Dan "Buck" Brannaman THE HORSE WHISPERER
©copyright ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2012
"There are those who are born with a clear vision, a gift beyond the already miraculous endowment of sight."
The Horse Whisperer
Some people are put on this earth to do average things and some people were meant for greatness. It takes your breath away when you witness a person who has been blessed with an amazing gift like Michael Jordan, Nadia Comaneci, Abraham Lincoln or Mozart. Even if you don't like basketball, gymnastics, rhetoric or music you can't help but pay attention. It's inevitable that you will be touched by their enthusiasm, tenacity and sheer zest for life. You know you are in the company of genius and that acumen comes in many different packages.
Dan Brannaman was born in the frosty shore town of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. He was able to trick rope by the age of three and was starring with his brother in regional rodeo roping shows as "The Idaho Cowboys" by the age of six. Moving through Montana and Idaho and going by the nickname "Buckshot". Dan had also been starring in television commercials. It was important to his father, Ace, that he perform flawlessly which meant that he was under constant pressure to perform perfectly. So much pressure in fact, that Buck and Smokie (Dan's brother Bill) quickly learned that if they practiced roping the way their father wanted, they might escape a beating. Ace Brannaman was a career alcoholic whose methods of training were unorthodox, hateful and criminal. He was not considered a gentleman.
Momma and the Sheriff
Buck's first protector was his mother, Carol. When she was around, she tried to provide a barrier to the beatings, the severity and the pain. Buck recalls the trauma he would feel on a daily basis when his mother would take him to school. He would cry, never wanting to leave her side. Life with Ace Brannaman was frightening for the boys. They didn't know what to expect from one moment to the next. Ace was unpredictable. Carol Brannaman succumbed to diabetes when Buck and Smokie were still young lads. Her death launched the stricken Ace and the boys into a rhythm of constant sorrow and intense physical abuse. One particular instance Ace locked Buck out of the house on a particularly cold night forcing him to find shelter with the family bloodhound in a 55 gallon tank with only the dog and some straw for warmth. Buck was wearing his undergarments but was lucky enough to survive the numbing temperatures. When Buck was allowed to return to the house, his father acted as though it was of no consequence but it has left an indelible memory for Buck.
Life for Buck and Smokie continued to be uncertain and fragile on a day to day basis until the day that Coach Cleverly forced Buck to dress down and shower after gym class. When Coach noticed that Buck had bruises and welts covering his legs and backside, he couldn't ignore that it was beyond the scope of normal. He immediately contacted the Madison County Deputy Sheriff Johnny France and many believe that with that phone call, he saved the lives of those two young boys.
Sheriff France was present when the boys were forced to undress and display what their father had done. He immediately decided that there wouldn't be any more beatings for the Brannaman boys. Sheriff France went to work immediately and with the help of aspiring mountain men Dan and Don Nichols and was able to place the boys in a foster home with Forrest and Betsy Shirley on the Madison River.
The sudden departure of Smokie and Buck didn't stop Ace Brannaman's fury. Like clockwork, each year he would send a birthday card vowing that he would go so far as to kill them when they turned eighteen. The Madison County Sheriff's Department intervened once and for all and forced Ace Brannaman to leave Montana. Buck finally made peace with his father who died in Oregon in 1992.
The day Buck and Smokie arrived at the Shirley ranch, Buck recalls being introduced to Forrest Shirley. He was a man of great stature, quite tall for a half-pint as shy as Buck, but he extended his hand to Buck, shook his hand and then with such generosity gave Buck a pair of tan, leather buckskin working gloves. To Buck it was an offering of acceptance. He cherished the gloves and was proud to have been given such a fine gift.
Buck admits that Betsy and Forrest Shirley were the people who afforded him the right to live for the first time without being afraid. Betsy taught him what it meant to love. PPerhaps it was Betsy's unreserved affection that enabled Buck to turn loose of the ties that bound him to his past and allowed him to realize how to heal himself by working with and nurturing horses who had previously been given up on. Betsy and Forrest fostered more than twenty boys over the course of their lives. Forrest taught Buck how to shoe a horse and mend fences. He knew that if Buck could work hard, he would always survive. He also knew that a brokenhearted young man needed something to keep his shattered little mind busy and for Buck, it was the best thing Forrest could have done. Betsy's most famous quote was, "Blessed are the flexible, for they shall never get bent out of shape." People who know Betsy describe that she, "expresses love better than anyone [they've] ever met. She's the epitome of love."
Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt
Buck had been working with horses since he was a young boy and was useful in a stable. One particular summer he was looking for a job at the local fairgrounds. He was watching an gentleman who was in his 70s working with his horse, putting on a really good show and thought that there were a lot of things he could learn from this gentleman. That man happened to be Tom Dorrance who is generally considered to be the "father" of "horse whispering" in the equine community. Mr. Dorrance is generally revered as the inventor of a "kinder and gentler" way of training horses. Buck began working with Mr. Dorrance. He would matriculate the teachings of Tom Dorrance.
At a Bozeman, Montana clinic Buck met Ray Hunt who is also an apprentice of Tom Dorrance. Buck was eager to learn and succeed his teachings his style as well. Ray was famous for saying, "I'm here for the horse, to help him get a better deal." It was important to Ray that horse trainers should make the wrong thing difficult and the right easy. Getting bucked off of a horse meant that the trainer made a mistake and to Ray, the horse was never wrong. Mr. Hunt was a very successful trainer.
In the horse community the lineage of "Horse Whisperer" is generally considered to be Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Buck Brannaman. What these three gentlemen have done for horse training is given a humanity to what used to be inhumane.
Buck Brannaman says without fail that, "If I do something that looks pretty good with horses, then I probably learned it from Ray Hunt. If it doesn't look good to you, then I probably learned it on my own." Buck Brannaman's inaugural clinic was in1983 in Montana near Bozeman. He recalls that when he first began hosting clinics he was uptight and while still very shy, he had a tendency to be very rigorous and strict as teacher which was confusing for the students who so eagerly sought out his guidance. Since then, he's developed his own styles, techniques and methods of working with horses that is in sync with the Dorrance and Hunt horsemanship traits.
Buck travels about ten and a half months of the year while his wife stays on their ranch in just outside of Sheridan, Wyoming taking care of things at home. His clinics can be attended as a spectator or a full participant.