Recently I rode in a Buck Brannaman clinic in Belton, TX at the Bell County Expo Center. Buck has been coming to Texas annually for many years, thanks to an especially dedicated clinic host and team of helpers.
Although the clinic was held in March 2013, it had filled by June 2012. When I signed up for it way back then, I had no idea that there might be some interesting challenges ahead.
It was exciting to think of riding my QH ex-racehorse, Santo, in the clinic — and I confidently registered for the Horsemanship 2 class. Santo had trained for the track as a youngster but didn’t have the foot speed to be a good racehorse. He was purchased by a local horse facility shortly afterward. By the time I acquired and began riding Santo in 2012, he had had several years of classical dressage training — thus becoming the first ex-racehorse I’d ever owned with professional post-track training.
I was thrilled to have a horse that could teach me so much. At the same time, Santo still showed some leftover anxieties from his racing days. He is a chronic stall weaver (to the point where he can’t be kept in a stall for long without risking colic). Santo will also sometimes weave in the trailer. Additionally, he had some history of showing anxious behavior while in large groups (a classic racehorse characteristic).
An equestrian friend also told me that Santo once had a rider fall and break her arm while attempting to mount him from the fence during a clinic. From what I understand, this incident had created some tension for Santo about mounting — but his trainer at the time had helped him through that so he could put the episode behind him.
Santo and I seemed like a good match — and we thoroughly enjoyed our riding time together. He is a bubbly, cheerful horse with a ton of heart and personality.
As the months passed before the Buck clinic, several challenges appeared. I took a good-sized tumble from a young horse as I mounted him, injuring my back and neck. While I returned to riding within a couple of weeks, the healing process was slower than I expected — and my riding stamina wasn’t as strong as usual. Then an unexpected foot surgery had to be scheduled, throwing off my planned return to fuller riding fitness.
Still, I did my best to prepare Santo for the Buck clinic. A few months beforehand, we rode together in a Tom Curtin clinic — with a class of about 15 other riders. Santo handled that well — but he also was very familiar with the arena that hosted the clinic. As Buck’s clinic drew near, I regularly hauled Santo to another arena — where we often saw other horses, trail riders, and occasional dirt bikers. While Santo would get somewhat anxious, he settled down quickly — and I was happy to see how willing he was to experience new things with me.
The big clinic weekend arrived — and it was quite the scene. As Buck himself has commented, you can’t really prepare your horse at home for what one of his clinics will be like — especially since the release of the documentary about him. Over 40 horses were riding in the clinic (spread between two classes) — and the stands were packed with spectators. In addition, the Bell County Expo Center had multiple events going on during the clinic — so there were competing microphone announcements booming over the clinic arena.
If you want to get a true sense of what a Buck Brannaman clinic is like, I highly recommend the 7 Clinics DVD Series. There are 7 DVDs in the package, all of which contain footage of Buck at different clinics — and they are well-organized and full of excellent horsemanship advice.
Santo thought the environment of Buck’s clinic was simultaneously exciting, scary, and suspicious. Although we arrived a day early, scoped out the facility, and rode a little in a side arena, he was still tense and nervous by the time our class began. Full of distracted energy, he was also proving a little difficult to mount. I ended up plopping on to his back with a distinct lack of grace from the fence. My back and neck gave a warning twinge to not do that again anytime soon — but that soon subsided and we were officially riding in the arena with the other clinic riders.
For us, that meant we were doing short serpentines like mad up and down the arena — weaving between the other, calmer horses in the clinic. I found myself glancing into the spectator stands, to see if I knew anyone — so I could make eye contact with familiar faces as Santo and I danced by the bleachers. As it turned out, there were many friends there — and it felt great to smile and wave as Santo carried me past the crowd.
Like most clinicians, Buck starts his clinics by having the class stand in a circle around him while he talks and answers questions from the riders. Santo had relaxed enough to walk in longer, looser serpentines by then — but standing still wasn’t an option for more than a few minutes. Buck gave some excellent tips, telling me “A horse like this is a gift, for what he will teach you.” And he gently reminded me that it was important to do what the horse needed (which was useful direction for his feet from his rider) — and not worry too much about what the human wanted (which in my case was to stand still and listen to the clinician tell fascinating stories).
As we began moving as a group, Santo’s nervousness would ease off and then bubble up again. Buck refers to this as the “ebb and flow” of a young or troubled horse during a riding session. To him, this is a normal part of the process — and the rider shouldn’t get too worried about the “ebb” part of the equation. Instead, it is better to expect the horse to have moments of calmness and others of anxiety — and simply plan on trying to increase the calm moments, rather than get too caught up in trying to stop the anxious ones.
Sometimes this can be accomplished with the short serpentines. If that isn’t quite enough (if the horse is hopping around a bit or really is pushing on the edge of trying to whirl to the side), then another good strategy is to ask the horse to roll his hindquarters for a half-circle, and then bring his front quarters around for another half-circle (so you end up moving in the same direction you started, after a full circle).
When a horse is full of energy that needs to be redirected, this maneuver really gives the energy a good place to go. The movement is precise enough that the horse (and rider) need to think about the timing of the feet — but has enough “space” in it to contain a high degree of energy easily. As I did these circles a few times, I felt Santo moving dynamically underneath me — and we’d often finish the move with several pretty, flowing steps forward after the circle was complete.
But if my timing was off when I asked for the hindquarters to roll (when the inside hind leg was still on the ground), Santo would be off balance for the move — so it was a very good exercise for me to work on timing. I began to concentrate more on my aids and on setting Santo up properly for these exercises — instead of focusing on his tension as a negative thing, it now had become an interesting excuse to work on my timing and balance.
As the first day ended, Santo had calmed down considerably. I dismounted as the clinic class stood around Buck to listen to his parting words for the day. But as the crowd began to applaud at the end, Santo revved back up into anxiety and twirled around me. I did my best to ease his worries, but the walk back to the barn was a bit elevated for both of us.
Santo stayed amped up in his pen for quite awhile — pacing restlessly and neighing while the other riders headed back to the barn, hosed down their horses, and hand grazed them nearby. But we had finished the first day successfully — and I was looking forward to what the next day would bring at the clinic.
On the second day of the clinic, the crowd was very large — and for some reason, the rabbit show in the next room of the Expo center required frequent, blaring announcements (often accompanied by random booming sounds and/or slightly hysterical female laughter) as part of its process. Country music was playing loudly on the clinic arena speakers, as we waited for Buck to arrive. Santo wasn’t amused by the crowd or by the rowdy microphone sounds from the rabbit area. As we entered the arena, he was a rocky mass of worry and fear — and our short serpentines were feeling more like sharp-edged Zs than flowing snake trails. I could feel him getting tighter, not looser, with each step.
In these situations, my first impulse is to immediately assume that I am doing something wrong — and that if I were a better, more skilled rider, my horse would not be showing any worry or tension. This time was no different — as I guided Santo through his steps, I felt certain that I was failing him in some way.
Recognizing that adding more anxious emotion to the picture wouldn’t help Santo, I pushed those thoughts aside and began to smile at my friends in the stands. “He must not like country music,” I quipped to a fellow clinic rider — who laughed and gave us a thumbs up sign as we zipped past him. One of the spectators asked, “Is that a green horse from the track?” Another wondered if Santo was a warmblood. I threw quick, cheerful answers over my shoulder as we rode by, glad for the supportive vibe from the crowd.
When Buck rode into the arena, I steered toward him and asked what I could be doing better to help Santo. He glanced at us and then reminded me of something he had discussed in the morning class. In that class, Buck had described the moment in a short serpentine when it’s clear the horse is flowing out of the arc into forward steps. It is like when you are pushing a ball up a hill. When the ball gets to the top of the hill and you feel it is about to roll down the hill, you relax and let the natural draw of gravity take the ball down the hill. You don’t keep pushing the ball at that moment — instead you allow the gravity to give a natural wave of movement to the ball.
As he said it, I realized that I had been keeping Santo too firmly in the reins in between each serpentine. I exhaled and released the reins lightly now at each of those moment. While Santo was still very tense, he began to take a small flowing step between each serpentine. Concentrating carefully, I kept my hands responsive and invited him to try a second flowing step between each curving serpentine (but was still prepared to roll back up into a more supportive position, if he needed that).
Within ten minutes, we were taking multiples steps “over the hill” — and our short serpentines had become long serpentines. Once again, the friendly mood of the spectators and my fellow clinic riders was a big help. There were still some bumpy moments. Santo and I often had to practice full circles by turning on the hindquarters and then moving the front quarters across (to reduce his tension and redirect his spiking energy levels). During one of those maneuvers, my timing was off and I asked for the movement too close to another horse — unfortunately, it was Buck’s horse (and I discovered to my horrified chagrin that Santo will threaten to kick at times). One of those moments where you’d really like to hang yourself in shame with a boselita right on the spot!
But overall we made steady progress during the class that day. The cow work was introduced toward the end of the class — and while Santo was concerned about the cattle at first, he soon decided that focusing on them was a great way to channel his nervous excitement. One of the horses next to us was very scared of cows — and as the cattle began easing his way (they like to seek out the least threatening horse, to test the boundaries), Santo sidepassed easily over to give that horse a little moral support.
The cows weren’t sure what to think of Santo, with his elevated stance, big eyes, and black dressage saddle. But they ultimately decided he was much too animated and focused to try to get past him — and they drifted away toward the center of the circle of horses. I was very proud of Santo and made sure that he knew that.
One of the seasoned cow horses (Kate) and her rider (Rita) walked around the little herd of cows. Beckoning us over, Rita invited me and Santo to follow them. Mimicking Kate, Santo leg yielded away from the cows while still eyeing them. I could feel his worry transform into energetic curiosity for several steps at a time.
It was a great feeling for both of us — and several spectators were rooting for Santo and his budding aptitude for cow work (even if it was only to circle the herd). The highlight of the day was when Santo touched a cow with his nose — then hopped back in surprise when it moved away from him. The crowd laughed warmly and Santo immediately made the connection that HE had made the cow move.
Caught up in the moment, I forgot completely how Santo had reacted to the applause the previous day — and wasn’t ready when the class ended for the day. Still in the saddle, I was dismayed to feel Santo’s anxiety shoot up to the same level as it was at the beginning of the class. Short serpentines and riding near a calm, seasoned horse helped somewhat — but I made a note to dismount and leave the arena early the next day (no matter how much fun Santo and I were having with the cows).
After the clinic, Santo continued to pace, whinny, and weave in his pen — once again, the swirl of post-clinic noise and movement (from people and horses) seemed to trigger a strong reaction in him.
Stay tuned for Part II of the clinic…