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Blog Tales from the LOPE Ranch

Buck Brannaman Clinic: Texas 2014

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beafraid

In Conclusion: A Big Thank You

This post begins with the conclusion. Mostly because I didn’t want to make readers wade through tons of words to find it.

So what’s the conclusion? I’d like to thank Buck for helping me as well as the horses I work with (especially my personal horse, Santo). That probably sounds like an obvious thing to say — but I never really got a good chance to thank him in person at the clinic.

Part of my clinic work this year with my horse Santo involved helping him with neurotic behavior. Santo weaves terribly in stalls, has separation anxiety from other horses and is highly sensitive to changes in his environment (such as all the horses leaving the arena together after class ended each day).

Part of my clinic work this year with my horse Santo involved helping him with neurotic behavior.

After much effort and strategy (as well as excellent advice from Buck’s assistant Nathan), Santo was standing quietly in his pen even during the post-class exit phase. He stopped weaving after meals and exuded a mellow vibe to all who passed by (see the “Weaving” section below for more details). I was so happy to see him tranquil and at ease with himself in the pen!

But it came at a cost. Santo and I had to leave the clinic early each day (to settle him in his pen before all the other horses left the arena) — so I missed Buck’s end of class discussion and Q&A period. On the last day, I was determined to get back to the arena in time to thank Buck personally. I rushed Santo to his pen, tossed alfalfa at him, brushed him down in record time and then scurried back to class.

I arrived just in time to see Buck end the class and exit out of the arena. I began to dart after him, thinking I could maybe intercept him in the parking lot. But then I stopped. The clinic was over and Buck was off the clock. I didn’t want to pester him across the asphalt — it seemed more appropriate to respect his privacy and let him head to his bus in peace.

I decided the best way to thank him was to write this blog post instead — and make sure that it started with the big, heartfelt “thank you” that I didn’t get to say in person.

Not just for how he has specifically helped me and my horses (which is a lot) — but for his work and what he personally puts into his horses. There is much precision and discipline in his horses — but also artistic flair, vibrant personality (especially in his bridle horse), athletic confidence and even a sense of humor (I once saw one of his horses expressively roll his eyes at a disobedient cow — as in “dude, really?”). I look forward to seeing his horses each year.

When I watch Buck ride, I see an unusual blend of the practical and the ideal.

When I watch Buck ride, I see an unusual blend of the practical and the ideal. For example, Buck’s horses work cattle while carrying a lovely, elegant frame that would be the dream of any French classical dressage master — but without sacrificing gritty, efficient cow pushing. To me, Buck takes the idea of “lightness” and grounds it with productive, effective results (i.e., that cow is worked and worked well).

That’s a very unique approach and a thing of beauty to observe. And it gives me something to aspire to — above and beyond my usual sweaty goals of trying not to mess things up, hoping to help my horse and working on my entertaining mix of inconsistencies as a rider. So I’d also like to thank Buck for giving that form of aspiration to me (and all his other students).

Aspiration

Aspiration is important. It elevates our work and our lives to a bigger purpose, a more epic flourish. It takes the mundane, sweaty goals listed above and puts them in an arc that one day ends with an awesome bridle horse that reflects the rider’s personality, work ethic and overall sense of life.

Aspiration elevates our work and our lives to a bigger purpose, a more epic flourish.

There is a more earthy practicality to aspiration as well. In times of trouble, it can make the difference between feeling defeated or feeling firmly up to the challenge. A bigger vision, a higher purpose (however offbeat or untraditional) can shrink fear during difficult situations — and keep the emphasis on a positive, constructive approach.

I have some specific experience with that type of scenario. For whatever reason, every Buck clinic I have signed up for has coincided with some form of temporary external chaos (multiple natural disasters, unexpected injuries/illness, horse colic incidents, farm relocations and so on). Two years ago, a perfect storm of these elements required that I cancel riding in the clinic. This year, another mix of unforeseen situations came together again — but I decided to ride in the clinic anyway. I’m stubborn that way sometimes.

In spite of outside turmoil in the weeks beforehand, I still made a point of sticking to a regular riding plan for Santo in preparation for the clinic. We didn’t accomplish everything on the list (no cow working or rope handling) — but we made steady progress on key items (riding in new places, working on softness and facing situations that could create anxiety).

Thinking of my larger goals for Santo and the upcoming spring clinic season had a calming effect on me — and kept me focused on optimistic and constructive activities. I was able to shrug off the temporary negative distractions and stay on point for the bigger, more inspiring picture. So that aspiration stuff is truly helpful in a “real world” kind of way — and I highly recommend it as a key factor for success in both horsemanship and life philosophy.

The Rest Of The Clinic

Now that you have read the conclusion of my clinic experience, you might be wondering about the specific things that happened during the clinic. While we didn’t have a perfect clinic with Buck, it was clear that Santo and I had made much progress together since last year. Here is a quick summary of the clinic highlights for me (and Santo).

Lofty Goal: Less Spastic Behavior

At last year’s clinic, Santo and I were a bit spastic together (see previous blog posts here and here). We whirled around frenetically for no apparent reason at times. I was easily distracted, occasionally losing track of Santo, his feet and the other horses. And Santo had to learn and relearn that 1) he could actually stand still during the class; and 2) cows aren’t there to kill him (though they might occasionally give him dirty looks).

So, one of my goals for this year’s clinic was to reduce the number of spaztastic moments for both Santo and me.

I decided that the first way to accomplish this would be for me to do more thinking and less reacting. In past clinics, I didn’t always hear all of what Buck was saying. Instead I’d dash around the arena and intermittently stare at him, hoping to hear some specific advice for me. Because of that, I would miss key clues like 1) what he was saying to the class in general probably applied to me anyway; and 2) where Santo was in relation to the other sixteen horses in the arena. I resolved to focus on Santo first — even if Buck was telling a fascinating story about tube socks or fly fishing — and on being more aware of the other riders in the arena.

To my surprise, my strategy worked. Although I kept my mind on Santo and where we were going, I heard everything Buck said to the class as a whole. If I was uncertain about what I was doing (such as I didn’t apply an aid well or wasn’t sure what the result should be), I slowed down, focused on Santo and listened to whatever Buck was saying at that moment. Since he rarely says useless things, this almost always put me in the right direction (even if he was talking about trotting teeters while we were doing short serpentines). More importantly, this approach required me to take ownership and actively think through whatever Santo might need from me at the moment.

I have always been comfortable asking clinicians for help — and Buck makes it especially easy to ask him questions. So this wasn’t a case of me feeling anxious about asking a question — it was more that I wanted to see if I would figure out the answer (or at least part of the answer) on my own.

By the fourth day, I was able to hit one of my other goals for the clinic. Santo and I loped around the arena within the big group of riders. Our cadence was a tad quick to the left, but Santo was super responsive to seat and leg during the lope.

By the fourth day, I was able to hit one of my other goals for the clinic. Santo and I loped around the arena within the big group of riders. Our cadence was a tad quick to the left, but Santo was super responsive to seat and leg during the lope — and we could go along on a looser rein, which was nice. Later in the day, we also loped around the cows — which was a big moment for Santo (who ended that session with an easy stop and a big post-lope yawn, right in front of the once-fearsome cows).

My last goal for the clinic was to have a relatively low-key clinic (you know, just to be different for once) — meaning less spastic stuff, but also more steady riding and quiet leadership from me. My idea was to have the clinic theme be “progress, not perfection” — and for that progress to be in the small things that meant the most to Santo. I think we hit that goal, which was a significant (if non-flashy) milestone for both of us.

Weaving

Thanks to Nathan (Buck’s clinic assistant), Santo made big strides forward at this clinic with weaving. At Nathan’s suggestion, I placed several objects (trough, mounting block, buckets) around his weaving zone in his pen. This helped him break the pattern (it’s hard to weave in a trance-dance state if you have to step over a mounting block).

In addition, Buck’s bridle horse (Rebel) mentored Santo. Each time Santo attempted to weave near their adjoining pen panel, Rebel would pin his ears and shoo Santo to the non-weave zone. Santo really respected Rebel, so his coaching was extra helpful. Santo seemed to benefit from Rebel’s presence in general — Rebel is clearly the herd boss of Buck’s horses and has a strong leadership vibe.

One of the clinic riders commented that she hadn’t recognized him when he stood peacefully in the pen — she was so used to seeing him pace frantically!

To assist the “weave no more” project, I made sure to exit the clinic arena a little early each day — so that Santo would be unsaddled, relaxed and munching on alfalfa when the rest of the clinic horses left the arena. In the past, the bustle of noise and hoof beats that accompanied the end of a clinic class often would set Santo’s weaving off immediately — if he wasn’t already settled in a quiet mode.

These efforts were all rewarded nicely. By the end of the clinic, Santo was relaxed and calm in his pen — even while all the horses left the arena and went past him each day. One of the clinic riders commented that she hadn’t recognized him when he stood peacefully in the pen — she was so used to seeing him pace frantically!

When Things Go Well — Favorite Moment of the Clinic

At every clinic, there might be a couple of times where Buck praises something that the horse and I are doing well together. It is always a big deal (even it is a quiet comment) and means quite a lot to me. I know the other riders feel the same way when Buck gives them a special nod of approval too. This clinic, the best moment for me was just a look on Buck’s face — no words were spoken.

Santo is afraid of cows — and I am inexperienced with them. This is an entertaining mix at times (especially when combined with a dressage saddle). However, we do our best to at least try to appear scrappy and optimistic around the rodear. One afternoon, the cows were brought into the arena. We were all watching Buck do something extra amazingly cool with his horse or rope — and then it became clear that the cows were bunched at the far end of the arena. Right in front of one horse. In a dressage saddle.

Full of elevation and with rather large eyes, Santo stepped forward. Sensing his insecurity (but kind of pleased with the elevation), I tightened my core, raised my sternum, flipped the reins into one hand — and raised my other hand toward the openly skeptical cows.

Buck made a comment about moving the rodear to the center. Santo and I (the scrappy, green team) made our move. Full of elevation and with rather large eyes, Santo stepped forward. Sensing his insecurity (but kind of pleased with the elevation), I tightened my core, raised my sternum, flipped the reins into one hand — and raised my other hand toward the openly skeptical cows. And I did my best hissing sound (I’m sure Ray did that all the time, right?), smacked my leg with my free hand — and marched Santo right at the cows.

They moved away, to the center of the arena where they belonged. Because Santo and I were just so amazingly punchy (not). Right as that happened, I glanced at Buck. And he had this great look on his face that I will never forget. It was kind of like approval and kind of like a mom cat watching a kitten attempt to climb stairs for the first time (while trying not to laugh at the little guy).

Afterward, Santo and I were quite proud of ourselves — and I think maybe Buck was too (even if he really, really wanted to laugh).

Clinic Horsemanship Tip: Short Serpentines

After this clinic, the importance of short serpentines again became apparent to me. I need to do these all the time. Even to the point where I’m incredibly sick of them and think with delusion that I have mastered every nuance possible. And then I need to go back and do more of them. Why? Because they are the key to many things that are hard to accomplish with your horse. Short serpentines help your horse (and you) on multiple levels — from the basic (“my horse is so tense, he feels like he’s going to blow up”) to the athletic (“my horse’s stops are awful, very choppy and on the forehand”) to the technical (“how do I figure out cadence”) to the refined (“ok, my horse has elevation but needs to be softer at the poll”). Trust me when I say most of us aren’t doing them right and aren’t doing enough of them.

Cool Observation — Quality Riding over Bodywork

Buck made an interesting comment that really hit home to me. He said that most horses need quality riding, not lots of bodywork. In his opinion, that is the best way to create physical balance and relaxation in the horse. I have often noticed that horses with body tension issues improve greatly with a good rider — even if the issues were originally seen as physical in origin. Plus I have seen conditioning and fitness do wonders for horses with tight muscles. It does make sense to me that we as riders can make the horses crooked, tight or unbalanced — and that if we improve the quality of our riding, then the horse’s body improves as well.

Be Afraid — Roping Lessons In My Future

Last year, I had hoped to learn more about roping. Not because I planned to be roping actual livestock (let’s not get crazy here) — but because I thought it would be a nice horsemanship tool to understand and work with one day. I used to play very casual, low-goal polo — and one thing I liked about that was riding one-handed. You really do learn how to work with your seat, core and legs better if you only use one hand for reins. It also is great for body control to learn how to do something else useful (with a rope or mallet) with your non-rein hand. And finally it just makes sense as a tool to help gentle horses — especially nervous horses (like the ones I sometimes work with).

During this clinic, Buck made the observation that some people are just biased or prejudiced about using ropes in any capacity. He specifically mentioned East Coast riders — but I’m sure the students in dressage saddles at the clinic got the point as well (in my class that was only me and one other rider, I think). I was glad he mentioned that, as it reminded me of my previous goal to take roping lessons and learn more about handling coils properly.

The Aha Comment

At last year’s clinic, Buck made an offhand statement to the effect that he thinks working with imperfect horses is a better test of horsemanship. If they are perfectly talented, then it is easier to bring out the best in them. But a horse with some challenges requires more skill and horsemanship to fulfill his potential. His comments really snapped me to attention — it was one of those “aha, yes, I feel the same way” moments. I always really appreciate people who choose to work with less than perfect horses. And I aspire to do the same.

This year, the comment that caught my attention was about bridle horses. Buck noted that some people look at a finished bridle horse (such as his bay horse) and think, “wow, I’d like to ride a horse like that one day.” But when Buck first saw a quality bridle horse, his first thought was, “wow, I’d like to make a horse like that one day.”

I think it would be an incredible accomplishment to make a good bridle horse someday (not just ride someone else’s). That’s a big mountain to tackle — but why not do something interesting and artistic? Life is too short to have boring, easy-to-accomplish goals.

When I heard that, I realized that I feel the same way — even though on some levels that is a pretty cocky goal for me to even contemplate. But it’s true — I think it would be an incredible accomplishment to make a good bridle horse someday (not just ride someone else’s). That’s a big mountain to tackle — but why not do something interesting and artistic? Life is too short to have boring, easy-to-accomplish goals.

And so I will end this blog post on that exciting, long-term goal. Now I have a big aspiration to aim toward (and so does Santo, even if he doesn’t know it yet) — and a fun topic to focus on for next year’s clinic.

Special note: As always, I’d like to thank the clinic host (Jeannie) for her hard work putting on this big event every year. Santo and I also send a special shout-out to Nathan for his extra efforts on our behalf (especially on the first day of the clinic). You are both much appreciated by the clinic riders and auditors for what you do for all of us.

This post first appeared on the South Dakota Cowgirl website as a guest blogger entry.

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