Unnatural Horsemanship 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Bull butter… It’s not natural horsemanship. There is nothing natural about it. You’re asking a horse to give up their nature and partner with you. It’s opposite of natural for them to think and not run. –Buck Brannaman

I took a long weekend to spend a few days visiting my mom in Reno, NV. Partly inspired by my horse life and partly ready to fulfil a dream she hadn’t thought possible, she bought her first horse this year and found a trainer to help mentor her through the process of new horse owner. 

As she researched local options one woman had the distinction of learning over 20 years from Buck Brannaman (who anyone who has read my blog for very long knows I greatly admire) and she uses his methods to the best of her ability. I agreed that she seemed like the best choice. 

Over the winter my mom let me know that Karyn (her trainer) was hosting the Buck Brannaman clinic in May and for my birthday this year (which is in July) she offered to bring me out to Reno to audit the clinic with her and meet her horse (who it turns out Karyn used in the morning classes). It seemed like a good opportunity to see my mom and share in an experience together which included meeting one of my heros.


my mom’s new horse Shine
I worried going in that it wouldn’t be all I’d hoped for. I am not a hero worship kind of girl and believe we all put our riding rights or jeans on one leg at a time. However Buck is a little larger than life for me and if he turned out to be snotty, snarky, jaded, unapproachable or jerky I would have been disappointed.

The clinic wasn’t exactly what I’d expected- it was actually more helpful and inspiring than I would have believed.

Note: if you are not sure about participating or auditing, definitely audit. I was considering enrolling to participate in a clinic close to home in October and after auditing I’ve decided to audit that clinic as well. 

I got immense value from being able to sit and watch both him and riders and horses of various levels instead of trying to process and act on it right then. Now I want to go home and get some experience then go watch again for more detail. Someday when I’ve gotten somewhere on my own I will be ready to try to ride for Buck and get his input I might actually gain something deeper from it. 

Also- I’ve watched the videos. I have the 7 clinics and I’ve watched the groundwork DVD. I’ve seen some of the snaffle bit series before I went to observe. It all builds in layers 

If you have the chance to get to one: GO

mom and me with Buck’s morning horse behind us

If you want to learn how to do the dance my suggestion is first:

watch the videos.

Go back to your fundamentals and see where your horse has holes in her education.

 Work seriously at it at home!

Go watch a clinic (make a trip out of it, drive all day if you have to… It’s worth it!)

Go home and do more work!

Then repeat steps one and two as much as you want or need…

Meanwhile save your pennies (it’s expensive but still a great value!)

Then try to get into a clinic to ride and hone your skills. 

And for the rest of your life, go home and do the work. 

What I saw holding people back from excellence and dancing with their horse are:

  1. unwillingness to put in the time it takes to do the work. 
  2. unwillingness to put in the time it takes to do the work. 
  3. inconsistent work (do you ask your horse the same exact correct way every time? Usually due to #1)
  4. less than perfect timing (probably due to #2)

I think my horse has some decent fundamentals. She’s solid. We are working as a team and she likes to be with me. She trusts me as her leader.  This is a great first step!

We are pretty good. 

When I see how bad pretty good looks when compared to seamless and light I can’t imagine settling for pretty good. I’m not just hungry for seamless… I’m starving for that kind of lightness. 

I just want to see you get your horse to operate as if it is your legs. When your game of riding becomes a game of inches and not yards then we can talk about what kind of riding you want to do. –Buck

Fundamentals. I just rode our first 55 mile endurance ride on a willing horse and for most of those miles rode with me alone- her human leader. We were in a completely new environment with hundreds of horses in camp and on the trails. She was completely with me a good deal and I never struggled to stay in the leader role. I had pretty good light control- rarely had to do more than change my energy to steer or transition, and we finished healthy. 

Our fundamentals are pretty good. 

We are going to change that. 

I was inspired by Elise on the first Biltmore loop because she rode her Arab in a bosal. That is more than pretty good. That is where I’d like to be. There were hundreds of horses at an international ride away from the comfort of home. Her horse had to see her as the only important factor that day.  That is partnership. That is lightness. 

Every chance you get to work on flexion do it. Be able to get that without them moving their feet. Ray used to say ‘you can’t do that too much’. When I reach for my horse he is reaching for me. No delay, no bracing. If your horse braces before he gives he’s already late in the movement. Even if he gives light as a feather eventually if he braces first you have no timing- the horse isn’t punctual. 

I better understand now what Buck means by soft feel. I understand how that concept plays into lateral and vertical flexion and what it looks like when it’s done correctly and as you reach for the horse, she reaches for you. 

Fundamental to everything. 

I understand better how that plays into a quality back up and how to ask for it correctly on the ground and in the saddle. 

I understand how that soft feel and flexion corresponds to the hind feet and using that to rebalance and get better impulsion from the hind. 

10,000 times isn’t enough to ask for that flexion and soft feel.

I understand. 

I also know I’m going to screw it up. So many details about being consistent: how to ask, when to ask, what context is appropriate, when to release, what is plan B if you don’t get it the first time, do it enough times – you can’t do it enough- however don’t over drill, don’t frustrate or get them bored. 

This is the other reason riders don’t get there. It can be overwhelming at best and ‘pretty good’ starts to look ‘pretty good’. 

There were countless examples of a simple fundamental that tied into common training or riding questions. 

When a horse falls apart it has everything to do with his fundamentals being sloppy. It’s like that with everything. If your fundamentals are rock solid you can take that somewhere.

He talked about true quality of leading and how soft and light that should be. He gets frustrated when someone asks after that how to load a difficult horse. 

But the horse leads fine, it’s just the trailer.

No he doesn’t. The horse leads when comfortable in its surroundings. The horse is showing you the holes in its training or his lack of believing in you are the leader and source of comfort when you get to the trailer. You are not truly in control of that horse’s feet. 

But most of the time people don’t truly want to fix the fundamentals, they want another quicker magic solution. 

That’s something else that sank in as I observed: Many people believe they have a solid horse and good relationship because things work when the horse is comfortable. In reality it’s the environment or other horse that is the source of comfort and not you the rider.

The more dialed in my horse gets to me, the less they are worried about all that other stuff. Pretty soon my horse gets so tuned in to me he’s blocked out all other distractions.

Once the comfort is removed you see where your fundamentals really are. That became apparent watching some of the participants whose horses (they said, and I believe them) were solid at home. Here they were in a strange place with strange horses, wind & tarps/tents, spectators, a speaker that occasionally made funny sounds, and probably a self conscious rider who is also out of their element. Many horses were pulled aside by one of Buck’s cute young cowboy apprentices for some remedial help. Watching them work with a slightly troubled horse off to the side was a great bonus. 


I came an hour early on day 2 to watch the cowboys perform a ‘divorce ceremony’ with two herdbound horses. The boys were kind enough later to talk to me about ideas for getting Faygo less bound to Khaleesi.
He spent a good amount of time interweaving the things that we can do to become that source of comfort for the horse. It takes time to prove that you are worthy of that kind of trust. It is quick and easy to destroy it through both neglect and/or intent. 

Punishment is what bad riders do after something happened. Comfort is what good riders do when they sense trouble and reach for their horse a little. Be good enough to help your horse before he gets into trouble. A lot of people ride their horse like its crisis management all the time… Pretty soon instead of the human giving comfort and support they’re just winding their horse a little tighter. 

In the end of the advanced classes you could see how the fundamentals came together when they brought in the cows. It makes me want to go ride through some local herds and play!

I have been reflecting on what these things mean to me as I travel the endurance road. 

I also found so much overlapped with the Simple Equine Teaching I’ve been learning. 

There are obvious things of course. Out in the wilderness of the OD 100 or Tevis you had better have a horse that is encouraged to think and communicate with you but then trusts you when you make a decision. Your lives could be at stake. 

If I can help my horse balance herself and use use body in balance and flexion she is less likely to suffer overuse injury and be healthy for the 10,000 and more miles I hope we rack up together. 

If I can encourage her to power from her hind maybe we can pick up a little speed in the process. 

Bits & Hacks: I’m generally happy in my comfort bit and haven’t wanted to switch to a standard hackamore which relies on nose pressure however if I knew I had the trust, softness and control to ride her in a bosal style hack I believe that would be the best possible option for her. I read articles in the past year that discussed performance of endurance horses based on bit vs. bitless even going as far as to discuss the importance of the seal of the horse’s lips over long distances. I’m not 100% convinced it is not more marketing but I would make the switch if we could. I’ve also understood some poll pressure from the curb action can help a horse carry itself better- but now I believe flexion and softness is the better way to get that flexion. 


Riding in a bosal
A soft feel is the start of collection and it is a tool- I would not consider riding my horse for miles having to hold that. 

Buck’s concept of the rectangle is also helpful to an endurance rider. He explains that your horse has a rectangle around him. You want your horse in the center of the rectangle – not pushing forward outside (faster than you want to go), not dragging on the back like a horse leaning on the butt bar in a trailer (slower, lack of impulsion), and not veering either right or left if you stop holding him in place with legs or reins. 

Early on your rectangle might be yards around you as you try to get your horse to understand how to move straight or to not run through your hands, but when you’re good enough the rectangle just brushes past your legs, his nose and rear end. That’s the game of inches. 

I think of this with some of the endurance Arabs I see and hear their riders talk about ruining their hands, tearing holes in their gloves and hurting their shoulders and necks from holding back the horse for miles and miles. I could never judge another circumstance and have not had a horse like that- but I do believe that is not a good situation for the human or the horse. It exhausts the horse and rider to fight that and is an example of the horse pushing out the front of the rectangle. While sometimes I wish my horse were a little more motivated (she is sometimes inclined to rest on the back of the rectangle), at least we are lucky enough to finish strong because we aren’t fighting the racing mind. In some cases letting the horse ‘run’ might be the answer but most of the time that wouldn’t work for the long haul- they would be spent too soon. 

It seems like a training issue to me … And it also seems like it would take a lot of time to get that horse’s mind back on race day. More time than most people have or are willing to put in. 

So the rectangle- especially the front and rear lines of it seem especially important to me in the endurance world. The sides can be helpful when trying to move to one side of the trail whole someone passes you- or you want to ride together for a while. 

Anyone interested in finding a clinic can check out his website:

Buck Brannaman Clinics

To end the trip my mom and I went to the BLM site near her house and we watched some of the penned herds waiting for adoption or transfer. 

Almost more than anything I want to adopt a wild horse. It is my long term dream. 

But for now I have a great project mare I adore that was practically feral (not a lot of human interference before I got her) and is a great training ground for me to hone my skills. We have some work to do and some endurance goals that take all the ‘free’ time I have and more.  

My little herd the day I came home – my ‘good’ horse waiting to greet me… my project horse way down the fenceline as independant as ever.

I also have a low-maintenance horse in Faygo the Fine that most people with a little horse sense can ride safely. So for now I am holding my ground and waiting until things change. 

But there were a few I wanted to take home!


Published by JaimeHope

Violin teacher and endurance rider living in a rural mountain county - one of the least population dense and without a single stoplight.

4 thoughts on “Unnatural Horsemanship 

  1. Good reading, inspires me to just do it.

    The picture of your girls doesn’t show up and one typo i noticed if you want to fix is the word whole, I think you meant while …. So the rectangle- especially the front and rear lines of it seem especially important to me in the endurance world. The sides can be helpful when trying to move to one side of the trail whole someone passes you- or you want to ride together for a while.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love it! What a beautiful thing to see a mother and daughter bonding through horses. Maybe you two should plan a cross-country endurance ride and meet up in the middle! 😉 Also, great take on auditing a clinic. I need to get to a few myself this year!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Not at all horse related. Boy! You look like your Mom! Good genes! Two beautiful ladies together! I am quite envious! What you did sounded like a wonderful experience and I hope you had some “down time” with your Mom as well!

    Liked by 1 person

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