Buck: the movie

Last night I went to see “Buck”, the documentary about Buck Brannaman, a natural horsemanship trainer who travels the United States teaching people how to ‘gentle’ their horses, start their colts and generally understand more ‘about why horses do what they do.’

Where do I begin?

I know that what used to pass for horse training  was nothing more than non-contingent punishment and flooding until the horse gave up resisting out of pure exhaustion. If you were watching a video of that it would look like this:

Let’s be honest: that’s not even training. It’s just humans jumping on, holding on with our opposable thumbs and long bi-pedal legs and sheer tenacity until the equine decided it took way too much energy to try to get rid of these tall, unpredictable animals who wanted to cling to their backs. There is no regard for the animal, just a display of power for the human and some machismo to be gained. It did achieve behavior change, but at great stress and cost to both the horse and the human, sometimes even their lives. For the ones that made it through the training alive and uninjured, their first association with someone on their back was poisoned as an emotionally and physically grueling, if not scarring event.

The “training” I saw in ‘Buck’ was just a step above. He does have a picture of the behavior he wants the horse to offer and FAR better timing than the old “horse breakers”, but he does shape most of his behaviors using quick jerks on a rope halter or by waving long flags to move the horses off. The horse’s motivation is definitely avoidance. He talks about horses being afraid for their lives and understanding how that feels, but when a buckskin mare he has on a very short lead crashes through him with her shoulder desperately trying to get away from his flag, her head gets jerked around so fast her hind end spins out. In my book, that’s not sympathy to her fear. It’s punishing the shoulder crowding even though the horse is already overfaced. Maybe she’s had enough for the day.  Maybe she needs her training chunked down into smaller lessons. Buck is a lumper, not a splitter. A ‘lumper’  is a trainer who presents training to their animals in big chunks which makes it harder for the animal to understand. They don’t break the behavior into all of it’s component parts so the animal gets a lot of “wrong” answers and the training is very stressful.

There is no reason that a young horse has to go from being untouched to ridden in the same day.

Buck Brannaman stressed, scared, and intimidated most of the horses he worked with. He is a survivor of abuse himself and he probably does believe he is giving horses ‘a better deal” but I think it’s a good thing horses can’t talk. Over and over I saw people at his clinics amazed by how effectively he could flood a horse by restricting it’s movement and causing it to be “calm” because it learned struggling was painful and fruitless. It’s impressive to watch a horse go from bucking, twisting and kicking out to moving forward calmly. But a good trainer never causes the horse to buck or kick out in the first place. Just because you can rope a horse by the  leg and safely immobilize him from a distance doesn’t mean you should. It looks good on film, but if you measured the cortisol level in those horses’ bloodstreams, you’d likely  find it’s the same as Buck’s on the nights his father came after him and his brother Smokie in anger.

There is a 3 year old stallion in the movie, a very confused and dangerous bottle-fed orphan, who shows up at one of Buck’s clinics. Bottle-fed horses often grow up to be aggressive. Without the species-appropriate influence of their mother to teach them about dealing with frustration, inhibiting their teeth/hooves and lack of outlet for appropriate horse play, they grow up to be both very physical and to have a short fuse. It’s a bad combination in a 1000 lb animal. A thoughtful plan for dealing with this horse would have been to call the vet, have him sedated and gelded right there in one of the clinic pens and given him 3 more months for the testosterone to drain out of his system before assessing whether or not it was even safe to work with him. Give the woman her money back in order to pay for the surgery and meet her somewhere else on the road if it seemed viable. Instead, Buck decided to work with the horse. First, he roped the stallion’s back left fetlock (a move that could have caused serious joint injury) and pulled him to a halt from his own horse. He kept the horse busy enough with the pressure on and off his leg for another man to get the horse haltered, saddled and ridden.  It was an incredibly tense and chaotic scene. The flooding did not work on the stallion and he did not come out of the pen quiet or subdued. He WAS  tired and limping. Later on, when the same man goes back alone to lead the stallion and  ‘sack him out’ with some saddle blankets the horse becomes increasingly aroused and ends up snaking his neck out and biting the man in the forehead before he knocks him to the ground and attempts to kneel on him in an effort to kill him. The man lives, but he easily could have been killed.  The owner decides she needs to put the horse down for everyone’s safety, and eventually, he is loaded onto the trailer without anyone else getting hurt, but not before the stallion gets one more bite attempt in toward the injured man’s head.

The next day, when the clinic participants ask Buck to speak about the colt, he talks a lot about the responsibility of raising a youngster and that the colt might  have been fine if he would have had the right upbringing. But he isn’t clear about which behavior issues are caused by the bottle feeding, or what the stallion’s owner could have done differently, or the fact that gelding him 2 years ago might have helped. I am fanatical about clear language. Telling people it is a big responsibility to bring up a youngster does not give them any tools for navigating the  situation more successfully themselves in the future. We have a huge problem in animal training with experienced, intuitive trainers who have not taken the time to learn how to teach verbally the specifics of what they know how to do experientially. If  you don’t take the time to learn the science and terminology behind what you are actually doing moment to moment, the knowledge ends with you. You have to be able to explain it in order to transfer the knowledge to other people. Otherwise, clinics are nothing more than a traveling show. People might be amazed, but not changed. For the welfare of horses to improve, people need to learn why and how, so they can replicate it with their own animals.

People are easily dazzled, especially when they haven’t yet learned enough to see the real tools being employed in training. We aren’t taught much learning theory or ethology in school, so it’s hard to know what we’re looking at. Maybe it’s voodoo that the horse is following Buck around ‘like a puppy’ after five minutes in a round pen or maybe it’s that every time the horse turned away it got ‘sent off’ at a good trot or canter and it quickly learned following Buck was the only way to conserve energy, a necessary resource for an animal that gets eaten when it can’t run anymore. And for the record,  that is negative reinforcement, adding in something uncomfortable or fear inducing that the animal can avoid if it offers the right behavior. There is a choice involved, although its a bit of a rock and a hard place. Be exhausted and afraid, or follow me around. That’s coercion.

It is good that humanity at large is realizing that horses deserve better treatment. The natural horsemanship phenomenon was the first step in moving toward a more humane life for horses. But these men like Buck that are being hailed as magicians and sages are no longer the leading edge of what is happening in the horse training world. We have new technology that allows us to teach horses what we want from them without ever even eliciting high level stress or the flight response. We have science that explains how horses learn so we don’t have to rely on mythology or fairytales anymore. We have empathy that we can extend even further from denouncing punishment and abuse to understanding that riding on a horse’s back is our dream, not theirs. We owe it to them to teach it in such a way that they actively enjoy and collaborate in the process. No ropes. No bucking. No intimidation, flooding or learned helplessness masquerading as calm acceptance.

Positive reinforcement is the new frontier. The horse decides what is reinforcing (carrots, apples, peppermints)  and the responsibility is on trainer to make the lesson interesting and worthwhile and safe for the horse. There is a quote by Henry Beston I have loved since I was a child:                                                                                                                                                                                                                “For the animal shall not be measured by man.  In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.  They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

We can’t assume to know the exact shape of a horse’s world. But we can teach them in a way that honors our difference. We can approach them as equals and invite them to learn what we have to teach. People talk a lot about horses learning respect but maybe we should look at our end of the lead rope. Your horse is your mirror.

15 thoughts on “Buck: the movie

  1. I have heard that difficult things, like a shift in cultural fog, can take a long time and impossible things can take even a bit longer.

    “When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great, and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”
    ~ Patanjali – the author of Yoga Sutra

  2. Excellent and necessary response to this movie. I found it ironic that the movie ‘Horse Whisperer’ was prominent in the movie and the subject was an emotionally traumatized, violent and dangerous
    horse is rehabilitated by a horse whisperer and Buck is show cased as such. Then the response to a horse that has never had a fair chance in life is condemnation through a death sentence for what can only be natural behavior as a result of a ignorant humans? I wonder does any one know if this horse is actually euthanized? As stated above, my immediate response was to geld him and place him in a herd, guided by an expert in horse behavior and training that can fill in his social holes. As a three year old he should be given a chance to learn what he needs to know to be safe for himself, other horses and finally humans. A year later see if he can be worked with, if not, either humanely put him down or put him where he cannot hurt people and live out his life.

    Good movie for bringing this all to the public. It opens the discussion for us all to participate in.

  3. I am natural a horse trainer myself and have gentel trained over 3000 horses for their first saddle and first ride and I can tell you my horses don’t jump up and down sounding like they are being killed, and or try to get away from me thinking that I am trying hurt them when I am on them. They are actually giving me permission. Most of these 4 day clinics are what I call meat grinder clinics and neither does the horse nor their owners justice. Most of these people will not take that horse home after 3/4 days of clinic and confidently get on them and most of those horses are not truly ready to be riden safely. what you see is only a start at best with lots of time still needed to allow good habits to take hold. Great training of horses needs time 90-120 days of short sessions no more than 30 to 40 mints or when you have established an understanding of the lesson. The better you are the faster the horse understands the lesson. This way the horse has time to process what he just learned and not be burned out. MY web site is http://www.christefanie.com Shawn.

    • Thanks for you comment, Shawn. I completely agree that these clinics don’t offer the horse and owner what they really need. People love to see the professional “transform” their horse but the owner needs regular lessons with their own local trainer to help them learn a skill set so they can actually support their own horses. Exactly what you offer.
      I visited your website and your care for the horses you work with is obvious. Starting 3000 horses without a single buck is lovely. Clearly you are slow, methodical and take the horse’s emotional state into account. Your story about Que is particularly touching and I love what you wrote,” Without this time and a lot of patience she would have easily been pushed over the edge and lost forever.” I have a stallion who I have had 7 months and he is just now starting groundwork, although I work with him daily. That’s the problem with movies like Buck: they glamorize practices that just aren’t good for horses or their people.

  4. I’m glad to have found your site! I was bothered by the troubled horse in the movie and that his outcome was to be euthanasia without any other options mentioned. There had been a lively and contentious discussion in the comments of one Amazon reviewer who was deeply disturbed by what she saw.

    I got that he was a very violent and dangerous horse, but I also know any young horse even a placid one, brought to a new environment put under immediate pressure is not going to be without stress, much less one that has so many issues. No doubt the owner was in no way able to handle this horse, but I’ve seen a great many pent up angry horses come off the race track and go through great changes just by being in a mentally healthier, more peaceful environment.

    Unfortunately, I’ve read a lengthy interview with the director and Buck that makes me think the horse was indeed put down by the way they discussed him.

    Looking around the net too, I see the question out there, people feeling they’ve got a very dangerous horse and wondering if euthanasia is the best option because they can’t pass the horse to anyone else.

    There are many horses who have behavioral issues that seem dangerous in the wrong hands, that are not that difficult to someone with experience–I’d be afraid to think that some people seeing this movie and horse will very unfairly sentence a horse to death that really has no significant issues other than they’ve unwittingly reinforced or pushed for the wrong behavior.

  5. Very interesting article, but I think Buck’s way deserves some defence.
    Horses naturally learn through the relief of pressure. A horse in the wild reacts to a potential danger and learns from finding relief in the safety of flight. Similarly, a young horse gets reprimanded by an older horse for bad behavior and left alone for good behavior. That is how respect is instilled and rewarded. Aren’t we simply trying to mimic and tap into the natural equine learning process? Horses communicate through body language and, through that body language, offer BOTH positive and negative reinforcement. Clicker training seems to only address the positive side. How do you deal with a an aggressive and pushy horse like that stallion? Even when not taken to that extent, how would you deal with a horse that does not respect personal space? The buckskin mare that Buck works with was searching for answers to the stimulus he added, as any horse naturally does to any stimulus. Buck blocked the attempts at flight and the mare’s attempt to invade his personal space in order to help her find relief. He never constricted the mare. He never took away any options, he simply made the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy. By allowing her to try out the modes of relief that had worked in the past, he helped her find a new answer. She tried multiple things and was rewarded when a calmed and accepted the flag. As you say this is an example of a “stressed, scared and intimidated animal”, but a “stressed, scared and intimidated animal” shows it physically. By the end of the session the mare was licking, chewing and blinking. Her mouth, eyes and nostrils were soft. These are all well documented signs of relaxtion stemming from the relaxation of the trigeminal nerve which runs behind the eyes, mouth and nostrils. This relaxation mirrors the internal neurological switch of horse from activation of the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system. The goal wasn’t to get the horse to simply make a physical change in response to the “pain” that Buck caused, it was to use the physical to make a mental change.

    As prey animals, horses raise their energy levels all the time in fear based response to negative stimulus- i.e. a spook, flight… self preservation. In a controlled setting, Buck allows a horse to raise its energy levels in response to a new stimulus (saddle, flag, rope) and learn how to respond during these high energy states. In a perfect world, that huge, scary garbage truck wouldn’t zoom by the barn just as you are getting on, but in reality it does. In showing his horses how to respond to what is normally a scary situation, he helps keeps future cortisol levels down by giving them confidence in a response that is continuously rewarded (by relief and praise) no matter what the energy level of the surroundings. How do you propose to help a horse when its raised cortisol levels (which happens all the time) make the treats in your bag fly out of his head as he searches for a place of relief? I agree with you scientifically in saying that the stress levels of the horses that are introduced to the new and naturally scary stimulus would be similar to those of Buck and Smokie (because horses rely on their stress to keep them safe) when they were sitting at the kitchen table with their father. The difference is that when the horse engages his flight instinct in reaction to something like a first saddle, Buck sets him up to find the relief and gives him confidence when the horse’s mind is on Buck. He brings the horses stress levels down to produce a lasting change. He gives them confidence by bringing them through their natural reaction of fear. Bucks father obviously didn’t.

    The calmness shown in his horses is in no way “learned helplessness”. Once again, a horse petrified into fear would betray his mental state through his nervous system. In the equine brain, the physical is inextricably linked to the mental in terms of emotion (more so than humans). That “learned helplessness” that you described is strangely accompanied by the physical signs of calmness and confidence. The youtube video you posted is a prime example of the learned helplessness. The horse has learned through fear and intimidation to physically relent to these fools disgusting attempts at training. The physical change isn’t cause by the mental change UNLIKE the horses that Buck works with.

    Also, for someone who is “fanatical about clear language”, you use the very vague term “flooding” multiple times. What do you mean by flooding?

    While I respect Buck’s work immensely, I am not a Buck fanatic. I don’t think everything his says is the word of god, but i think his methods are solid. I am glad that there are people like yourself who are willing to question and I hope open to learning. I am very much open to discovering new ways of working with horses and your methods are very intriguing. A good horse person should judge the physical signs of a horse to learn about its mental state. As your quote says, “your horse is your mirror” and the calm and confident horses I see in your videos speak wonders for your methods. I think a lot of different things, when properly implemented, can work for the horse. I just think the methods that Buck teaches (that are shared by many and not inventions of his) are most natural and most practical. I respect your opinions, but in the same way that your horses convey their mental states I ask you to look at Buck’s horses and see the same calm confidence. His ways, passed on by Tom and Ray, have helped many a horse that had been ruined by people. Once again, if I was in any way disrespectful I apologize. I don’t want to start an argument, just a discussion that will hopefully help all parties learn more about what we obviously care a lot about.

    • Very well said, and I agree. I am not a Buck fanatic, but he is an excellent horseman. I think it unfair to judge from an edited movie. He is far from cruel, and none of the horses he worked with were being abused in any way. I am not a fan of clinics, as the majority of people can not obtain or sustain things learned so briefly, and often gives false hope to “fixing” thier problems.

  6. I totally agree with the comments here. I was so disappointed in the movie, and was very disturbed by the stallion in the movie, really mad, actually. If I were Buck, I would have have told the lady to geld him! Gee whiz… I got a colt at 10 months of age… he started feeling his oats at about 1 1/2 yrs… got mean.. I had him gelded.. he became a puppy dog. I am sure part of his issue was his raging HORMONES !! Hello!! I hope that he wasn’t put down. I am a “Natural Horsemanship” person, and have been for about 40 years. What I saw in that movie was NOT horsemanship at all. I was very disappointed in the movie. Also, I think he talked way toooo much about his abusive father… not good.

    • But in all fairness, you saw the owner of that stallion…….do you honestly think she would have him gelded?? I think Buck was suggesting a solution that would be implemented by her, because as he said his responsibility is also to human beings and unless you were as horse savvy as Buck (and not many are) and well able to handle this horse even gelded he would take more knowledge and physical ability than she had.

  7. I just rented the movie, I saw it in the theater several months ago. In the original movie, when Buck was loading the colt into the trailer, I noticed that there was a point when the colt stopped, and licked and chewed. When I watched it on dvd, that part was edited out… I wonder why. I believe that had Buck was a patient with that horse from the beginning, instead of being a “cowboy” and roping his foot and frankly being rough with him, there might have been a different outcome. It is a good thing that I was not there in person, I would have had a few words for Buck.

  8. I don’t believe for one moment Buck could not retrain the stallion that was euthanized. How many stallions did the owner have?
    I had a mare that would rather hurt herself than enter a trailer. Yet this stallion looked unscathed.
    I would have loved to see Buck take this horse & turn him around.
    He might have been a one person horse but that’s the kind of horses I come across…owners who are afraid of their own horse.
    Horses that are to be put down because they bit off a childs ear.
    People forget horses used to be wild animals.
    In my possession is a horse, a beautiful animal, that harmed a person sentenced to be put down.
    NOT IN MY LIFETIME!

  9. I agree with most points about the movie except when it came to the stallion. Didn’t anyone listen about the stallions story? The woman had 18 STALLIONS not including the one in the movie. 18!! Buck told her to GELD him, shes had two years to do that in, in fact the first time he charged or SHOWED aggression she should have gelded him. Instead she spent the money to come to the clinic to ask Buck to fix him. In four days undo three years worth of mess. Buck told her to geld them all! All 19 of her stallions needed to be Gelded and why anyone would have that MANY is beyond me! This leads me to believe if she had the money to bring him into the clinic she HAS the money to GELD him. She has the money to feed all 19 horses, build a new barn and pay the clinic fee – there is no money issue on “if she only had money she would have gelded him”. BS! She did NOT want to geld him and as Buck said she had “personal” issues to deal with WHY she refused the option to geld him and instead euthanize him. Just my take on that conversation.

  10. I also have mixed feelings about the kind of guru status attached to many of these horse trainers. While I think Mr. Brannahan is a highly skilled horseman, calling what he often does ‘whispering’ is ludicrous to me. He does bring a lot of the baggage from his abusive background with him into it sometimes for both better and worse. The truth is ‘natural’ can often be a matter of spin and perspective. Being ridden is not the natural state for the horse period, not saying we can’t or shouldn’t train them and ride them. Many people are so happy though to turn responsibility over they are happy to relinquish all control, assign god like status to trainers, and accept being ridiculed and shamed because they lack knowledge and confidence themselves. This is not especially directed to Mr. Brannahan nor are they all guilty of it all the time. It is however, sadly prevalent and most including him guilty of it at times. Sometimes I think the horse world attracts imbalances. People on one hand who have a bit too strong love or need to dominate others (horses or people) because lets face it a lot of working with horses is about getting a 1,000 lb. animal to accept you as leader and do your bidding. On the other end the people who see the lovely soft, doe eyes and just want to pet and hug their horse and it should then somehow be a perfectly behaved and trained partner. They often get over their head without knowing what they are doing and look to hand the reins over to the first type. Sometimes when extrema a and extreme b come together like this it is a true disaster due to short comings on both ends of this spectrum.

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