I said I'd do a thread about this, so here it is. I've paraphrased a few things, may not remember quotes to the exact word, but there was so much information presented that it was like drinking from a fire hose. Forgive me if I don't explain things well, but there's a lot of information to try and put down.
Buck Brannaman is a horse clinician, he travels the country (and abroad) conducting classes on being a better horseman. Lots of people have horses and 'know how to ride', but a far smaller number are real horsemen (and women). To be a horseman is to actually pursue the art of fine riding, which requires a lot of time, effort, and really thinking about what you're doing. A lot of riders, trainers, etc don't work 'with' with horse. They consider bucking horses a normal event, horses that don't do this or that is normal, and "some horses just have to be spurred". A horse has something like 4,000 muscles in it's body that it can twitch at any moment because it felt a fly land on it's hair. If a 200 lb rider needs to strap some big ole gut hooks to his feet so the horse can 'feel' him, I'm inclined to think maybe there's something else going on. Not to say one will never need spurs, but a whole lot of people skip the foundational stuff and go straight to spurs and leverage bits at the first hint of a problem. My goal is to be able to work a horse so lightly, you can't tell what's being done. No kicking, jerking, fussing, but subtle movements that the horse can understand. It's a long road to get there, but it can be done.
I attended one of Buck's clinics a few years ago as a spectator and it was incredible. His horses worked, and by that I mean they did what was asked of them willingly and without a fight. If a horse was bucking, well let's stop and backup and figure out why and how to fix it. If you want to put the saddle on and the horse starts dancing around, let's stop and figure out why and fix it. Little things that other people wouldn't worry about or considered normal, Buck would take the time to work on. There wasn't a lot of kicking and spurring, nothing got real western and for an average spectator it would probably be a boring show. Lots of people on their horses doing basic looking things like walking in circles, but the doing it correctly.
When I saw he was hosting a clinic out here, I wanted to go. Kind of as a joke, I made a deal with Terry aka Rope_Chucker and said "I'll sign up for it if you will." Well he did, so I did and we literally just barely got in. The classes are limited in size, and one individual dropped out of two spots which we were first in line to get.
Buck does a number of different classes. There's Foundation, Horsemanship 1 and 2, cow working, ranch roping, and maybe a couple of others. Each clinic consists of two classes, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The clinic we attended was cow working in the morning, and Horsemanship 1 in the afternoon. A lot of people rode in both, but I didn't think Hank the paint and I were quite ready for cow working. Turns out, I didn't know how right I was. I've worked Hank quite a bit, but always at home or on the ranch. I never introduced him to cattle because when we were working cows we had to get work done so I would ride a more experienced ranch horse. It became kind of a catch 22, I couldn't introduce him to cows because he'd never been around cows. We decided on Horsemanship 1, I think Foundation would've been better for us but that wasn't offered at this clinic. Horsemanship 1 is an all riding class, where Foundation is half riding and half groundwork. I've studied Buck's methods since seeing them, reading his books, watching the DVDs, and I thought we were doing pretty okay but had room to improve.
The class started on a Friday. We went down and watched the morning cow class. Watching a class is educational because you can see the basics in action. "My horse can't make this turn fast enough to stay on the cow" ends up relating to the things the H1 class is working on getting the horse to step properly. Riders and the audience would ask questions that I might never have thought of, but could benefit from. Watching that first morning was a real treat. The afternoon...well, our class didn't start off so smoothly. Hank was worried about everything in the world except me. The event was held at CSU, and they had several things going on that weekend. Lots of traffic, other horses, tractors, spectators, gates banging, etc. Hank had a fit in the trailer and scraped his head of the roof, so as we got going in the outdoor arena it felt like everybody was looking at us. Hank is big and pretty, so he attracts plenty of attention just from that. Add in what looked like a bloody gash across his head, inability to stand still and my inability to get him focused and I certainly felt like everyone was looking at us. As our class began, Buck called us all out to the center of the arena to talk. Everyone rode out and stood in a circle, except for us. We rode out to our spot in the circle and Hank was tense. Couldn't stand still, so while everyone else listened we walked forward, then backward, then forward, etc. I'd offer him the chance to stand, if he took it we stopped. As soon as he wanted to move we'd move until I thought he was ready to quit. We'd move a little more and I'd offer him the chance to rest. He settled down ever so slightly as we came to a stop near the circle and I thought we were okay...until a split second later he turned and kicked at the horse beside us. Nobody got kicked, but I don't think I've ever wanted a hole to open up in the ground and disappear quite as much as I did right then. Nobody seemed to acknowledge it, but I immediately took Hank back away from the crowd to move some more. Buck explained the exercises we were going to do and everyone got started. Walk in a circle with the front and rear of the horse moving the same amount. Sounds easy, right? Not so much. Our circle looked like a misshapen octagon, Hank kept taking his head to look around at everything else, and the things I thought I understood to do to correct him...well, I didn't have that down as well as I thought. We did the circles for a while with mild (if any) improvement before Buck had everyone move on to the next exercise. Hank and I began the next exercise, made it a minute or two before Buck called me out to the center. "Asking that horse to do that is like asking him to eat an alligator right now. Work on this other exercise." As everyone else worked on their thing, Hank and I stood out in the middle of the arena working on a very basic 'small serpentine' exercise. When a horse wants to move like that, move him but don't just run around. Move with quality and direction. As the rider, you want to say "Hey, I'm glad you brought so much energy to work today. We can move, but I'm the leader so we move my way." I want this foot to move here, then that foot to go there, then we'll go the other direction, then back, etc. Unlike running around, it engages the horse's mind and makes him think. "The rider keeps asking for different things, my life as a horse gets easier if I wait for the rider to ask me something." It gets the horse to think about the rider, not everything else going on. Later in the weekend Buck explained it as "The horse may think there's a monster behind that door, but that doesn't matter. I don't want to teach him there's no monster behind that specific door, I want to teach him that when he's with me he doesn't have to worry about any monster." Later on Friday afternoon, the entire class joined us in the small serpentine exercise. When class finished, I was exhausted. Hank was calmer than when we started, but he was pretty fried as well.
Saturday was similar. Wake up at 0500, get Hank loaded in the trailer and drive to CSU. We'd watch the morning class, then when they finished I'd get Hank tacked up and we would go ride in the arena while most of the other folks ate lunch. It was taking a lot of work to get him to settle, so the more time we could put in the better. I still lost his attention when they brought in the tractor to groom the arena, he still got nervous when the other horses came in, but we had a few more tools Saturday than we had Friday. We still couldn't stand in the circle with the other horses, but we could stand still for a few minutes longer than the day before. We did new exercises, but I would still have to pull him out of traffic to go do our small serpentine exercise when he began to stop paying attention. During the second class they brought out some street cones to do the serpentines around. Hank and I have done that, but it's been a while. We'd do the exercise with the rest of the class until I felt like he was going to have a problem, then before he did I'd pull off and go serpentine. Horses are looking for release, they think whatever the last thing they did before getting a break was the right thing. Quit when they have it right so they understand doing it right gets them a release. Quit when they're having a fit, and they think having a fit is the right answer. When class finished Saturday and everyone left, Hank and I stayed a little later to keep working around the cones.
Sunday was wash, rinse and repeat but the afternoon class moved into the indoor arena that the morning class was in. That opened up a whole new world of things for Hank to worry about, and he did. We did lots of serpentines, lots of stopping to work on proper flexion, but we were beginning to be able to do more of the exercises with everyone else, even if we were still having to pull out of traffic a lot to do serpentines. At one point as the rest of the class was going around the outside of the arena working on a soft feel, Hank and I were out in the middle doing more serpentines when Buck called me out by name. I was expecting advice, or instructions to do something differently but instead got "You're doing exactly what you need to be doing. When he gets nervous, work on the short serpentines." Could've knocked me over with a feather. We're doing it right! Two or three stages behind everyone else at this point, but we weren't there to compete. We wanted to improve, and we were. I couldn't see a huge difference but apparently Buck saw enough of one to mention it. Yay! As we were leaving that day, I was putting the halter on when two ladies from the crowd came over and congratulated me on the big improvement they'd seen in Hank over three days. Walking back to the trailer, two other people stopped us with similar compliments. That was pretty cool. Monday was the last day. We could stand still, a few feet closer and a few minutes longer than we could the day before. We could participate in more of the exercises without having to stop and serpentine. Hank was less focused on the world around him and more interested in me. Not perfect by a long shot, but better than we had been four days earlier.
It was an excellent experience. I could go take the exact same class again and get even more out of it. Most of the attendees had ridden with Buck before, I even met a man and his son that were in the crowd that had come from Austria and were following Buck around watching his clinics. I came away from it with a lot more knowledge and tools that I can use to be a better rider and make a better horse. I haven't even touched on the morning class much, I got almost as much out of watching it as I did riding in the afternoons. When you're in the clinic, you can see your horse. When you're watching, you can see them all and watch other people make mistakes, do things that work, and improve. Buck is a fountain of knowledge, if you're into horsemanship it's hard to be around him and not learn something. He's doing a foundation class in August that I'd like to attend, but that's still up in the air. It's not so much backing up and taking a 'beginner' class as much as it's just a chance to work on a different aspect of horsemanship. My one regret this class is that I drove it every day. I think if I were to do it over I would camp there, not only does it save a couple of hours in the truck every day but you get to hang out and visit with the other riders, Buck and his assistants, and have access to the facility to continue working later in the evenings.
There are some photos from the weekend in the critter pics thread, I'll try to put a few here as well later. I know I've left out a lot, I'll do my best to explain anything that seems vague.