Teaching the art of horse whispering

A boot-wearing crowd moseyed into the Arroyo Seco on Friday to watch horse whisperer Dan “Buck” Brannaman at work training horses — and their riders — with his unique brand of wisdom.

On the first day of Brannaman’s four-day clinic at the Rose Bowl Riders equestrian facility in Hahamongna Watershed Park, about 200 people paid $25 a head to set up in lawn chairs and watch Brannaman as he instructed 25 riders in his Foundation Horsemanship clinic.

Brannaman, who was one of the real-life inspirations for Robert Redford’s character in the film, “The Horse Whisperer,” was recently the subject of another film: the Sundance-premiered documentary “Buck,” which detailed his escape from an abusive father to becoming a legendary horse trainer.

In front of the nearly silent audience and with a calm expression on his face, Brannaman guided his students, who had paid $600 each to participate, in the basics of getting to know their horses.


“I want the horse to understand, ‘You yield to me, I never yield to you,’” he said. “You might realize today, maybe for the first time, you’ve been your horse’s doormat for a while.”

Heading off any complaint about his techniques, which involve gentle tapping or swatting of the horse with a rope or flag, Brannaman made a point of his experience.

“Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t tap him with the flag or slap the horse with the rope,’” he said. “Well, I stopped counting, but [I’d trained more than] 10,000 colts as of about three years ago, so until you’ve got about four or five thousand colts under your belt, the best thing you can do is shut up.”

Ranch owner and horse trainer Heidi Cowley, who traveled from Danville for the clinic, said it was a chance to learn and refine her own techniques.


“I’m a teacher … so it’s always refreshing to another professional to see how he deals with all these people and their horses, because they each have their own issues,” she said.

Cowley said what makes Brannaman special is how he has adapted to coaching so many horses in so many clinics.

“It’s really just figuring out the people and the horse; everybody learns differently,” she said.

For Caroline Craven, a member of Rose Bowl Riders who wrote a review of “Buck” for the Equestrian News, the clinic was the culmination of a year-old idea.

“I posed the question at Sundance, which was almost exactly a year ago,” she said. “And then it took a lot of coordinating and follow-up with the Rose Bowl Riders.”

Craven said Brannaman’s teachings were worth seeing in person because of their usefulness even out of the saddle.

“Where he goes deeper than a lot of people go is [that] he really brings the issue back to the person,” Craven said.

Throughout Friday morning, Brannaman coached his students with instructions that could apply to more than just horsemanship.


“Don’t worry if it’s hard at first,” he told his students. “It’s going to be hard. Rome wasn’t built in a day. If you take yourself too seriously, you aren’t going to get it anyway.”