Last weekend I went to the Buck Brannaman clinic and am happy to report it was the best horsey experience of my life. I was nervous ahead of time because I didn't know what to expect, but it was the most amazing weekend - it is hard to come down from the high! I didn't take any notes because I wanted to watch and absorb everything I was seeing and hearing and if I stopped to take notes, I'd miss a lot of the action. So my reports are going to be from what I remember . . . but I remember a lot!
First off, the reason why I went in the first place. Exactly a year ago Mac bucked me off HARD at our second show. I had taken him to a show the weekend before and he was great, but this show was a different story. Looking back on it (and I had this realization right away), it was my fault, as I didn't prepare him properly. I was so used to my TB, who is easy-peasy at shows, who never needs lunging, who doesn't have to walk around to get used to anything, who isn't much bothered by other horses or people, that I forgot that Mac may not have been so easy. After he bucked me off, I got back on and rode and did two classes the next day, but scratched after that. I was in pain and I just couldn't take any more. I did what I could to work through the potential fear issue, but the physical pain was too much.
After that, I took a look at my program and what I was doing and realized I needed more help - and a different kind of help - to get me through these issues. I needed tools to help me get into Mac's head, to help me help him, to work with him so that I would be his safety net and that he wouldn't go running and dump me if the shit hit the fan and he got scared. Regular dressage training wasn't going to cut it - I needed someone who had experience working with mustangs and troubled horses.
I spent a couple months with someone who started me off in the right direction, and after feeling what a difference the "natural horsemanship" training made in Mac's rideability, I was eager for more. [Sidenote: I hate to call it "natural horsemanship" but that is a buzzword these days that most people understand to mean a more in-depth program of ground work, which is where we needed to start. Really, it is just horsemanship and getting more involved with your horse than just getting on and riding, but that's a whole debate I don't want to get into!] I had heard about Buck Brannaman's 7 Clinics DVDs and after much debating with myself about whether or not they would be worth it, I decided to buy them. That was maybe 3-4 months ago. And yes, they are worth it. Right away I started working on the exercises, and right away I started to notice a difference in my horse. On a whim I looked up his clinic schedule and when I saw he was coming my way, I sent in my application to ride in the clinic.
Ok, so that's the long background. I did the Foundation Horsemanship group, which was mostly groundwork and some riding. The first day as we stood around at the beginning, Buck asked if anyone had issues they wanted to address. I told him that Mac gets attached to other horses and loses focus on me...especially with mares. He's not herd-bound in the sense that I can't take him anywhere away from horses, because that actually isn't a problem. It's if we're in the company of other horses that he is so interested in them that he doesn't pay attention. Buck said that the exercises we'd work on in the clinic would help with that. He said that through keeping the horse in "the rectangle" and centered with you, that eventually the horse will seek that out himself and the distractions won't be an issue.
If you've watched the 7 Clinics DVDs, then you know what we did in the clinic. I'm glad I watched the DVDs and had been practicing the exercises, because I felt totally prepared. This first day we worked on making a circle with correct bend. We worked on getting the horse to "follow the feel" - doing this on the ground with the lead rope is just the first step, but will carry over to everything else - by opening the lead rope and inviting the horse to go in that direction. If the horse didn't reply, we'd give a little shake with the flag behind the balance point (girth area - flank or butt) to encourage him forward. If he didn't go, follow up with a more energetic response. We worked on bringing the rope back toward the hip and stepping in to the hip to disengage the hind end, getting the horse to cross over and come to a stop. We worked on backing. We worked on each thing separately, and then put it all together. He does a really good job of breaking things down. We also worked on the difference between a neutral lead rope that has no life in it and an active rope that is telling the horse to do something. We worked on getting the horses used to the flags and having them stand there while we moved them around the horse - and the horse knows to stand because the rope isn't telling him to do anything and our energy isn't being directed at him.
Here's a picture of me waving the flag around . . . notice Mac is relaxed and isn't reacting because my lead rope and my body energy aren't instructing him to do anything.
At the end we practiced a half circle exercise while we were standing still and moving the horse around us. So go a half circle, move the hindquarters over, stop the horse, direct the horse in a half circle in the opposite direction, repeat. Then our homework was to do that while walking in a straight line - so we would walk forward in a straight line and the horse would do half circles in front of us whilst we continued to walk. It's hard to get that timing right!
I watched the other groups, which were both riding - no ground work. There were a couple of really troubled TBs and one troubled Arab in the second group, so Buck had his assistants work with them on ground work while he got everyone else going under saddle. They worked on similar things that we worked on - circles with bend, one-rein stop, bending and moving over with the hind end - they just did it while mounted.
At the beginning of the day Mac was really nervous in the big indoor arena with buzzing lights and bleachers and people stomping on the bleachers and music over the loudspeakers and banners and all the commotion. He also immediately picked out the mares he liked and called and talked to other horses a lot.
I did ask Buck also about energy. I've worked with a couple trainers who HAVE A LOT OF ENERGY - like everything they do must be like yelling to a horse, or at least to Mac, because he got a little nervous just being around them. I've had people tell me that he just needs to get used to it and deal with it, so I asked Buck his opinion. He thought the opposite. He thinks that we need to be there for our horses to support them. So if that means that sometimes our energy is soft and quiet to offer them support or relief, then so be it. If our energy has to change to perhaps get their attention focused on us, then that's fine, too. It is a matter of dialing it up and down to meet the needs of the horse, not a matter of always being on high and making the horse get used to it.
So here's my day 1 takeaway. Buck loves the horses. He does what he does to help the horses. He doesn't care what discipline you ride - good horsemanship is good horsemanship. He's very gracious and humble and funny. He also said some people come to his clinics thinking they'll impress him and his response is "I learned from Ray Hunt. Do you think you could do anything better than him that would be impressive?" (or something like that) He is honest and straightforward. If he's "picking on you" it is because he sincerely wants to help you and sees that you're not in a position to do it yourself (there was one lady in the afternoon group that he sort of singled out) for some reason. You should pay attention and try to do what he is telling you - don't just do the same thing over and over and over again when he is giving you tools on how to solve a problem. Do what he says. He hates it when people ride with rope halters under a bridle - it is ugly. Stay out of his horse's bubble. If you ride, then come back and watch the other classes - he expects you to be there all day AND to do your homework.
Here's a picture of Buck and Reuben, the young horse he used in the first two classes of the day.