On June 10th, horse trainers as well as spectators gathered at the Brannaman's home ranch in Sheridan, Wyoming for their second annual colt-starting clinic. For four days, horse and rider teams worked from 9 am to 4 pm using the Buck Brannaman’s methods passed down from Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt. The end result was many newly confident colts, and a wealth of information learned from observing the clinic.
We decided to make the 1,300-mile journey to Wyoming after attending a local Buck Brannaman horsemanship and groundwork clinic last year. Since we work with many different training horses, we have to adjust our riding to fit the needs of each horse; it was an incredible experience to watch the 25 different horses at the colt-starting clinic reacting to the same task.
Buck began his clinic by getting the colts to "follow on a feel" - getting them to move their feet with a flag. Emphasis was placed on moving the horses' hindquarters, having the participants send their horses out in a circle around them and then rolling their hind-end around, crossing over their back legs. Having flexion and lateral movement was key in this exercise. The phrase "everything is connected to creating movement without trouble" really did prove to be a key point in the success of the horse & rider pairs.
After participants got their horses used to their hind-end being worked around, Buck added the element of moving the colt's front with his famous half-circle exercise. This got the colts thinking about where their feet were, following the feel of both lead-rope and flag. Buck wants the horses to be eager to explore; if the colts have success while exploring, something opens up for the horse mentally and they realize there is an answer. Be sure to check out the Eclectic Horseman's article on a step-by-step breakdown of this exercise HERE.
The next step was saddling. Once the colts became accustomed to moving both their front & hind-end saddled, Buck had the participants take off the horses' halters and let them freely move around saddled for the first time. Using one of his older horses, a gorgeous bay quarter horse named Swede, he moved the herd of colts around with his flag, making them change direction and pay attention to where he wanted them to go. It was so interesting to see how the colts reacted - some just kept moving along like nothing phased them, others ran around like crazy, while some started to buck and kick out. However, after a few minutes of Buck working them with the flag, all of the colts began to move around the round pen at a trot, in an organized fashion. Buck then had the participants form a circle around the saddled herd and re-halter their horses one by one to end the session.
Day #2 was sure to be another day of firsts for the colts, as it was going to be the first time they were to be ridden. Buck started the day by having the horses practice bending their heads around and stopping with one rein. He emphasized having the horses prepared for each task at hand and stressed the importance of not skipping steps; riders would jump up and down near the saddle, pat their hands on the seat, and then step up in one stirrup and put some weight over the saddle to get the horses ready to be ridden.
Then the riders swung their leg over, sitting on their colt for the first time. Buck wanted all riders to praise their horses, making sure they were being rubbed on their neck, reinforcing that they should not be worried or scared. He then sent out the horse and rider teams, flagging them again from his horse Swede. Some, once again, took off bucking and running, but he encouraged the riders to continue to rub the colts regardless, and assured the riders that the colts would eventually settle down. After moving the horses in each direction, riders picked up their lead ropes on one side of the horses neck and made sure that they could bend their hindquarters around.
Some of the riders were not able to stay on their horses. Buck emphasized that bucking is not a problem; it’s a symptom and can show the holes in the training prior to their first ride. His daughter, Reata, had trouble with her horse in particular-her colt was very heavy on her front end, which eventually leads to bucking. Buck wound up working with her horse, correcting her colt moving around on its front end; she would move her hindquarters nicely but then got sticky moving her front feet. Once the colt was moving nicely out, Buck mounted Reata’s little bay colt. It was clear that the horse was still panicked, but he kept reassuring her by rubbing her neck. Eventually the colt settled down, but Buck made it clear that she still needed more work.
Days #3 & 4 were a continuation of the previous two days, but with added elements. Horse and rider teams started with the same exercises each day but no longer needed to work as long fixing issues. Ring snaffle bits eventually replaced the halters, and the participants continued to work on flexion. Buck emphasized that the goal was to have flexion latterly, synchronized with the movement. He also wanted the riders to set up their horses to make good decisions. Sometimes when we are teaching our students, we find newer students resort to immediately kicking their horses to make them move; however, the correct cue would be to offer a very light leg and then add pressure, giving the horse the opportunity to make the right decision.
One of the colts was herd bound, wanting to resist rein pressure and run to the group of horses close by. Buck had the group gather their horses on one end of the round pen while one of his assistants mounted the unruly colt. He then rode the colt through the group of horses, weaving in and out, making him work. The assistant then let the horse rest on the other side of the round pen, away from other horses and stress; the colt learned that he felt most comfortable resting alone, rather than having to work through the horses.
Colt and rider teams gained more and more confidence throughout the clinic, some even progressing to roping and working around cattle. The riders then directed their mounts to the nearby green pasture, getting their colts used to placing their feet on the uneven terrain. Buck’s tactics ensured that this clinic was a positive experience for the colts. Other methods attempt to force colts into submission; cowboys would tie their horses down or run them until exhaustion. The opportunity for us to learn from Buck at his home in Wyoming, and then have the chance to apply these lessons to our own riding style and training, has been a truly incredible experience! All horsemen can learn from Buck Brannaman’s natural horsemanship methods.