Buck Brannaman Clinic

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By Robyn Miller, Point Pleasant Farm

I was fortunate to be invited to Buck Brannaman’s 2017 Colt Starting Clinic at his Houlihan Ranch in Sheridan, Wyoming, held June 1-4, 2017.  

Arriving at the ranch, we were welcomed by Buck’s daughter and organizer of the clinic, Reata, who directed us to my assigned colt, Dusty, a 3-year-old Quarter Horse Palomino gelding.  At first Dusty was a little unsure of me, but after spending some time with him, he began to accept me. 

The clinic had 35 colts to be started and the group was divided into two sessions. Those not in the morning session got to watch and experience all the fun of the first group, and vice versa.  Buck started each session by working his own horse and discussing things he looks for and wants to feel as he progresses his horses. He followed by opening up the demonstration to questions from the spectators. While he is working, all of the participants are already working with their colts in his 150 foot round corral. 

Day one we began by doing groundwork exercises and flag work with our colts to get them focused and accepting leadership.  We also got them saddled; some accepted saddles seamlessly, others, not so much. Every participant did an outstanding job of redirecting his or her colt’s feet when they got worried and needed some help.

Once all of the colts were saddled and doing pretty well, Buck asked us to take their halters off and turn them loose. The colts all ran, some bucking, some searching for a friend; it was a fun time. As the colts were adjusting to wearing saddles for the first time, Buck mounted his horse and started to move them around the round pen. He was trying to get them to move together as a unit and look to him for support.  When he felt they were in a good place, he asked everyone to come back in and catch their colt. We worked as a team to help each other until everyone had their halter back on their colt. We ended the first day revisiting our groundwork and standing up in the stirrup, preparing for the first mounting and first ride. 

Day two we once again began with groundwork, colts already saddled, doing more preparation with flags and ropes as Buck warmed up his horse. On this day, inside the large round corral a smaller round pen was set up in the center. Buck asked us to bring our colts into the smaller round pen six at a time. We were then instructed to, once again, take our halters off and step out. Buck moved the colts around the round pen for a bit to get them moving and check them out to make sure they were ready; then he brought us back in to catch them.

Once we had caught them, it was time to get on. We all stepped up and got on with the colts wearing just the halter. Our first task, once on board, was to bring the horse’s head around laterally and get them used to that. We would swing the lead rope over the horse’s head to switch sides. We continued this way for a few minutes, rubbing and petting for reassurance. Then we began asking for them to move their feet. With the head bent around, I started lightly bumping my leg to encourage my colt to step his hind end over. After a few minutes of this, it was time to move him out to a walk. I was lightly using my legs to ask him to move forward and before I knew it, our group was moving around the round pen. Buck helped us out by directing the colts around the pen if they got stuck. It seemed like no time before we were walking and trotting around, using the one-rein to stop if our colt started to get unsure. Once all of us were doing pretty well, it was time to go out of the small round pen and ride them in the big corral and practice while the next group got going. 

My colt was handling things pretty well. He was actually a little on the lazy side. I walked and trotted him around, working on his understanding of the meaning of my leg and moving forward, guiding with the rein, stopping and getting soft. It was a pretty hectic environment working on these movements amongst fifteen others all doing similar things on colts that didn’t yet know how to be steered. At times it felt like bumper cars. But was sure a lot of fun. We ended day two with a successful first ride! 

Day three we started in the same fashion as day two: doing our groundwork with colts saddled, but today we put on the snaffle bridle. We increased the colt’s desensitization by using our ropes more, swinging them over their heads, around their legs, leading them by their feet. We also used tarps and, of course, our flags. We encouraged them to move off a feel of lightness with focus, doing exercises to move each foot where we wanted. It was amazing to see so many colts being handled by great horseman all starting to move together with unity as the pairs became more confident with each other and the colts were finding leadership that they found comforting. 

After our groundwork warm-up, Buck demonstrated on his horse. Watching him work is truly amazing! He is one with his horse and makes everything look so smooth and effortless. One of my favorite parts of each day was getting to watch him and listen to how he likes to achieve his results.

We were once again split into groups to go into the smaller round pen. Today we didn’t turn them loose; we got on first thing. Again, we started by taking their heads around from side to side getting them acclimated to the different feel of the snaffle bit; then moving the hind end a few times before asking them to walk out. Today we walked, trotted, and encouraged the canter. It was a little tight with that much going on inside the small round pen.

Dusty and I struggled to get the canter. He was quite happy with just trotting. Buck said that getting the canter wasn’t the most important thing, though; it was more about keeping them from being scared and worried about the rider. Each one will get it their own time, he said.

We were turned out to practice in the large corral again and continued to work on freeing up their feet, getting them used to being guided with the rein, and stopping with one rein. As the session went on, Buck gave us words of encouragement and helped us as we needed it. He also answered questions from the audience and told great stories of his experiences over the years. You could hear a deep respect and an admiration whenever he would mention his mentor, Ray Hunt.

We ended the session with another successful ride. Both horses and riders were hot and tired, as the weather was sunny and 85 degrees. Nevertheless, we were all smiles! 

Day four, saddle and bridle on, flag in hand, we headed to the round corral again. Today we did less groundwork and it was soon time to get on. No smaller round pen work today. All of us just started working on getting better with moving our colts around, guiding, and softness.

Dusty and I were getting much better at moving out to the trot, but still struggling with his willingness to step into the canter. At one point, we were attempting it and ended up stopping right in front of Buck. At that point I asked Buck for some advice to get him to move out. He told me to get busy with my legs so they would mean something to him and not to give up until I got a breakthrough. So, back out we went to try again. I was kicking and kicking and would not get much canter, but it was coming slowly. Buck was coaching me and said “you keep busy with your legs and he’s going to realize pretty soon that you’re the one keeping him safe.” What he meant by that didn’t sink in at first, but it became very clear rather quickly! As I was kicking away trying to get him to canter, Buck rode up behind me, swinging his rope. If he got close enough, he would swing the rope and pop my colt on the hind end! That put him in high gear! For several minutes I would ask, and if he didn’t canter, Buck would come with some “encouragement.” After a bit, Dusty finally realized that it was in his best interests to go when my legs asked him to go. That was so much fun!! We were both hot and tired afterward, but what a rewarding experience of achievement. 

After this session Buck said, “OK, let’s take them for a spin.” The gate was opened and up the mountain we went. What an awesome ride that was! Riding up this beautiful mountain, the views were breathtaking. Dusty and I did really well, too. He stayed quiet and relaxed among the group and we had an amazing time. After coming back down, it was time to put the colts away for the last time. It was hard to say goodbye to my new little friend. I thanked him for such a great experience and wished him good luck in his new adventure. 

It was time to leave the Houlihan Ranch and gorgeous mountains of Wyoming, but the memories will be with me forever.
I was fortunate to be able to share this experience with great people. My Memphis support group was wonderful and I would like to thank all of them: Melanie Smith Taylor, Harriet McFadden, Jamie Caton, Katharine Heller, Elena Smith, Snow Morgan, Julianne Portia, and Edgar Hernandez.

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