“There, feel that?” calls her coach from the top rail where he’s seated, Western boots pressed, heel first, back against the slats. “He wasn’t as soft as I know you want him, but he was softer than the time before, wasn’t he?”
To most, this “coach” is now recognizable in an instant. The iconic hat. The serious eyes. The neat-pressed collared shirt. Buck Brannaman has long been a revered horseman, making his living through clinics where he passes on the knowledge he’s gained and hewn over years spent studying two men who some consider the original “horse whisperers”: Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance.
In 2011, the documentary BUCK was released. Coming out of nowhere from a first-time director, BUCK struck the Americana chord. It swept the film festivals, won the audience award at Sundance, and shared with millions the story of how Buck Brannaman came to wear the boots he wears, each and every day, in many different places, alongside many different types of horses…and people.
Californian Tina Cornish, and her daughter Ali and son Noah, appear in both the hit film BUCK and the new instructional DVD series “7 Clinics with Buck Brannaman,” which was created from the documentary’s unused footage and released last September. Tina has been a Buck clinic sponsor in California since 2007, but it was many years earlier that she first learned of his methods.
“I met Buck when I was in my early twenties and somebody suggested that I take a Thoroughbred filly that I had and start her with him,” recalls Tina. “I had been riding a lot of racehorses, and for the first time I felt like I had some tools to keep me safe—Buck gave me those tools.”
Tina started riding English at the age of seven on a Shetland Pony named Thelwell. Later in life, it seemed only natural to put her daughter Ali on horseback when she was upset or crying. It soothed her. Son Noah, too, was soon drawn in, especially when Tina began hosting Buck Brannaman clinics at the Saddle Creek Ranch in Butte Valley.
“I remember wanting to ride like him,” says 16-year-old Noah. “Through my mom, I’ve known Buck’s philosophy since I was just a little guy, but I remember when I rode with him for the first time, I was on my pony Pablo, and I was thinking how cool it was to just watch him ride.”
This year, the first weekend in February, Noah got to do a whole lot more than just watch Buck ride. He and his sister Ali, who is now 18, along with Madison Wedderspoon who rides with Denise Finch at Huntersedge Farm in Las Vegas, were the riders for the English demonstration taught by gold-medal-winning Olympic equestrian Melanie Smith Taylor at the 2013 Legacy of Legends at the Southpoint Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Melanie Smith Taylor, along with Buck and a number of other well
known names in the equestrian industry, was a featured clinician at Legacy of Legends. The event showcased those who exemplify the spirit and ability to communicate a level of horsemanship introduced and taught by Buck’s mentors: Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance. Clinics held over the weekend were intended to “promote harmony between horse and rider, as well as preserve the dignity and well-being of the horse while encouraging the rider to achieve a higher level of horsemanship.”
“At Legacy of Legends, Ali rode her young jumper Freddy, who was a stopper before she got him,” explains Tina. “Noah started his young horse Gus over fences. Maddy was riding an equitation horse, and all three were using methods they have learned from those who study and work with Buck. We wanted people to see that you can apply these principles of horsemanship to whatever you do with horses, regardless of discipline, and Melanie was wonderful at demonstrating that.
“I would really like more people from the hunter/jumper world to participate in events like Legacy of Legends—there is such a wealth of knowledge available from these clinicians.”
For some, seeing Buck work with English riders in the documentary BUCK, and hearing Tina and Ali tell the story of how Buck’s methods made it possible for them to restart Ali’s champion equitation horse Van Gogh (“Theo”) in the instructional DVD series “7 Clinics with Buck Brannaman,” might be the first time they even consider the possible application of such “cowboy wisdom” to typically English disciplines such as dressage and jumping.
But if it is proof you need, the Cornish family’s success with Theo is certainly convincing.
“When we got Theo he was resistant and cranky,” remembers Tina. “He would rear at the gate as you tried to enter the ring. He would kick out at your leg. I had called Buck when we were looking at the horse, so I felt pretty sure we had made the right choice in buying him, but I still second-guessed myself for the first six months we had him. Ali wanted to restart him herself and she had only just turned 13. He was already a big horse—he grew to be 17.2 hands and weighed about 1,450 pounds—and Ali is 5’3” and 95 pounds!
“When we took Theo home, we turned him out a couple of weeks, then Ali started working with him in a Western saddle, outside of the arena. I remember watching her try to get him to cross a small stream up in the field while I was giving a lesson in the ring—she must have been there an hour with him! So patient. No one had ever given this horse time, so although it took a while, he finally went. It was good for both of them. Ali would wait for him to figure things out instead of getting impatient and trying to solve problems for him. She did a lot of softening laterally and rebalancing, as he had been formerly ridden in a very tight standing martingale. Everything she did was based on something she learned from Buck.”
“The most challenging thing for me was that I was involved in a discipline where there is a time crunch when you are a junior rider,” says Ali. “I was young, and it was hard for me to sometimes understand why it was taking so long with Theo while other kids my age were jumping bigger and having more success in the show ring. It became apparent to me later, though, why we took our time. Ultimately, in Theo I had a mentally and physically sound horse. We knew each other so well; it was a true partnership. It really showed last year at Maclay regionals when I flew in from college, and having not shown him since June, we still were reserve in the class. We don’t longe, ear plug, or medicate him, and Theo performs and behaves consistently wherever we go and is super sound.”
Tina, Ali, and Noah’s goal to use good horsemanship stands out. Ali took Theo to an “A” rated show the day after working with him at a Buck clinic, and the pair won every class they were in because they were so in tune with each other.
“I think the thing about Buck’s techniques that make them a little hard for industry people to embrace is that he invites the problems a horse has to the surface,” says Tina. “He does this so he can work through them; most people do their best to avoid them and hope they never appear.”
When you watch BUCK the film and “7 Clinics with Buck Brannaman,” there is no doubt that Buck Brannaman’s intent is for those who attend his clinics to gain the tools they need to become better horsemen and do a better job with their horses—not just in the “here and now,” but down the road and in the future. His focus is always good, basic horsemanship that, when done well, with the right timing, can yield great things in a partnership with a horse.
“I know trainers who, since discovering Buck and his methods, use the techniques with the horses they have,” says Tina, “but most people just want a horse with a behavior or training problem fixed for them and then returned when it’s been solved. It is a big commitment, a lot of time, to retrain yourself, your grooms, and your clients to handle horses differently. Change is uncomfortable for people and the pressure and expense of this sport can seem overwhelming to some. In my ideal world, people would embrace the idea of learning to train and ride better so their horses wouldn’t have to be robots. I also think trainers are often under and incredible amount of pressure from clients to produce; clients need to take ownership of their expectations so everyone can slow down.
“Today horses are bred so job-specific that it is easy for trainers and riders to push their mounts too fast,” she continues. “Often, the foundation is incomplete and we don’t realize it until there is a problem. We need to slow down and give the horse time to be part of what we are doing with him—he’s not just some vehicle to get over a fence and win a ribbon. We need to be more considerate of his mental state.”
“If you want to be in this business as a rider or trainer, you have to have compassion and understanding for the horse,” agrees Ali. “Someday, I want to ride at an international level representing the United States in show jumping while applying the style of horsemanship I’ve learned from Buck to every horse I ride.”
If Buck has an eye for a true horseman, then Ali surely has a chance. We all bear witness to her lesson with Buck in “7 Clinics with Buck Brannaman” and as Ali reaches down to stroke her horse’s neck, nodding as she listens to her coach’s advice, Buck gives her just the encouragement she needs to continue to honor the path she has, so far, chosen to tread.
“I think you’re right on track,” Buck says. “I know he’ll be a lot softer the next time I see him. No doubt about that.
“It all looks pretty good to me.”
Rebecca M. Didier is coauthor of Dressage with Mind, Body & Soul with Linda Tellington-Jones.