In the past, I’ve had a conflicted relationship with Buck Brannaman clinics. On the one hand, I love the caliber of horsemanship and elegance that Buck presents. I can watch Buck ride all day (no mean feat for someone as physically restless and bleacher seat intolerant as me). The camaraderie of the riders and auditors is another cherished part of the clinic. I admire and care about many of the regular attendees — and look forward to seeing them every spring.
On the other hand, I’m less enamored of the “interesting” personal growth moments that usually happen during his clinics. Like many important revelations, they rarely are of the “hey, you are awesome” variety. Instead I am often faced with unavoidable evidence of the gap between where I am and where I want to be. At least the distance narrows between my starting point and end goal each year — so that is encouraging.
But this year’s clinic was a great mix of horsemanship progress, philosophic insight and good times with friends. It was a terrific experience with much humor, hard work and inner reflection — plus way too many donuts shared with fellow students. Not all learning experiences have to be serious and intense. As this clinic demonstrated, I can actually absorb plenty of information while also enjoying my horse, laughing with friends and shamelessly inhaling breakfast pastries (due to peer pressure, of course).
Santo And His Fan Club
As many regular readers know, Santo is my personal horse as well as a “professor” for the LOPE Academy. I ride him in the clinic because he has had a history of showing troubled behavior in new, exciting places (see links to previous Santo clinic posts here and here). He also has had a longstanding pattern of weaving in stalls and confined areas (especially in stimulating environments such as Buck’s clinic).
From the first day, it was clear that Santo had made huge emotional changes in the last twelve months. He stood quietly for Buck’s opening Q&A sessions, handled the cow working well and managed the end of class applause with little fuss. For the first time, I could stay for the entire class each day and leave with the rest of the riders. Santo no longer had a major reaction to the swirl of equine motion exiting after the class ended.
Best of all, Santo was calm and relaxed in his pen. He watched the horses in the morning class come and go from the barn area without a single weave, neigh or spaztasic move. A mare in the pen across the aisle was nervous and paced rapidly for much of each day. Santo regarded her with mild boredom and never seemed perturbed by her frenetic twirling in the pen.Over a dozen fellow riders and auditors came up to praise Santo and his near-Zen demeanor compared to previous clinics.
Many people commented on Santo’s progress at the clinic. Over a dozen fellow riders and auditors came up to praise Santo and his near-Zen demeanor compared to previous clinics. I was proud to be part of his entourage. Santo genuinely seemed to enjoy the attention and exuded a cheerful vibe for the entire four days.
What happened to Santo since last year’s clinic? I rode him out frequently in the open pastures at LOPE’s Wimberley farm. He taught lessons to experienced riders through our Horsemanship Education Program. During the fall, we practiced canter departures, backing up and trotting teeters. For several weeks, he was turned out alone in a pasture (which he handled with aplomb). His last clinic outing had been the previous weekend with Peter Campbell — and he came to that with little riding preparation due to wet winter weather in the preceding weeks. In sum, nothing dramatic was done — just steady progress on smaller goals. Which turned out to be a very big deal to Santo.In sum, nothing dramatic was done – just steady progress on smaller goals. Which turned out to be a very big deal to Santo.
At the start of the clinic, I was of course happy with Santo’s mental serenity. But as the weekend continued, I realized that I wasn’t sure what to do next. I was so accustomed to Santo’s agitated state at this clinic that I had no plan in place without it. Santo had taught me to be steady in times of trouble, to ride quietly without adding my personal angst to his worries. But now what?
Santo was tranquil beneath me. His emotional intensity was gone. But so was the extra panache of elevated moves that he showed in times of anxiety. I didn’t know how to bring up the energy in Santo without that trouble. And neither did Santo. His movements were flat and a little dull — and his soft feel was either absent or pro forma (rather than flowing and rhythmic).Buck pointed out that now might be the first time that Santo was ready to experience life rising up without trouble.
When I asked Buck about this interesting phenomenon, he replied that this phase often happens with horses when they are putting their history of worry behind them. In Santo’s case, he pointed out that now might be the first time that Santo was ready to experience life rising up without trouble. In the past, the life had come up in Santo spite of me — rather than because of me. But now we both had to figure out that a new way was possible.
I noted several responses in myself and in Santo over the next two days of the clinic. First, I was fascinated by my lack of enthusiasm for riding a horse that was simply calm. After two years of whirling around on Santo at clinics, you’d think that I’d be grateful for a mellow ride. But no, that would be too easy. To my surprise, I actually found myself missing some of the energy of those rides. Although it was troubled, it was still dynamic, lively movement to direct. And of course I didn’t have to do anything to bring it up. It was just there, like Buck said, without any cue or aid from me.With chagrin, I saw that I had nothing to offer when Santo was relaxed.
Which brought me to the personal insight part of the clinic. With chagrin, I saw that I had nothing to offer when Santo was relaxed. Sure, I could sit still on his back while he spiraled about in a worried state. But once Santo’s emotional coast was clear and he was ready for more refined guidance from me — well, I was somewhat at a loss. And I began to ponder why that particular pattern seemed familiar to me.
This Year’s Life Philosophy Lesson
What I discovered was somewhat uncomfortable. I had become a little too bonded with turmoil. Sometimes it was unavoidable (see my posts on natural disasters here). But often it wasn’t. For example, I work with green ex-racehorses in the nonprofit sector. While this is an entertaining career shift for a former office worker, it tends to be fraught with uncertainty and turbulence at times. Much of which might be completely unnecessary, if I took the time to apply more foresight and discipline.When you are in the middle of chaos, not much is expected of you.
When you are in the middle of chaos, not much is expected of you. There are no quality standards to meet. The goal is to simply get through the crisis — whether in the form of battening down hatches during a hurricane or riding out a green horse “special moment” under saddle. No one would ever hold you to a higher caliber of result in those times. Soon it can be easy to forget that there is a more significant goal beyond merely surviving turbulence.
Turmoil can act as a smokescreen, a way of hiding from the real world accountability and sweaty effort that big pursuits demand. I had become so used to navigating around bumps in the road that I stopped driving toward the destination. I wasn’t putting effort into the activities (like steering straight or checking GPS) that would ultimately guide me to a successful journey’s end. In horsemanship terms, I was “wallowing around” instead of moving forward in a disciplined, organized manner.
Some people go out of their way to find trouble. Others avoid stepping aside when trouble heads their way. A few get caught off-guard by trouble. Either way, the result is the same — nothing much gets done with making progress on more important and significant endeavors. Whether your aim is fluency in Japanese, refined riding or complete world domination, it will take much focus and commitment to reach that larger goal.Turmoil can act as a smokescreen, a way of hiding from the real world accountability and sweaty effort that big pursuits demand.
As Winston Churchill said, “The price of greatness is responsibility.” So put in the practice for the higher purpose now and commit full weight to the endeavor. Enjoy your work and find fun colleagues to do it with. Your goal will steadily get much closer with this approach. And soon you might find that turmoil isn’t part of your life anymore — because there isn’t any room left for it.
Meanwhile Back At The Clinic
As the clinic continued, I began to appreciate the new opportunities that Santo’s relaxed frame of mind allowed. During previous clinic years, it had never occurred to me that new aspirations would emerge once Santo’s anxiety ebbed. It was exciting to begin work on goals that centered on refinement and cadence (rather than just trying to not randomly skitter into other riders). These new challenges were difficult and subtle — but that’s what made them so much fun.
Since Santo is technically more skilled (with years of professional training before I acquired him), it didn’t seem quite right to completely start over as if he was a colt. At the same time, he was unfamiliar with the concept of moving energetically without trouble. When a horse moves with eloquence, collection and power, his emotions will come up. That is what fuels the beauty of the movement. Santo was indeed more like an inexperienced colt in this particular area.When a horse moves with eloquence, collection and power, his emotions will come up. That is what fuels the beauty of the movement.
For insight, I audited the morning horsemanship class closely. In that session, Buck rode a young bay gelding (Big Swede) with only a few months of saddle work. Although he was green, the bay had been started properly (plus he had some terrific natural suspension). It was eye-opening to observe how Buck put the foundation of light, correct movement into Big Swede — but without forcing a frame or over-facing the young horse.
Each basic movement (yielding hindquarters, swinging the front feet) that a credible colt starter would do with a colt — well, that was taken to another level by Buck. The aids were offered as if Big Swede was already a refined bridle horse. The movements were practiced with quality and foresight, to plant the idea of how soft they could become one day — even though right now, today, they were simply down-to-earth, practical maneuvers that any colt needed to learn.
The Importance of Small And Slow
This is incredibly difficult to execute. The smallest try, the most delicate release, the subtlest timing — all of these are critical to recognize and support with near-obsessive consistency. Because you are riding a colt, a young horse that doesn’t yet understand all that you are offering — but can feel with extreme sensitivity exactly how you are offering it. At the same time, you have to ride him like a colt — and occasionally over-exaggerate aids to guide him toward knowledge (while keeping him out of trouble).I like to do things fast. Rushing around, making lots of tracks, throwing my hands up and talking rapidly – that’s me. But I got pretty quiet in the clinic arena this year. And I put much effort into going slow, so I could see all of those little things I might have missed at home.
It’s about small things slowly done, over and over again. I can’t say that I saw or understood everything that was done in the horsemanship class each morning. But I observed the unmistakable positive effect on Big Swede, an effect that grew steadily each day.
I like to do things fast. Rushing around, making lots of tracks, throwing my hands up and talking rapidly — that’s me. But I got pretty quiet in the clinic arena this year. And I put much effort into going slow, so I could see all of those little things I might have missed at home.
Inspired by the morning class, I put greater focus into riding Santo with more nuance and sensitivity. I figured I could at least practice how to offer my aids more softly, even if he didn’t respond to them initially. The idea of being particular without being critical seemed like a good theme to follow. By the last day of the clinic, I felt subtle changes in Santo (and of course in me). Although I wasn’t sure if it was noticeable to the outside eye, I could sense Santo’s responses becoming softer under the surface. I waited, knowing that something was about to shift in a more obvious way.
As we practiced the teardrop exercise toward the end of the class, Santo and I blended more fully as a team for several steps at a time. His soft feel became unforced and his hips swung with a slight, but unmistakable (to me), swagger. Santo felt pleased with himself and his pride bubbled up gently through his body. Once again, his emotions expanded his presence and movement. This time in a good way, in a balanced way that is the start of refinement.
Buck rewarded us with a warm smile and a quiet compliment. Santo’s clinic fans praised his tempo and elegant strides. We settled back into the line of horses to watch the next riders begin their teardrop exercises. Santo yawned and stretched, his Zen serenity back in place within moments. That was such a good change — and well worth the two-year wait it took us both to get there.
Conclusion: Major Goal Achieved
In previous years, Santo and I had to leave class early each day, as part of the “anti-weaving” strategy plan. But this year, we could stay in class and exit with the other riders. Because of this incredibly good change, I finally could thank Buck in person for all of his help. That meant quite a lot to me (and represented another goal that was two years in the making).
On the last day, Buck mentioned how much he enjoyed the students and overall vibe at the Belton clinic. Judging from the tide of good-bye hugs and photo opps that engulfed him immediately afterward, it was pretty clear that all of us returned the sentiment. I always look forward to the clinic. It is the highlight of my annual schedule and a source of deep inspiration (and fun) for me.
Many other entertaining things happened at the clinic — like a mule divorce, a daily post-class coaching session, a rope in my hand (bad idea), a giggly discussion about sheep farmer grazing bits, a brilliantly-timed tug on a cow tail that smoothly flipped him prone at mach speed and an after hours, multi-student mock of a famously mediocre clinician (who shall remain nameless). But I’ve run out of time to write about everything. Plus you can’t really get the experience by reading a blog post (even a long one like this). You kind of have to be there. So, if you’d like more information, please come to next year’s clinic yourself. I highly recommend the students, the horsemanship, the teacher and the humor.
Huge thanks as always to Jeannie, the clinic host, for her hard work in organizing this event. It is a big undertaking that she handles with grace and hospitality each year.
Quotes to remember for next year
The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark. — Michelangelo
Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. — Helen Keller