Brannaman's story is not the stuff of western myth, but a story of a native son who fought his way up from some hard-knock circumstances. (Photo: Jay Thane)
"You are going to treat this like a dance class," Brannaman tells the group, speaking in a voice thick with the rhythms of Montana. "Because that's what we're doing, learning to dance."
Magically, as if pulled together on a tether, the group falls neatly into place, walking together clockwise in an easy cadence.
Brannaman will later say that there is no magic in what he does, which is the training of horses as well as the people who love and ride them. But Brannaman is so good at horse-training that each year thousands of horse aficionados across the U.S., New Zealand and Australia pay $450 to attend his sold-out, 16-hour clinics on riding, colt-breaking, problem-horse solving, roping and cow-working.
Considered one of the best horse trainers in the country, he was the inspiration for the novel, The Horse Whisperer, and the Robert Redford movie. He was also the trainer and consultant for the film. George Morris, the Olympian and Chef d'Equipe for the United States Show Jumping Team, calls Brannaman "a horseman's horseman. He is a world-class rider, trainer and teacher. The horse world, in general, cannot say enough about this man."
Recently, MSU awarded Brannaman, a former accounting student, an honorary doctorate in recognition of his accomplishments and contributions to Montana and the American West.
But there were not always so many accolades for Brannaman. And nowhere do people know that more than in Bozeman, less than an hour from the modest house where Brannaman and his brother, Smoky, grew up as the sons of a sweet woman who died too early and an abusive father who tried too hard to find respect in the talents of his sons.
Here the Brannaman story is not the stuff of western myth, but a story of a native son who fought his way up from some hard-knock circumstances to become a man who, in many ways, epitomizes the contemporary West.
A loop of rope first launched Buck Brannaman into semi-celebrity at a very young age. He was born Dan Brannaman, 43 years ago in Sheboygan, Wis., the second son of Ace and Carol. The family eventually settled in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Ace was not much of a roper himself, but he greatly admired the show roper Montie Montana. Ace was determined to make his sons roping stars, an endeavor he pursued with a fierce single-mindedness.
"We had a choice, either practice roping or get beat," Brannaman writes in his autobiography, The Faraway Horses. "We sorted out pretty quick that practicing our rope tricks was the wise choice to make."
Ace renamed the boys Buck and Smokie (formerly Bill), Carol sewed the boys' Western outfits and the family hit the road. Their first gig was a talent contest in Spokane, which they won as "The Idaho Cowboys." That launched their career at regional rodeos.
Buck says that he was about "as introverted as a kid could be, but trick-riding and roping was something else. It was pretty easy for me."
When Buck was 8, the family moved to Whitehall, where Ace opened a saddle and repair shop and Carol traveled 50 miles to work as a waitress in Ennis. The boys' roping career was in high gear, and they were beginning to make national commercials. Their personal life, however, was anything but a success.
Brannaman says his father worked hard and maybe meant well, but was an angry man who beat his sons with whips and belts, riding crops and even a frying pan. Carol was the boys' protector, but she was often at work and frequently ill with diabetes. She died when Buck was 11, propelling the bereaved family into a cycle of sorrow and physical abuse.
Brannaman recalls a particularly ugly fight in the middle of one sub-zero night during which Ace locked Buck, dressed only in his underwear, out of the house. Brannaman slept outside with the family dog, whose warmth kept him from freezing.
The abuse of the Brannaman boys was well known in the community, but it was a time when neighbors didn't get involved in another family's private affairs. The situation came to a head when a female companion who had come to live with his father learned of Ace's temper. She left the house, taking the 12- and 14-year old boys with her. She quickly abandoned them at an Ennis motel.
Madison County Deputy Sheriff Johnny France, who years later would receive national publicity for tracking down aspiring mountain men Dan and Don Nichols near Big Sky, had been abandoned as a kid, too. So, he knew that the boys would have a good home with his former foster parents, Forrest and Betsy Shirley. Buck and Smoky went to live at the Shirley place on the Madison River near Norris.
Ace didn't take well to the boys' leaving when a court ordered custody of the Brannaman boys to the Shirleys. Each year he'd send Buck and Smokie birthday cards with threats that he intended to kill them once they reached 18. The Madison County sheriff ordered Ace to leave Montana. Buck later made peace with his dad, then living in Oregon. Ace died in 1992.
"Thirty years ago my brother and I sat on the steps of the Madison County Courthouse not knowing where we'd sleep," Brannaman said, dedicating the night he received his honorary doctorate to Betsy Shirley. Forrest Shirley died in 1984.
"I think Betsy Shirley was Buck's role model, and was the reason Buck's childhood didn't break him," said local horsewoman Sherry Merica Pepper, who has known Brannaman since he was a child. "Betsy Shirley expresses love better than anyone I've ever met. She's the epitome of love."
"There were hard things in my life," Brannaman says now. In fact, there were things so hard that it would have made sense if Brannaman had ended up a roughed-over cowboy who spends his nights hunched over a dingy bar instead of man who has played polo with princes and is a friend of movie stars.
"I knew even then that I could have gotten a pass for a lot of things because of the things that had happened to me," Brannaman said. "But I didn't take the pass. I've never quit anything in my life. I've finished everything. I have always been really disciplined."
"When a horse is troubled," Brannaman tells the owner of a particularly edgy mare at a clinic, "we understand the commit-ment it's going to take to get it fixed."
Within the first few minutes of his basic horsemanship class, Brannaman has the riders dismount. They spend the next two hours leading their horses in circles to the right and then to the left. It's a horse equivalent of the "wax-on, wax-off" scene in the movie Karate Kid.
Circling, Brannaman tells the riders, helps their horses learn to bend in the proper way, and move their feet in the right order. In the afternoon class that includes some of Montana's most accomplished riders, he also has the participants backup their horses. He explains that if horses cannot do these simple things, "their legs are locked up," and more difficult maneuvers are impossible.
"There's nothing absolute about a horse," Brannaman says over a wireless microphone to the scores of fans who each paid $20 to watch from the bleachers. "But if there is anything written in blood, it's get to the feet."
Brannaman says that as with most things in life, focusing on basics is vital.
"Back years ago, I didn't take care of these basics, but now I know how important they are. If you can do the basics, it will take you to another place in your riding."
This attention to detail separates Brannaman from a variety of horse trainers, says Sharon Melniker. She and her husband, Pete, own Double Diamond Halter Company, a sponsor of Brannaman's local clinics. She said that from the beginning, Brannaman's clinics have been popular, and she believes it is because of his teaching abilities.
"I would rank him right up at the top (of horse clinicians)," Melniker said. "You can be a good hand with horses, but the true art in conducting clinics is teaching what you know to other people. That's where Buck has separated himself from the rest. He's become a master teaching people what he knows."
However, it's Brannaman's way with horses that Melniker says is a thing to behold.
"What's really neat is when you see him get on someone's horse. You stop everything you are doing and get a notepad out and watch closely what he's doing," Melniker said.
"Buck is just magic on a horse," Merica Pepper agrees.
A trick rope is made of six-strands, woven around a central core. And if horses have been the core in Brannaman's life, central to the braiding was his chance meeting of Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance, two of the West's pioneers in humane horse training, and a subsequent job at a Three Forks ranch.
"I was going to talk to a guy about a cowboy job about 23 years ago and he was at this horse clinic at this fairgrounds," Brannaman tells the riders at the Bozeman clinic. At the time, he had left the Shirleys and was determined to make his way as a working cowboy.
Some of Montana's most accomplished riders attend Brannaman's annual clinic at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds. Brannaman drills the riders on such basics as bending and turning, which trains horses to move their feet in the proper order. (Photo: Jay Thane)
"There was this 70-year-old man that I watched get onto his horse and I thought, 'Isn't that a cute old fellow?' It was Tom Dorrance and I swear that guy could read my mind because he really put on a show. I knew at that moment that there were a whole lot of things that could get better in my horse training when I could get a horse to do what he was doing."
He also met Ray Hunt at a Bozeman clinic. As Brannaman recalls, he was hooked on a kinder way of training horses that differed from the prevailing spurs and muscle technique commonly used in the West.
"I still tell people that if I do something that looks pretty good with horses, then I probably learned it from Ray Hunt. If it doesn't look pretty good to you, then I probably learned it on my own." Brannaman said that if there were such a thing as a horse whisperer, it would have to be Ray Hunt.
Dorrance and Hunt became mentors. Brannaman pursued the techniques with passion.
Shortly after that meeting, Brannaman went to work at the Madison River Cattle Company in Three Forks. "It was there that my life as a horseman truly began."
In the years that followed, he also enrolled as an accounting student at MSU at the suggestion of a girlfriend's parents who thought Brannaman needed a real profession. Brannaman recalls living in a small room in Gallatin Gateway, living on pancake mix and cheap margarine.
"I still have not forgotten what it felt like to be starving," Brannaman said. "I worked breaking horses while I went to school, sometimes working with 10 horses a day until 3 or 4 in the morning. That's a lot of horses, even if you're not doing anything else. I knew I couldn't quit my business so I begrudgingly quit school. Twenty-four years later I end up getting a Ph.D.(honorary doctorate)."
Brannaman's first clinic was in 1983 in Four Corners, near Bozeman, at an arena owned by Barbara Parkening, wife of classical guitarist Christopher Parkening. In the beginning, he says, he was a little defensive and "kind of rough on people."
The following years brought some hard times: a short, ill-fated marriage that cut to the core, and a lot of banging around the country in a beat-up truck pulling a rusted-out horse trailer.
But like the technique used in his clinics, Brannaman built one success upon another. He went to Ft. Lauderdale to work with polo players. He played polo with Prince Charles, and went to the East Coast, where he worked with the country's best equestrians. Brannaman said his life really took a turn for the best when he met Mary Bower, a student at one of his clinics.
"In about 1990 or 1991 things started to shape up for me," Brannaman said. "I met Mary and my career and life started to come together."
A statuesque and outgoing blonde who was once a Ford model, Mary Bower Brannaman is the foil to Buck's latigo-tough drive. Mary keeps the couple's ranch outside Sheridan, Wyo., going for most of the year while Brannaman is conducting clinics. He's on the road from January through mid-November, traveling like a rock star in a specially built bus that is equipped with Internet and satellite television "so I can watch Fox News."
"Horses work in patterns," he tells the clinicians."
Brannaman says that like children, horses need boundaries.
"A horse will make his feelings known," even though he or she cannot talk. "If you have mistreated him because of your inadequacies, his behavior will tell you. You may meet someone like me who will tell you."
Mary and Reata and Betsy Shirley, who is also watching the clinic in the stands, meet Brannaman for lunch between clinics. He pulls off his boots and puts on his Keen sandals, which he also uses for his new hobby of fly fishing. "Here all those years I lived on the Madison and now I'm fishing on it." There is a steady stream of old friends and new fans that stop by to say hello.
Reata is a bit melancholy because a rattlesnake in the family's garden killed her beloved Jack Russell terrier the day before. Mary says the dog jumped in front of the snake, taking the hit for Mary, who was pulling weeds.
"It's not easy being married to someone like me," Brannaman says of Mary. "I have always been a very driven, passionate person. It's what I do. People want to give all of their attention to me, and in turn they want me to give all of my attention to them. Mary's not as obsessed as me. She's not someone getting the attention, but she's someone doing a lot of the hard work to make it all happen."
Future developments for the Brannaman family include a feature film based on The Far Away Horses. The movie will be based on Brannaman's and his brother's life when they were young.
"I wrote that book to be encouraging for someone who is going through what I went through, that they would have a little hope," Brannaman said. "I want them to know that it might not have a bad ending, just because the beginning was not so good."
And while Brannaman also toys with one day running for Congress on the GOP ticket in Wyoming, he sees no end to working with horses and those who aspire to do a little better by their animals.
"I feel like my life has a lot of meaning," Brannaman says. "Every so often someone comes to me and tells me that my help with their horses has changed their life (with training).
"To be inserted into someone else's life through their interactions with their horse is a very special and humbling thing. I don't take it lightly by any stretch."