Buck Brannaman and the Horses of New Mexico

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(Wild Horse by James Marvin Phelps)

It’s been a tough summer for the horses of New Mexico.  The news has been filled with stories about a starving herd of wild horses near Placitas and the ongoing debate (pro and con) about the proposed horse meat processing plant in Roswell.

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(Photo by David Betzler)

It was a relief to leave behind the heartbreak and rancor of those horse stories and drive out to Trinity Ranch in Lamy to attend a Buck Brannaman horsemanship clinic last weekend.  A red-tailed hawk soared overhead as Dave and I set up our folding chairs.  Behind us in a nearby corral, a horse whinnied loudly as we settled in.

Outfitted with a microphone headset, Brannaman was in the middle of the arena surrounded by the class participants each standing by his horse, holding a lead in one hand and a training flag in the other.  It was day two of a four-day clinic and Buck was telling a story about his father counting squares of toilet paper.

The 2011 documentary about Brannaman was my introduction to his natural-style horsemanship which encourages the rider to see things from the horse’s point of view. My own experience with horses has been limited to a few vacation trail rides where I was either  dragged under low-hanging tree branches or bounced back to the barn by a bored horse looking for a bucket of oats.  Although I am an unlikely candidate for a spot in the arena, something about Buck’s plainspoken approach (Don’t make me look over there and see you loafin’) compelled me to check out his horse clinic.

A little ways into the ground work exercise, Buck could see that one of the riders, Laura, was have trouble; her pretty black horse was skittish and unresponsive.  He took the horse to the center of the arena where she continued to rear her head and whinny.  Buck showed her what he wanted using his training flag in his calm, unflappable way, over and over.  Within fifteen minutes the horse was more gentle and receptive, hooked on to Buck, recognizing and accepting his leadership.  Handing the reins back to Laura he said, “. . .  probably when you go back to work you’ll ruin half of my work, but that’s just because you haven’t learned all this yet.”

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And, what about the toilet paper story?  When Buck and his brother were kids they enraged their father by using more than their allotment, probably got a whipping for it, and were in trouble for a week.  Buck remembered that a few years later when his stepfather, Ray Hunt, got angry with him for leaving a gate open and letting a cow get out.  But after the chewing out, Ray let it go; it was over.  Buck’s lesson from that, “. . .(Ray would) make his point and get out.  It wasn’t vengeful.  It wasn’t malicious.  He simply did what it took to be effective to get a change and he was done.  In and out.”  And that’s pretty good advice even if you never get on a horse.

It’s Wednesday night.  The Valley Meat Company has still not been able to begin operations at their horse meat processing plant in Roswell due to a restraining order. Good people are taking hay to the Placitas horses and Buck is probably already in Colorado.  He starts his next clinic in Kiowa on Friday.

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