The opinions expressed in previous entries may or may not express the current opinion of the author.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Ok, hands up everyone who's seen the movie Buck Brannaman. Cos I'd really like to know what y'all think of it.

Thanks to my internet having been fixed (fingers crossed), so that the download speed is now like 2.65 megawotsits instead of only 0.14, I was at last able to view the movie all the way through.

Buck is a documentary about Buck Brannaman, a real-life "horse whisperer," who helped Robert Redford with Redford's role in the eponymous movie.

Buck Brannaman is a real likeable guy who has some fine things to say about horses. For example: Don't be critical - Don't discourage them or they'll shut down. There's some other cool stuff in the movie, such as the lady who works cows with her dressage horses, as she says it brings "meaning and purpose" into the dressage training because the horses know it helps them with their cattle work, which they love.

There's a sad incident, however, involving a three-year old orphan stud colt, who had been bottle raised and then, when his owner had a bad accident when he was three months old, had been left to his own devices for the next three years. After his difficult birth, he had lain without breathing for some time until he was revived, and there was some thought that this oxygen deprivation had left him mentally impaired.

This youngster was extremely aggressive, to the point where he would attack vehicles and charge fences to bite people on the other side.

Nothing daunted, Buck brings him into the round pen to see what can be done. From his horse, Buck ropes the colt's ankle and starts to be able to control his movements. From there, Buck's cowboy assistant is able to go up to the colt, sack him out, saddle, mount, and ride him. So far so good.

But on the ground, the horse continues to be a menace. Buck blames the owner, for allowing the horse's behavior to escalate to this point, and for not having had him gelded sooner. Buck says orphan horses are the worst, because they're spoiled and not taught respect as they would be if they were with their mothers. He's in a pen with the colt and has to continually fend off his aggressive charges by flapping sticks at him.

Later, they bring him back to the round pen. The colt has a halter and rope on, and the cowboy is holding the rope in one hand and a blanket in the other. It's not clear whether he's using the blanket as a kind of goad to make the horse move forward or whether he's trying to sack him out some more. They move around the pen a little, the cowboy apparently having a little success in getting the horse to move forward on command.

Then - seemingly out of the blue - the colt leaps forward, bites the cowboy's head, knocks him to the ground, and leaves the scene to go over to the other side of the pen.

The cowboy is bloodied and needs stitches in his head. The owner is distraught and realizes her only option is to have the horse destroyed. Buck doesn't disagree. Someone - sooner or later - is going to get killed.

The horse's death sentence is sealed, and he is hauled off in a truck. The next day, Buck talks to the other participants in the clinic about what happened. He says that human beings let the horse down. He says that perhaps the horse was a little retarded after being deprived of oxygen, but that this doesn't mean he had to end so badly. With the proper training, he could have been a good little horse, quietly "packing" someone around, leading a life which would have been of use to himself and to others.

Life doesn't have the option of instant replay, but Netflix streaming does, and so I replayed these scenes over and over until I got a sense of what really happened.

First of all: Buck in the pen with the colt. He has driven the colt off to the far side of the pen, using his flag-ended stick. As Buck talks to the owner, the colt sidles up behind him, chewing and licking. Buck senses his approach out of the corner of his eye and instead of engaging the colt and acknowledging his pacific intent, immediately turns round and starts aggressively flailing the air with the stick to drive the colt away. The colt instantly reacts by returning the aggression, rearing, striking, and trying to get at Buck.

Later: in the pen with the cowboy. The young horse repeatedly gives the cowboy a chance. He turns to face him, stands his ground, expresses his displeasure at the blanket onslaught. Finally, the cowboy approaches him directly. The horse takes a step backwards and stops, looking at the cowboy (who incidentally is wearing dark glasses). The cowboy ignores the horse's gesture of retreat, as well as his intentionality to connect, and moves in closer in an unmistakeably predatory manner, holding the blanket like a weapon.

Faster than you can blink, the horse leaps forward, mouth open and lunges toward the cowboy's head.

The humans present at the clinic, observing the terrifying attacks, presumably saw what I saw on my first watch-through of the scenes - chaos and fury being unleashed with no prior warning. It took me many re-plays until I could see more clearly what was going on. I imagine horses are able to see at that speed all the time. 

The first thing that comes to mind is that you can see the limitations of technique here. Any one method is going to come up against a situation where it is not the best method. This young horse was clearly far too dangerous to work with in a confined space, never mind at the end of a short rope. John Lyons would have fared better with his liberty work in a 60' round pen, working the horse from a safe distance. Mark Rashid's "Old Man" would have done even better with his technique of leaving the horse - for weeks if necessary - alone in a large pasture, visiting him twice a day only to feed him and dictate the terms under which he may eat. And where is it written that you must go from three-years-with-no-handling to sacked-out-and-under-saddle in one weekend clinic?

Secondly, far from being weak-brained, this horse is clearly extremely intelligent, extremely proud, and extremely courageous. Many times he expresses his willingness to work with Buck or the cowboy. But he has zero tolerance for any show of aggression on their part, meting out retribution with lightning speed. He tolerates the cowboy saddling and riding him on their first encounter, because the cowboy's behavior is very different when he knows that Buck controls the horse by means of the ankle rope. Because the cowboy is reassured that someone has control of the horse, aggression is absent from his demeanor.

Thirdly, I don't buy the orphan horse theory, which I have heard before. Here's my theory, or rather my working hypothesis: the problem with orphan foals is not that they are spoiled and fail to learn respect from their mothers. The problem is that they learn fear-aggression from being turned out with older horses without the protection of their mother. The two dozen nurse mare foals at Twelve Oaks in Mississippi were mollycoddled and coochycooed like you wouldn't believe, but they all turned out mild-mannered and pleasant, without anyone having to "sort them out." And here - according to my hypothesis - is why: they were all babies together, with no mean old grownups to chase them or steal their food.

The colt in the movie fit the bill - he had been turned out at the age of three months in a field with a bunch of adults and left to fend for himself. He could have become a wretched doormat, but because of his strong personality, instead he became a spitfire. If Buck or the cowboy had acknowledged his pride and his sense of self, I think they could have ended up working with him. 

Now, that's not to say I'd ever be willing to work with such a horse, or that it would have been safe for his owner to take him home. But, as Buck himself said in his post-incident talk to the clinic, your horse is a mirror of yourself - and Buck, for all his kindness, is unable to see something in the horse, perhaps because he can't see it in himself. 

This renegade colt was close to my heart as, of course, Bridget is an orphan foal, and George was/is fear-aggressive and studdish. I believe that given a large paddock, a lot of time, and a willingness to stand down, someone (not me, thanks!) could ultimately have turned that horse into a super star.

I turned to Youtube to see Hempfling at work with aggressive stallions, to compare that with what I'd seen on the movie. Two things stick out - Hempfling's willingness to stand down and back off, and his laser-like awareness of the horse as a unique individual in that moment. Compare that to Buck's cowboy's approach to the horse as a dangerous object.

Finally, I think, it all gets down to still - despite the kindler, gentler ways - treating the horse as an object of use to be controlled. When you look at the faces of the horses in the movie, you don't observe the stress, the anxiety, the pain, the sorrow that are so often seen in horses who are supposedly doing magnificent things. But neither do you see anything in the way of sparkly-eyed engagement.

(OK, yes, Buck's horses can canter side-passes, and I can get on my horse, period. Thanks for pointing that out.)


  1. June I must try and watch that movie. I like what you say about any one method coming up against a situation where it is not the best method.

  2. Buck is probably a master - I've never seen him work in person and can't personally say, and haven't seen the film. But even masters sometimes can't do everything right. Extremely aggressive horses can be very dangerous and this horse may have been too far gone to be saved. Mark's old man might have been able to do it, and perhaps Mark would have as well (although he's not easy on aggressive horses) - disclaimer - I've worked extensively with Mark.

    My daughter worked with a mare for more than a year that was on the way to slaughter due to extreme aggression against humans, including treatment for ulcers, chiropractic and dental work - they made progress but ultimately the horse could only work with her -no one else, it couldn't generalize - and the horse's behavior eventually reverted and the horse had to be euthanized for the safety of everyone around it. Could a super-master have saved this horse - maybe and maybe not. We think the horse may have had a neurological/processing problem - we knew the horse's history and it hadn't been abused - and part of the problem may have been due to aggressive imprinting - this leads to a lot of issues in my experience - there's a combination of sensory flooding/shutting down which can be very counterproductive.

    Anyway, long comment to say that I'm not in a position to judge what Buck did or didn't do, but that very aggressive horses can be extremely dangerous and erring on the side of protecting people isn't necessarily a bad decision.

  3. Yes, I agree, it wasn't necessarily a bad decision - I certainly personally wouldn't be willing to take on such a horse in order to save it from being killed. And I certainly don't judge Buck for quitting while he was ahead (i.e. still alive).

    But .... for the horse to stand down in front of the cowboy, only to have the cowboy advance menacingly toward him, it must have been confusing. Similarly when the horse approaches waving a white flag, only to have Buck snap around and attack it - again, confusing for the horse.

  4. It is sad to see that glimmer of possible hope in an otherwise desperate situation . . . but a hope that isn't/can't be realized. And Buck isn't perfect - no one, no matter how good with horses, is.

  5. Kate, when you say "aggressive imprinting," what do you mean? Are you talking about when people do "imprinting" with foals?

    It always makes one stop short when someone as great as Buck shows that they have limitations - I guess it's a reminder that we can't always pass off life's most important decisions to the experts.

  6. I'm sure Buck himself isn't surprised to find he has limitations! Cos among his virtues he seems like a real unassuming guy.

  7. Ultimately I think that euthanizing that horse was the right decision. Yes, there are people in this world that could have worked with him, but would they have had the time or inclination to do it? What the owner said about putting him down so that nobody tried 2x4 "therapy" (paraphrasing) on him was, to me, the most honest statement she'd given the whole time. Because odds are he'd be WAY more likely to run into one of those than the KFH type and that wouldn't have been fair to the horse at all.

    (Oh, and Dave, the assistant? Terrible judge of horse body language, why would he turn his back on that horse TWICE?)

    As Buck said, "the human failed that horse," it was up to the human to make sure the horse didn't continue to suffer because of her mistakes.

    I'll have to watch that clip again- I didn't see that horse waving a white flag, but it's worth another look. I'm also intrigued by your theory about turning him out to fend for himself against the big boys making him so aggressive. Seems plausible.

  8. I've seen a friend try to rehab a gelding that acted a lot like the one in the movie, and that horse had to be put down, too. He hadn't been abused, but it was another horse that had a traumatic birth and possible brain damage. His behavior had grown steadily worse as he'd gotten older.

    One of the worst things about some of these horses with mental issues is that they don't "make sense." They might give "normal horse" submissive signals like licking and chewing--but then suddenly attack.

    When I was around the gelding I'm talking about (at a safe distance outside his pen) the horrible blankness in his eye as he threw his body against the fence at me was as clear as day. It was as if he didn't even know what he was doing, or why. That was the scariest thing I've ever seen coming from a horse. There simply wasn't any 'intent.' It reminded me of the things I've seen a mentally ill relative doing. Completely purposeless behavior.

    I remember being impressed with Buck's comment in the movie about how only the one cowboy was allowed to ride the horse--he recognized the horse would not be able to "generalize" between humans. People like me also have a hard time understanding the "cowboy" mentality--meaning a horse must be ridden/used--but that is why most people have horses, and that's why trainers make their money.

    I completely agree with your comment about 'sparkly-eyed engagement' (what a great phrase!) and I also wish I could see more of that in the horses I've watched people ride. And I also agree that was an incredible disservice to the colt to try to ride him during a weekend clinic.

    I think horse lovers tend to be perpetual optimists about horses (you have to be, really) but we have to remember that horses who are dangerous to humans--whether it's caused by mental illness or poor handling or both--won't even get the medical and hoof care they need (much less be ridden).

    It's too bad he didn't have a shot at coming to live at your place, where he might have had a chance at a happy life.

  9. The movie tells us that the colt had been living, unhandled, in a field with 18 other studs. !!! So although he hadn't been abused, his experience of life was probably very weird, to say the least. I need to go back and re-watch some of the scenes, but he does have a kind of blank look on his face. I think he was probably a horse who was wired pretty tight to begin with, then couple that with fending for himself as a baby, lack of handling, testosterone galore, and then being confronted by a crazy, confusing situation at the clinic - kind of a recipe for disaster. KFH has a great phrase - "everyday chaos accumulates to high danger"

    I am rather puzzled by the close-contact handling that they relied on with this colt - if ever a horse needed to be worked with from a distance, this was it.

    Also - as regards the cowboy mentality, which can be awesome actually, and I've seen cowboys do amazing things with great calmness and presence - I get the impression that standing down and backing off from an aggressive horse is probably not something they do a lot. But KFH employs that tactic, and it works very well for him. In the movie, you can see the colt demonstrate it beautifully - he backs up and stands alert and still, looking for all the world like KFH himself. What does the cowboy do? Like I said before, he creeps up on the horse for all the world like a cougar about to attack.

    Standing down and backing off are not the same as retreating of course.

  10. Question (talking of medical care, Fetlock) - didn't the colt have to have a Coggins test done before going to the clinic? Also vaccinations?

  11. OK, I've been re-watching the fateful scenes on the movie. When Buck is in the pen by the barn with the colt, Buck's demeanor is not particularly aggressive, but the colt shows no aggression until Buck raises the stick, at which point the colt becomes tense. He doesn't start his attack until after the first flap of the flag-stick can be heard.

    I wish I could watch it in slow motion, but this time when going over the cowboy in the round pen scene, I could see the horse start to warn. The cowboy continues to advance, and then the horse attacks. Trouble is all this happens much faster than any human could perceive.

    The horse also lunges to attack random passers by over the fence. Which is something George used to do apparently. My friend who had him before me kept him in a large arena for a couple of weeks and would go in and chase him around and not let him near her, until finally he seemed to be willing to move without resentment and would turn to look at her, ready to move if she asked him.

  12. Smazourek - yes, really, I mean who could justify the risk, time, and effort it would take to rehab that horse? I couldn't see myself doing it. I've been bitten by a horse far less aggressive than that one for making what was a mistake, but really I couldn't have known it was a mistake until after I'd made it. And with that colt - sheesh! talk about lightning retribution - you'd definitely be learning from your mistakes (and attendant injuries) after they happened, rather than avoiding them in the first place.

    BUT I really wish each and every horse could be treated as if it were the only horse in someone's life, and given every possible chance.. and I wish that colt had had a chance to be worked at a distance.

    By the way, I wonder what Hempfling "type" he was - can anyone tell? I know there are a couple of types KFH says can become very dangerous if they take a wrong turning. I gave away my book, and now I must ask for another copy for Christmas!

  13. Interesting viewpoint. Very well thought out. I must say, though, my horse is an orphan that I raised from birth. He was turned out with a miniature horse mare, never bullied by other horses. He still loves his mini "Mom". I can do anything with him...he will trail ride all day, loads, clips, bathes...even my children groom and love on him despite his size of 18hh (yes, he is taller than my neighbors Clydesdales.) Yet, when pushed to do something he doesn't want to, he shows a similar reaction to the horse in the video...just minus the mean. Ollie thinks differently than other horses. I have trained horses for 25 years, and he just is a different story. You can read his whole story at www.jabaridressage.com. Not pushing my site except that maybe people can learn. I don't ask for money, or sell space on my site. BTW: I am 6 feet tall, so no comments about how he is not possibly 18hh. I make every horse look smaller.

    1. Gosh, Tara, what a fascinating story! Hey, everybody! You gotta check out Tara's site!

      Thanks for visiting my blog, Tara.

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  15. Hi, Sana - thanks for reading and commenting. I looked at your blog - what makes you pick the movies you have there? Did you write the reviews?

  16. June I just watched the movie. I found the scenes with the colt unnerving, and I too watched them again and again. wanting to see what others thought, I did some searching on the web and came across your blog. Thank you for your perceptive analysis, especially your insight that Buck, for all his kindness, is unable to see something in the horse, perhaps because he can't see it in himself. I think - and this may sound overly psychoanalytical but here goes - that if Buck had seen his boyhood self and not his father in that horse, he would have handled him differently.

  17. Charlotte, I think you're right on in your (psycho)analysis and that your comment about Buck seeing his father and not his own boyhood self in the horse is very astute.

    You know, I really wonder if that horse even knew he wasn't supposed to bite anyone. I wonder if anyone had taken the time to actually tell him, as opposed to freaking out whenever he did.

    I've done a little Googling about the colt myself, and as far as I can tell, the horse was never euthanized but continued to live a wild and untrammeled existence, impregnating mares to his heart's content and perpetuating his high-octane genes. I wonder if anyone can corroborate this for me?!?