"This horse is socially bankrupt," announces Buck Brannaman to the 40 people standing around him in a chilly Colorado barn. "He doesn't know how to be a horse." The animal, Kit, affectionately nuzzles his hand, and Brannaman casually whacks him on the nose. "That's like one of you licking your finger and putting it in my ear," he says. "You wouldn't want to do that."
Buck Brannaman — an improbably young James Woods/William Hurt hybrid in a white cowboy hat, white gloves, yellow neckerchief, and straw-colored bomber jacket — is the real horse whisperer. At least that's what I branded him after seeing the Brannaman magic firsthand during a glorious week high in the Rockies at the C Lazy U Ranch, one of the country's few luxury dude ranches. My instructor that week, Danielle Nelson, swore that no matter what level of horsemanship you've reached, Buck Brannaman will take you higher. He'll get you into the mind of your horse. By the end of one of his three-day clinics, you'll have learned so much that the ranch will let you herd horses with the pros.
We're in the ranch's new indoor arena, since winter has descended early. Of the 27 clinic participants, about half are horse owners who seem to belong to an equestrian Mensa, two are just learning to ride, and the remaining dozen, myself included, range from adequate to good in the saddle. A handful have brought their own mounts, and only one bit the bullet and brought a "problem" animal: Kit, a proud hunter about 16 hands high who hates to be mounted. He always tries to dump his rider and has proved immune to the efforts of several professional trainers.
"I don't think of it as training," says Brannaman. "I think of it as dancing." He waves one hand in Kit's face, his rope looped over the animal's rear, and walks Kit's hindquarters around one way, then the other, in a slow-motion do-si-do. The horse flinches, shies, shows the whites of his eyes. "If this kind of stuff bothers him," Brannaman points out, "I'm not sure why you'd want to get on him. When the horse stays focused on the human, then he's ridable. But here he's saying, "'Hey, I got so many things going on, I'm not sure I can pencil you in.' " We watch them work and, by coffee time, Brannaman is in the saddle and Kit is so alert and responsive, it looks as if Brannaman is supporting the horse, rather than the other way around.
When it's time for me to meet my horse, Clem — a big, kind chestnut — I find him green, with (my fault) a sticky gas pedal. Brannaman tells us to "untrack" the hindquarters by offering a hint of what we want to happen, increasing the pressure until the split second we get a response, and then releasing. Timing and communication are all. This is as far from the old horse-breaking paradigm of dominance and submission as it's possible to get.
Later, there's a lot of how-was-it-for-you talk around the family-style dinner tables, where we're served restorative Bloody marys and an excellent mixed grill of quail and duck. The learning here is fast and furious, but this is still a vacation, as my comfortable Western-style cabin — with its veranda view of the Rockies — proves.
On day two, the Colorado dawn is even more frigid, and the ranch sets out big boots for those of us wearing thin socks. Brannaman is astride one of the ranch's new acquisitions, a skittish number that in a couple of hours metamorphoses before our eyes into the very model of discipline. Brannaman's transcendental focus, quiet charisma, and subtle, intricate body language are all very Zen. I've already seen him get into the minds of two horses. But then horse whisperers can do anything: Brannaman once shattered his leg out on the trail and made his horse lie down (this he demonstrates for us), pick him up, and carry him home. (The practice of whispering to horses is believed to have started with Irishmen of legend who exerted otherworldly influence over their animals.)
Out in the meadow, we're being introduced to the "soft feel," the fundamental step in this dance of horse and human, where you establish communication with your horse via the bit and the reins. This seals a contract of trust between you and your mount. If you fail in your attempt, the two of you will never be a team.
Who would have thought the soft feel could reduce me to tears?Clem and I almost get it, and almost get it again — and then when I think we've finally got it for good, we fail. Clem starts champing nervously at the bit like a baseball player with his chaw. He's not listening at all. As a rider formerly proud of her "light hands," I find this particularly humiliating. Brannaman comes to the rescue: from the ground, he takes the reins, and within seconds Clem's jaw is still and his ears prick up. Brannaman does the same thing I was doing — releasing pressure the instant the horse reacts to the bit — but his timing is supernatural. You can almost hear the horse thanking him. Clem becomes calmer and smarter through the afternoon, as we do our homework in the meadow with Danielle and the other wranglers.
During Q&A sessions in "class," on the roofed poolside patio — where we enjoy scenic alfresco lunches — and over dinner, I glean some background on how Brannaman became so telepathic with horses. His methods come from renowned trainers Tom Dorrance and, especially, Ray Hunt; the latter took him in hand when he was 16. "I got to be real good friends with horses," he says, "because I didn't want to be around human beings very much." His father made him learn rope tricks when he was three and sent him out to perform them for pay when he was six, all the while regularly beating both him and his brother. At 12, after his diabetic mother died, Buck was sent to a foster home, which wasn't much of an improvement. He went back on the road because, as he says, "I liked doing rope tricks more than I liked getting whipped." Ray Hunt taught him to direct the anger his childhood had lodged in him, and horses taught him everything else. "You can betray a horse a hundred times," says Brannaman, "and he'll always forgive you." I reluctantly prove this every five minutes by betraying poor Clem with my inadequate timing. As promised, Clem bears with me.
By the last day, we've covered gaining and maintaining a soft feel at both a walk and a trot, backing in circles, and loping with the correct lead; some of us have even managed flying-lead changes (don't ask). Now we put it all together in accuracy drills — a horseback version of "Mother, May I?" with Brannaman counting off steps forward and backward. It's even harder than you'd think, and by mid-afternoon I feel so bad about the mess I'm surely making in Clem's brain that I'm ready to quit. But I go back for the final lope, do better, and have a minor epiphany about perseverance. When was the last time you had an epiphany while on vacation?
Before I leave, I can't resist asking Brannaman whether he has read Nicholas Evans's best-selling novel The Horse Whisperer. All he'll say is that Evans followed him around for a while. Anyone who has been to the clinic knows where the author did his research. Brannaman doesn't mind, though — he's just looking forward to the movie.
Kate Sekules writes for Harper's Bazaar and Saveur.