As I drove up to the beautiful gates of the Bay Harbor Equestrian Centre one warm fall Michigan morning, I was filled with anticipation. I had made the eight-hour trip to attend the annual Buck Brannaman clinic, not completely knowing what to expect.

A mentor pointed me towards Buck’s lessons at an early age, thanks to an unruly gelding with a dislike for trailers. The experience started me on a lifelong journey of striving to work with the horse. I devoured the training videos and books of Buck, Ray Hunt and the Dorrance brothers, and wanting more, headed out to the closest clinic I could find.

A learning opportunity

The Bay Harbor Equestrian Centre is the equivalent of a five-star equine resort, and seems to juxtapose the humble, easy-going figure that is Buck Brannaman. Western saddles outnumbered English, and the roundup of an escaped calf through the dressage rings provided some irony. But that’s what the clinic was about: equestrians from all disciplines, coming together to learn – for the horse.

During the clinic, Buck rode a few young horses that were on the road with him at the time, and I was left in awe of how handy, soft, calm and well adjusted these youngsters were — and in such a busy new environment. I couldn’t help but think back to the “well-seasoned” horses in the barns back home. There were the ones that wouldn’t trailer load without an opinion or that blew up during the warm-up of every horse show. One objected to clippers, and another had been blacklisted by the farrier. I became even more determined to soak up as much as I could from this experience.

More than anything, I appreciated Buck’s down to earth and patient attitude. If you were at the clinic for the right reasons, you were given equal footing. There was no showboating, no pushing of “special” equipment, no grand marketing scheme. Buck wasn’t selling anything – he was offering you an opportunity to develop a better working partnership with your horse, during which you’d often learn a bit about yourself, too.

Documenting the legend

Earlier this year, I was delighted to learn that a documentary had been made about Buck by up and coming director, Cindy Meehl ( The award-winning documentary debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to standing ovations and rave reviews, and is continuing to get a significant amount of attention.

Buck: The Documentary, with a title as simple and unassuming as the man himself, follows his journey through a difficult childhood filled with abuse at the hands of his father, Ace Brannaman. Buck and his brother Smokie (Bill) were riding horses at a very early age, developing an impressive set of roping skills and becoming the youngest members of the RCA (now the PRCA) at 4½ and 6½ years of age. They travelled around to perform at rodeos and fairs, and starred in a Kellogg’s commercial at the insistence of their father.

Lessons in empathy

During his father’s increasingly downward spiral after the death of their mother, Buck and his brother were taken in by foster parents, Forrest and Betsy Shirley, after a football coach noticed the marks on Buck’s back and the county sheriff stepped in.

Though not something he would ever wish on another, Buck attributes his childhood experiences to shaping him into the person he is today. It was with his foster parents that he learned a lot about healing and redirecting a hurt and lost soul into a productive and functional being. He also worked closely with and learned from the late Ray Hunt.

“In this particular discipline, if you want to be great, you have to be a sensitive person,” says Gwynn Turnbull Weaver, founder of the Californois Ranch Roping Contest, in the film. “That vulnerability, that sensitivity to feel the subtle change, is what makes you great. That’s why so many of the folks that are really good at this are … you know, sometimes they’re tortured souls.”

Buck is able to empathize with the horses he works with on a deeper level than some can understand:  “Horses are my life,  and because of some of the things I’ve been through as a kid, I’ve found some safety and some companionship in the horses … I was just looking for kind of a peaceful place to be where I wasn’t threatened, or my life wasn’t threatened, so I have an empathy for horses … when something is scared for their life, I understand that.”

Horses as mirrors

Buck is now on the road nine months of the year with horses in tow, offering clinics on colt starting, horsemanship and ranch roping. Participants travel from near and far to be a part of the clinic – whether to advance their horsemanship, or perhaps as a last resort to help them with a challenging horse. People often leave with new insights about themselves, too.

“A lot of times, rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems,” says Buck. Later in the film, he’s seen speaking with a clinic participant in regards to a particularly challenging horse: “If you’ve got a lot going on in your life, probably a lot of it is a lot bigger than this horse .… This horse tells me quite a bit about you. This is just an amplified situation of what is. Maybe there’s some things for you to learn about you that maybe the horse is the only damn way you’re going to learn it.” Buck has never been afraid to tell it like it is.

He was at one point terribly shy, but worked incredibly hard to overcome it so he could offer the number of clinics to people that he does today. He has also worked to control any residual emotions left from his childhood, and move past them. “One of the biggest challenges of a horseman is the ability to control your emotions,” Buck states. “I live in the moment … you can’t live in two places at once. You never forget, but you don’t have to keep living in the past.”

Behind the scenes

The heartwarming and inspiring documentary follows Buck on his travels to some of his clinic stops. He’s usually on his own, but sometimes his daughter goes along for the trip, or he meets up with his family at one of the host sites. The film also debunks one of the great horsemanship myths about who was the inspiration for the horseman in The Horse Whisperer, from the book by Nicholas Evans. “Buck played a greater role than a lot of people realize,” says director and actor Robert Redford, who played horseman Tom Booker. “He contributed everything. There was a humanity and a kind of gentleness of spirit that I adopted for that character, because of Buck.”

Through his work, Buck has touched the lives of thousands of horses and humans – and now, thanks to Cindy’s excellent work on this film, he will reach thousands more. And what does the future hold for Buck? More of the same, he says. “Bill Dorrance was roping when he was 94. That’s how I want to be when I grow up, if I ever do.”