboy, and dates to the Spanish colonization of California in the 18th century.

Brannaman, who lives in Sheridan, Wyo., teaches about 40 clinics across the nation and estimates he's worked with "hundreds of thousands of horses" along the way.

"This really is about understanding how a horse thinks and makes decisions and what it takes to communicate with a horse on the level that he accepts you," Brannaman said during a phone call while traveling through Idaho.

Brannaman, 56, honed the approach that horsemen Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance developed over the past 75 years.

"They really revolutionized the method of working with young horses that have never been ridden before," said Brannaman, who was 17 when he first began working with Hunt. "Ray used to say: 'You make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy.' It's not about a punishment-reward system. It's more a matter of setting things up where your idea becomes the horse's idea."

Getting horses to do what you'd like is paradoxically a matter of giving them more reins.

It's all about setting things up where the horse is allowed to make choices," Brannaman said. "If he makes the wrong choice, you make it difficult for him, but at the same rate, you don't beat up on the horse."

Brannaman offered an example of winning a horse with kindness. Say you're trying to get a finicky horse into a trailer. An effective, low-stress way to entice the horse on board is to wave a flag on a long stick behind it. The horse will begin to think inside the horse trailer is the safest place for it to be.

"You're not using the flag like a whip. You're using the horse's natural instinct to want to move away from something kind of scary," Brannaman said. "You soothe the horse as it moves closer to where you want it to be."

In his clinics, Brannaman often encounters common mistakes. One is someone trying to out-muscle a much more powerful horse.

"Anybody who still stays with that (strong arm) method, they won't survive too awful long before they're doing something else for a living," Brannaman said. "I grew up around that mentality."

Brannaman was born in Wisconsin in 1962 but grew up with horses in Idaho and Montana. In the 2001 autobiography, "The Faraway Horses: The Adventures and Wisdom of One of America's Most Renowned Horsemen," which Brannaman wrote with William Reynolds, he details how his rodeo-riding father taught Brannaman and his older brother rope tricks from an early age. Soon, they performed the tricks on television and at rodeos and fairs around the country.

Physical abuse by the hands and whips of their father, however, betrayed such a rustic idyllic childhood. After being placed with a foster family, Brannaman graduated from high school at 17, when he began working under his mentor, Ray Hunt. Hunt's empathetic approach to horsemanship struck a chord with Brannaman.

Now married with three children, Brannaman said the relationships people have with horses aren't that different than those he has with people.

"There's just a logical approach to things where you set things up and allow them to happen, rather than trying to make them happen," Brannaman said.

Brannaman held his first horsemanship clinic 36 years ago in Montana. He now spends 40 weeks each year giving clinics throughout 30 to 35 states. He also instructs in Italy, England, Spain, Australia and New Zealand.

Brannaman has published several books, some of which are part equine handbook and part autobiography.

Nicholas Evans, the author of "The Horse Whisperer," has written that Brannaman's "skill, understanding and his gentle, loving heart have parted the clouds for countless troubled creatures. Buck is the Zen master of the horse world."

Evans' praise appears on the covers of several of Brannaman's books, including the 2004 "Believe: A Horseman's Journey," which Brannaman co-wrote with William Reynolds.

Reynolds met Brannaman about 35 years ago when he attended one of his early clinics in Malibu, Calif. Then working in advertising, Reynolds was struck by Brannaman's natural way with horses and people. He approached Brannaman about helping him sell his work to a broader audience. Brannaman went along with the plan, although personal salesmanship still seems to be a foreign concept to the horseman.

"My mentors were humble men who didn't do a lot of self-promotion," Brannaman said. "They weren't trying to be in a circus."

Reynolds is working with Brannaman on a third book called "The Making of a Bridle Horse." It will be released next year. They're also working on revisions of Brannaman's previous two books.

Brannaman didn't mention any of these projects in an interview for this story. Nor did Brannaman mention the 2011 documentary "Buck," which is available on Netflix and won the Audience Award for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.

"Of course Buck didn't mention those things!" Reynolds said with a laugh. "Buck is incredibly humble and self-effacing. He's just not someone who chooses to promote himself verbally. He wants people to come and be a part of the experience (of his clinics). Horses and life, it's all the same to him."

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