Buck Branmnaman Bozeman 2017

Observe, Remember, Compare – Buck Brannaman

Horses have always been a part of his life. From the age of 12 Buck Brannaman has been starting horses, before that he was an accomplished trick roper. The past 35 years Buck has lived most of the year on the road crossing the United States, visiting Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and even Japan sharing his experience and helping people better understand how to get along with their horses. In 2011 the film Buck documenting Bucks life and work, launched to critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival.

Buck is a leader in the horsemanship field and I have watched his progression as a teacher through the past dozen or so years. I have always said to be good with horses you have to be great with people, Buck is both. My annual trek, with and without horses, down to listen, learn and ride with him in Montana has become part of my own professional development.

After a long day in the sun, with temperatures well into the mid 30sC, as is typical of his good nature Buck agreed to answer a few questions.

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I am not one for making New Years Resolutions, mostly because what I hear seem like empty promises. The yoga studio is full in January something I know will change in the coming weeks.

Each ride, every program I am looking to fine tune one of my actions as I recognize and better understand my own behaviours. So rather than a resolution, this is more of a confessional.

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Does Your Leadership Language need an Interpreter?

Leadership300_horzDo people really understand what you are saying? The question came to mind while watching a recent Buck Brannaman clinic.

Since the release of the movie BUCK, people have flocked to his clinics. Perhaps drawn by fame, the romantic image of the cowboy or simply because he is a fabulous horseman. An entertainer as well Buck speaks in metaphor and through stories of his own experience. The classes are large so he suggests “if you behave like an alcoholic you will always think I am talking about you”. Hoping the magic will rub off, people and horses “waller” around the arena for three to four days, often never to return.

For a number of years I have made the drive to Montana to ride with Buck. This year friend, and co-facilitator in The Natural Leader programs, Kristen Cumming came along. Enjoying a cold beer after a long hot day in the arena, a brilliant idea surfaced. Buck needs an interpreter! We laughed at the thought of Kristen, in plain language, doing voice over to what Buck was saying. While it was in good fun, I have to admit the idea has merit.

It was most apparent when he demonstrated a pretty basic maneuver, “With your rein ask your horse to step over with his front feet”, the instruction continues, “open the door for your horse to move through”. Watching people can be painful as their frustration becomes evident as they try harder to do what they don’t understand.

The conversation around “open the door” and the actual meaning of “shift your weight out of the way of the horse’s leg” had me wondering how many people truly understand what their leaders are saying.

All organizations create their own language to set annual goals and objectives, define the quarterly expectations or even the task for the day. Done to aid in the effectiveness and efficiency of communication, just as metaphors do, acronyms replace department names, strategic plans, and programs, meetings are often conducted as if everyone understands the expressions and language. As a leadership consultant, I often find myself asking for the definition so as not to be left behind.

Communication is a common topic in The Natural Leader programs. As people work through an activity with a horse what quickly becomes clear is how much we assume we are communicating when in reality we are possibly only delivering half the message.

Effective communication shows up through the clarity of our intention, actions, emotions and the words we choose, the impact on others shows up in their actions or lack of them. Consider when you have committed to an objective, or idea, and you don’t experience the enthusiasm you were expecting from your team. How do you interpret that? If they had an interpreter, what might they say to you?

People who don’t understand, don’t stay. It is not a reflection of the competency of the leader or their ability, it is simply a communication break down.

All the elements of the activity Buck demonstrated are there. His subtle actions are enough for the horse, but rarely enough for his larger audience, you have to be dedicated and observant. Without seeing the weight shift the metaphor of opening the door has no meaning. A few more specific and concise words would go a long way to more riders understanding how he achieves his results.

If you had an interpreter what words would they choose to complete your thought?


Nancy Lowery, lives and works in Calgary Alberta Canada. Her business The Natural Leader offers powerful leadership training through interactions with horses.

There is no shame in getting bucked off

BuckedOffA very unsettled horse was leaping toward me and the chances of one or all four feet hitting me was very high. So yes I moved my feet!

In a horse’s world, who moves who’s feet is a clear case of leader. So while Gabe was trying to unload the saddle, or what he perceived as a threat, moving my feet was NOT what I was supposed to do. Getting the horse to move his feet forward is the goal, to achieve that you need to move yours. This simple, but not necessarily easy tactic, will help him find the comfort and leadership he needs.

At that particular moment, it was hard to determine if being on foot was actually a good thing. Not a bronc rider by skill I have been seeking out help from a few experts to get me work through the glitches so Gabe joined me in Montana to ride with Buck Brannaman. If you have read previous articles or seen the movie BUCK then his philosophy will sound familiar “Horsemanship isn’t about working on the horse, it’s about working on you.” A thought that influences my horsemanship and leadership in The Natural Leader programs.

A recent session once again highlighted the similarities between how horses and people can respond in a stressful situation.

She had executed not one but three downward dog stretches, two with a human on her back. While I noticed Sydney’s outward signs of stress I hadn’t taken into account it began when one woman took her lead. Sydney is a big horse and clearly demonstrates confidence in the herd, though like all horses is very sensitive to people’s stress. I should know by now that when Sydney starts these behaviours no matter how comfortable someone says they are, Syd knows better.

Through the first few strides of the team activity Sydney reached out three times to express her concern. On her third polite attempt contribute to the collective experience I suggested we synch the energy of the group with a deep breath, knowing full well that Sydney’s next attempt to communicate with this woman would not be lips only.

What happened next I expect reflects a typical response to a stressful situation. Rather than a deep yoga like breath I was on the receiving end of a verbal attack, apparently I was the source of all the stress. As if I had been bucked off, I stepped back.

While the participants bite was with words I was not about to let Sydney follow through on her promise. I had to shake off the momentary state of shock and step forward and shut the activity down to debrief what was going on.

When we say a horse is our mirror, through the activity Sydney had been reflecting the stress of the entire group, she was clearly demonstrating her vulnerability and that it was more than she could handle. I wish I could say the debrief was excellent, I have since thought of all the things I should have or could have said.

As Patrick Lencioni outlines in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team identifying vulnerability is the heart of creating trust. The work with horses often brings forward the emotions that expose vulnerability, people may miss or misinterpret it, the horses read it loud and clear. The most challenging part of team work is facilitating what shows up and engaging the team in a dialogue that can continue beyond the activities in the arena.

There is no shame in getting bucked off or failing to show up if we learn from what happened. As a leader I should have stepped in sooner to support Sydney. In my role as a facilitator I should have been able to use the situation to get the group talking about stress in the workplace. I recognize I was unprepared for what happened and I didn’t have the skill or experience to handle what showed up. I do now!

I want to be a better horseman, leader and human being. As long as I consider myself to be a work in progress that vulnerability allows room for improvement. The more I remember to step forward in a stressful situation the easier it will be to be confident and assertive even as I am learning. I may not always do exactly the right thing but at least I will be doing something.

“Why do you always wear a cowboy hat?” “Because it fits my head.” was the reply.

An exchange between Grace and Joe in the movie The Horse Whisperer.

Are You a Thought Note Person?

Are you a thought note person? I certainly am. When a thought strikes me as interesting I am prone to capture it. When I write these things down everything is perfectly clear as my internal editor is filling in the blanks where words of explanation should be.

The problem is, I often don’t review those notes until some days or weeks later and the intention or meaning of the words may have all but disappeared. Without the context or intention behind the words, or perhaps it is simply the cryptic way I captured the thought, I sometimes have no clue as to why I wrote it down.

Our internal editor often causes us to skip the most basic of information, assuming we will simply fill that in later. Unfortunately it is the basics that the idea is built on and without that our thought lies incomplete, words on the page or just as likely in the notepad on our digital device.

To my surprise I realize I often execute tasks in the same way. Whether it is communication, projects or how I interact with others I can leave out key pieces of information that completes my expectation to ensure the success of others.

Actions than rang true for me with one of last years colts. Starting Gabriel last fall went really well. Typically I get a colt to a point and then let them mature on that over the winter months picking things up again in the spring. Well this spring we discovered a small hole that had become a gaping disaster when Gabe turned his back end into the carraganna hedge. A branch must have tickled him up under the flank turning my angel into a rank, bucking bronco an effort that would have made any Stampede cowboy proud. Fortunately for me, it was before I got on. An oversight I would not have been able to ride out.

We never want to put ourselves into a situation where we have to ride out a bad event, the problem is we rarely know when it is about to happen. It has now taken me twice as long to get Gabe back and riding to where we should have been from the start in the spring. Time well spent as for me it has been an invaluable lesson – never skip on the basics, never assume someone else really understands your expectation and remember to complete the thought.

When we turn our internal editor off it is so much easier to hear what you are saying, listen to the questions and watch for what others need. These three simple steps help us anticipate when a blank needs to be filled.

If you view it as an opportunity to start over – you always have another chance to complete a thought and make a good first impression.

Thanks to Steve Giddy for this photo

Own the Feet

North of the 49th parallel the summer days are long and the months all too short but it is the season for my own professional development. Having just returned from four days of riding and learning my head is full as I try to put the feel of the right actions in my body. This year’s real success, I finally put meaning to the statement “own the feet”.

As someone who believes in the importance of having a relationship with my horses I have always been conflicted about the space between the “relationship aficionados” and the “command control individuals” attracted to the world of horses. Though as I continue to put leadership meaning to my own actions, a new perspective came to light about owning the feet. “Own the feet” defines the leadership role I assume with my horses.

I do believe Ray Hunt coined the phrase and he demonstrated it brilliantly. Putting his own style to Ray’s teaching Buck Brannaman has also mastered the concept. Buck rode three different green colts over the four days of a session I participated in and his ownership of their feet is unquestionable. The relationship absolute devotion. Buck suggested the relationship between horse and rider “is not a dictatorship, but more like an enlightened monarchy”.

It was this perspective that helped make the connection. As a leader we are responsible for the actions of those we lead. So our relationship to the horses feet is not the “I command you to put your feet there” but the “I am responsible for everywhere my horses feet are”.

While Jack and I struggle through the tasks that Buck’s horse appeared to execute effortlessly I realized the harder I tried the more I got in Jack’s way. As I eased off and created a clear vision as to what I was looking for, as I let “the pressure gravity put into my legs” out and we started to move together. We still make the dance look more like a couple of stumbling fools but it is not for lack of trying on Jacks part, it’s my responsibility to get better at feel and timing.

A letter to the editor of Eclectic Horseman

sent back in March – but recently published in the May / June issue of Eclectic Horseman

While we may dream of riding the range, roping and doctoring cattle or making the perfect bridle horse, the side of the range we rarely fantasize about are the -30 mornings when you actually have to be outside. Frozen water tanks, tractors that refuse to start, hydraulic fluid as thick as molasses, fingers that don’t work, numb feet and so many layers of clothes everything feels like you are moving in slow motion. As March arrives it’s hard to believe that spring is suppose to be here in less than three weeks.

Now I realise that not everyone has to live with the same frigid temperatures, but from what I hear, this year, winter seems to have all but covered North America. Mother nature simply doesn’t seem to be holding up her end of the deal. Regardless of the weather cows will be calving and there will be many hardy souls checking to ensure the latest arrival has a chance. The cowboy image is more than a heated indoor arena and the conveniences we have grown so accustomed to.

A good number of us reading Eclectic Horseman spend more of our time riding a desk chair than our horse, even fewer who work with cattle on a regular basis. Statistics suggest about 80% of horse owners board. For those of us who don’t, we try to manage horse time along with work commitments, commuting and keeping up with friends and family that have little to no interest in our equine passion.

I am fortunate enough to look upon participating in a horsemanship clinic as professional development. While I hone my horsemanship skills I am always seeking out tidbits of information that apply outside of the arena. What I am finding is that cowboy wisdom applies to more than just handling horses or cattle. Pretty much every clinic I’ve attended there is as much talk about the person solving their problem as there is about managing a horse problem.

While there may be a plethora of buckaroos and cowboys decked out with all the right stuff, Buck Brannaman couldn’t have said it better “Horsemanship is not a wardrobe issue.” What we are learning is not so much about the outside of the horse but what motivates the inside. There is always talk about understanding the horse, getting to the mind, firing up the natural curiosity and their inherit desire to get along. Everything that we are learning about our relationship with our horse applies outside the arena.

Horsemanship is actually about becoming better human beings. We have an incredible capacity to change things and what I’m seeing is how horses can change people.