The Cowboy Way: Iconic horseman brings skills and lessons to the Greenbrier Valley

By Sarah Mansheim

“Before Buck, we just rode horses.”

So says Gary Ford, sponsor of last weekend’s horseback riding clinic taught by Buck Brannaman at the State Fairgrounds. Brannaman is best known as the inspiration for the Nicholas Evans novel, and subsequent movie, “The Horse Whisperer,” and the subject of the award-winning 2011 documentary, “Buck.”

Ford, a Lewisburg resident, said he first met Brannaman about 20 years ago, during a family vacation to the C Lazy U Ranch in Granby, CO, a four-star dude ranch located near Denver.

Ford said at the time, he fancied himself a pretty good rider, but after meeting Brannaman at the ranch, he realized he had much to learn.

“In 30 seconds (of watching Brannaman), I knew I should pay attention,” said Ford.

The two men struck up a relationship, Ford said, and he convinced Brannaman to bring his horse clinics to West Virginia. Brannaman has been teaching clinics at the Fairgrounds ever since.

Brannaman’s horse training philosophy is based in the field of natural horsemanship – a way of working with horses according to their innate nature. He was mentored by the great American horse trainer Ray Hunt, who achieved fame in the 1970s by challenging the traditional training methods of “breaking” horses through violence and dominance. Hunt died in 2009, and Brannaman, born in Wisconsin but raised out West, continues the tradition of training horses through understanding and small corrections, as opposed to the “cowboy way,” with big bits and large whips.

Ford said that Brannaman’s way of riding and roping is rooted in the vaquero method, a centuries-old Spanish practice whose goal is for the horse rider to ride with one hand, leaving the other free to swing his sword. The one-handed riding method also gave way for the vaqueros’ development of cattle roping, Ford said, noting that the method usually makes use of a rope 60-100 feet long.

He said Brannaman travels the United States year-round, offering riders a chance to improve their skills, and their relationships, with their horses through his clinics. Brannaman comes to West Virginia every other year, said Ford, offering the Greenbrier Valley one of eight clinics held east of the Mississippi.

This year’s clinic was filled with riders from Greenbrier, Pocahontas and Monroe counties, along with people, and their horses, who had traveled from Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Maryland to learn from the master. In addition, spectators were welcome, for a small fee, to watch the clinic from the covered pavilion on the edge of the arena.

At the clinic, Brannaman spoke through a microphoned head piece so that his Midwestern-accented voice carried across the horse arena and into the stands.

He dressed the western, cowboy way, in a canvas jacket with an upturned collar, dusty, suede chaps and a straw hat. The horse Brannaman sat astride on Monday was not the largest in the arena, but medium sized and brown, standing completely still under Brannaman as he spoke to his students and their horses.

Brannaman’s corrections to the horse were so small that they were almost undetectable, and when he demonstrated turning the horse, it was nearly impossible to see any of Brannaman’s will being put upon the horse.

“That’s it,” said Ford, who said a master such as Brannaman will convince his horse that it had thought of making the turn itself, the guidance coming from its rider being discrete and intuitive.

The clinic students listened quietly when Brannaman spoke to them; their reverence and manners were apparent in the way they dressed — no matter Western or English-style riders, they, and their horses, came well-groomed and dressed to impress.

Ford said Brannaman’s reputation and demeanor inspire that type of respect in his students. As Brannaman spoke to the students, Ford remarked, “Look how still and quiet they all are,” noting a side effect of Brannaman’s teaching philosophy was a sense of quiet and politeness that pervaded the whole weekend.

“I’ve never heard as many thank-you’s in my life, as I have this weekend,” said Ford. This type of horsemanship, and in turn leadership, can expand beyond the arena and into all aspects of life, he said.

“It’s like going to church,” Ford said of how Brannaman’s riding philosophies have impacted the way Ford lives his life and raises his family, and how natural horsemanship ties into a greater sense of leadership. “Sometimes, it just clicks.”

Famed horseman Buck Brannaman demonstrates turns at the West  Virginia State Fairgrounds. Photo by Sarah Mansheim
Famed horseman Buck Brannaman demonstrates turns at the West
Virginia State Fairgrounds. Photo by Sarah Mansheim

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