Horse whisperer Buck Brannaman returns to Steamboat for clinics

Buck Brannaman is in Steamboat Springs this weekend for horsemanship clinics. He's a legendary trainer that inspired the movie, "The Horse Whisperer" and the focal point of the documentary, "Buck."
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Following 10 years at the Routt County Fairgrounds, internationally renowned horse trainer Buck Brannaman is returning to the Howelsen Rodeo Grounds for a series of clinics. Brannaman, the inspiration behind the movie “The Horse Whisperer” and the documentary “Buck,” is hosting horsemanship clinics for riders of all disciplines.

“My clinics, I kind of consider them neutral ground,” Brannaman said. “Any discipline of horsemanship would agree the end goal is to have their horse operate like an extension of your body, like he is your legs. that pretty much fits any interest in riding. I do clinics from starting colts that have never been saddled to advanced horsemanship.”

People can even spectate the clinics, which will be held at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. from Thursday, Sept. 1, through Saturday, Sept. 3.

Brannaman is a legend when it comes to horse training, learning the vaquero tradition from his mentor, Ray Hunt, and sharing it with others for 40 years. 

“Buck could probably teach a master’s degree on human psychology,” said Barb Shipley, who manages Brannaman’s clinics in the Yampa Valley.

At the root of it, Brannaman teaches communication, helping riders translate their desires to the horse in a way the animal understands and wants to respond to. 

“It’s a matter of getting the people to understand how to get a horse to want to try. You don’t encourage a horse to respond by giving them treats,” Brannaman said. “People try. It doesn’t work. He might not always be hungry. You’re encouraging the horse to try and getting him to believe that when he does try to move a certain way, he’ll get peace, you’ll reward him.”

Horsemanship is complicated and there is no such thing as mastering the skill, but Brannaman breaks it down in a linear fashion.

“When you can do this movement, the next one attached to it is this movement and so forth,” Brannaman said. “Not so different than if you took ballet. There’s an order that you learn ballet. You start out at first position and it’s been taught that way for a long time because you have to achieve one degree of difficulty before you go onto the next one or you’ll fail. I look at working with horses, that’s just ballet on horses, it’s all a dance.”

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Shipley has been participating in Brannaman’s clinic for years and when Charlie Mayfield stopped managing Brannaman’s trips to the Yampa Valley, Shipley took over. She admires Brannaman’s methods because it’s truly challenging.

“It’s a way to really try and work with the horse not through power and not through force, but through a joint understanding,” Shipley said. “This way is not easy because there’s no gimmicks.”

Buck Brannaman’s mentors’ legacies lives on through Brannaman and others like him that soaked up their knowledge decades ago and has expanded upon it and shared it. Brannaman doesn’t want the same to happen to him, so he’s diversifying the way he shares his knowledge, offering a virtual way to view his classes on the Buck Channel.

For those who can’t make his clinic or want year-round tips, they can have Brannaman’s knowledge at their fingertips for $19.95 a month. There are about 200 videos on the site as of late August, Brannaman said, but the goal is to have 1,000 5 to 10 minute videos. 

“It’ll be something one day I leave behind,” he said. “I guess what it says is, ‘I was here. I did do something.’ I don’t just disappear.”

Of course, the best way to learn horsemanship is in person, alongside a trainer like Brannaman who passes down decades of understanding through his clinics. He’s tapering off his amount of clinics next year, but plans to keep Steamboat Springs in his rotation.

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