Quiet Riding

Equestrian Book Reviews

Book Review

The Faraway Horses

Goldilocks, the horse.

In The Faraway Horses, Buck Brannaman presents the reader a view of life and how one should live it. Buck's life experiences have influenced both how he works with horses and how he deals with people. “Every time I work with a horse — or a person — that's troubled or scared, I think of how the problems and solutions relate to a human's life, including my own.”

Buck Brannaman is a horse trainer and clinician. He worked as a technical consultant for the movie "The Horse Whisperer" and was the subject of the award winning documentary film "Buck".

Buck and his brother grew up with an abusive father who used his sons to live a vicarious life he was not able to live himself. After the death of their mother, the situation became even worse, and the boys went to live with a caring couple who became their foster parents. These people knew the Brannamans' history, but didn't let their sympathy for the boys lead to a lack of discipline. Buck uses these same principals in dealing with troubled horses.

If you extend the parameters too far because of sympathy, the horse won't have any boundaries, and you will end up spoiling him. An “abused horse” that has been “spoiled” with sympathy is one of the most difficult kinds to work with: when you try to correct him, you end up putting him back in the same frame of mind he was in when he was scared…. Finding the correct amount of firmness depends on the specific horse and the problem, but finding that balance is essential.

Loving them, the boys' foster parents disciplined them in ways which improved their lives. Buck realizes this and tries to use similar wisdom in his work with horses. He says: “It's your responsibility when you start working with a troubled horse to set specific behavioral boundaries.” He explains:

As a rider, you must slowly and methodically show your horse what is appropriate. You also have to discourage what's inappropriate, not by making the inappropriate impossible, but by making it difficult so that the horse himself chooses appropriate behavior. You can't choose it for him; you can only make it difficult for him to make the wrong choices. If, however, you make it impossible for him to make the wrong choices, you’re making war.

Buck’s methods focus on the present, not the past.

We can help the horse focus on constructive tasks that ease his fears and show him that he's not alone in a world of predators. If we don't, if we do nothing but sympathize, we're allowing him to slip into another realm of trouble.

Proper discipline involves more than just saying, “No.”

Whether riding a horse or working with a kid, there's no crime in saying no. But always saying no will take away all the horse's desire to try, and pretty soon the horse or the youngster will believe there's nothing he can do right. But saying no and immediately redirecting with “but instead you may do this” will head off inappropriate behavior.

Developing on this theme, Buck advises: “Instead of punishing inappropriate behavior after the fact, I redirect him before it occurs.” This requires spending time with your horse and learning when to sense he is getting ready to do something you don’t want him to do.

Training a horse to do new things takes time and self–discipline on the part of the trainer. It is not something that can be rushed. Buck points out that “…to present a horse with a new problem to solve before he's had time to soak up the old one forces him to disregard what he just learned in order to concentrate on what's next.” If you rush on to the next lesson, he may not have time to absorb the one he just learned. If you try to force too many lessons on him at once, he may become confused and dwell on this confusion. “The important thing is to make sure that the last word you have with the horse is good for both of you.” Stop each training session on a positive note.

Buck is serious about his work. Horses are forced to live in our world; they can't get along without us. Therefore: “A human must be responsible for himself and for his horse.” Responsibility requires both discipline and disciplining.

Buck emphasizes that “Discipline isn't a dirty word…. Discipline is the one thing that separates us from chaos and anarchy.” But he points out that, “You need to provide discipline without forcing it.” He adds, “People who associate discipline with punishment are wrong: with discipline, punishment is unnecessary.”

Besides teaching him the difference between discipline and punishment, Buck's foster parents taught him how a lesson can be shared, not dictated. This lesson was reinforced when Buck was introduced to the training methods of Ray Hunt and Bill Dorrance. Buck tells of his first experience watching Ray Hunt work with horses.

That was the first time I ever saw a person work a horse that way, using his understanding of a horse's mind and body to train with kindness and to end up getting some of the sharpest turns and hardest stops I'd ever seen. And all with a plain snaffle bit. What's more, the horse looked happy, as if he enjoyed being with the man. His expression showed contentment in his eyes.

At the time Buck was learning from Ray Hunt, “People thought that the notion of getting along with a horse, communicating with the horse, and even, God forbid, being friends with a horse was forsaking the western image of being a cowboy.” Things have changed over the years and Buck says he has been influenced by many good horsemen — both well known and not so well known. He says, “…they've taught me to listen, not just to them and to other people, but to the horses I want to help and that want me to help them.”

Buck stresses doing preparatory ground work. When asked, “How much groundwork do I need to do?” He replies: “…enough to keep your horse and yourself out of trouble….” Experienced riders can get by with a lot less. Inexperienced, unsure, or fearful riders need to do a lot more.

Buck concentrates on putting a sound foundation on the horses he starts. He says, “With horses as with people, you get only one opportunity to make a good first impression….” A sound foundation is important for any discipline. “The basics are all there, so you can then finish up a horse to do anything you want him to do, whether it's ranch work or horse showing or polo.”

Buck points out: “We're supposed to be the smart ones, but it's amazing how people put little thought into working with their horses.” Working with horses using the right principals can be life changing. Buck says, “For me, these principles are really about life, about living your life in a way that you're not making war with horses or with other people.” He adds:

Many times people have told me that what they've learned from me about understanding their horses has helped them begin to understand themselves a little bit better and then allowed them to make changes that improved their lives far better than they could have ever imagined.

Buy The Faraway Horses