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Horse whisperers and chinese whispers



I've been up to my neck in moving home in the last few weeks, but I noticed this article in The Guardian – one of the latest to review the film „Buck“, and it started me thinking about labels.


First of all, let me say I’m delighted that this film is getting so much well earned attention. If you haven’t seen it – I heartily recommend it. For a horse person, get the DVD, rather than going to the cinema (or as well as) because there are sequences you’ll want to watch over and over to really see what’s happening. Buck's work is amazing, especially with the seriously troubled horse. Watch for the details – and don’t try this at home! This is a master at work, with split second timing and incredible feel for the horse. In lesser hands, it could be a life threatening situation (we see how it almost was!). Fortunately for us all, such extreme horses are rare.



When the film came out, I was concerned that it would find some appreciation among the North American horse community, but would not make much impact in Europe. Luckily, I was wrong. It has been widely reviewed and, I presume, widely viewed, especially considering it has something of a niche market.

However, there are some serious misconceptions going around that I would like to weigh in on.


“The Horse Whisperer”


Nicholas Evans’ book, and the subsequent film, “The Horse Whisperer”, put horse training in the public eye in the 1990s. Contrary to most articles you read, no one person was the inspiration for the book, nor did it set out to be a book about horse training. Nicholas Evans’ own website confirms this. He says:  

“Sometimes I hear people saying that this is a story about horses but it has never been that way for me. It’s a story about human beings and how, in the stress and mayhem of every day life, they can sometimes lose themselves and forget the essence of being human. The damaged horse of the story, Pilgrim, was for me a real creature of course, but he was also a metaphor for the dark whirlpool of pain into which Grace, Annie and Robert get plunged. A hand of love and understanding, Tom Booker, the whisperer, reaches down to rescue them."


So, Nicholas Evans already had the idea for the storyline and the characters, and went out to research detail on the character of Tom Booker. He did not meet a “horse whisperer” and decide to write a story about him, he created the character, then went to look for inspiration for the detail. He met a great many horsemen on the way, but found what was looking for in 3 in particular. Evans says:


“Researching the book was a life-changing experience for me. I travelled for many weeks around the American West and met three astonishing horsemen: Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman (who did the horse work for the movie). One day at Tom’s place in California, I watched him sort out a traumatized horse in the course of a few hours. He turned him from a terrified and terrifying wild creature into a soft and gentle one. Tom said afterwards: ‘He’d just forgotten how to be a horse. All I did was help him remember.’ He showed me the trick with that piece of cord that Tom Booker shows Annie in the book. I still have the cord he gave me.”


My own feeling from the book and the film was that the character of Tom Booker drew mostly from Tom Dorrance, particularly in that the character was something of a recluse, but that’s just my own take on it. In any event, what Nicholas Evans did, maybe consciously and maybe not, was to identify 3 generations of the same principles and techniques. Buck was primarily a student of Ray Hunt, Ray in turn was primarily a student of Tom Dorrance. There was definitely a thread there.


The sun always shines, and no one gets old, in Hollywood!


Buck went on to become the technical director for the film, and doubled for Robert Redford in some of the trickier scenes. There’s a wonderful, and at times very funny, account of this in Buck’s autobiography “The Faraway Horses” – another one for your shopping list, if you don’t have it already!


So why Buck, rather than Tom or Ray for the film?  I have no idea, but my wild guess is that one factor might have been that at the time of filming, Tom Dorrance was already in his 80s and Ray in his mid 60s, while Buck was a fit and handsome 30-something, who would be a very credible double for Redford’s character. (Actually, probably more credible than Redford, who was already over 60 himself – but as we all know, only women age in Hollywood. Men are frozen at around age 40 and can continue to play romantic leads until they need a zimmer frame to get onto the set.)


So, can anyone claim to be “The Horse Whisperer” who inspired the book? In fact, no. It’s a story about human relationships with a horsy backdrop and a main character who happens to be a horseman. A mix of 3 men provided the inspiration for the detail of the character of Tom Booker, particularly for the horse handling parts, but even those are not to be taken too literally. Buck Brannaman’s comment on the interpretation of his work in the book was


“Well, Nick wasn’t really trying to teach people how to work with horses… so you can’t look at the book as instructional material… I can’t criticise Nick for not being able to portray the action with the horses exactly. If someone wanted to hang Nick Evans for being a horseman, they’d be hanging an innocent man.” (Buck Brannaman, The Faraway Horses)



Horse Whispering, Natural Horsemanship and commercial branding


In the midst of the publicity surrounding the book and film, trainers who were being identified with the film (correctly or incorrectly)  were swift to denounce the title “horse whisperer”, even if some tacitly approved it being used about them. “The Real Horse Whisperer” was suddenly a title being applied to anyone in a cowboy hat who could swing a rope, Said cowboy would immediately say he didn’t want to be called that, most of the time with all the conviction of a cabinet minister saying he doesn't want to be Prime Minister.


“Natural Horsemanship” became the buzzword as a catch-all expression to cover the work of all those who did not want to call themselves “horse whisperers”, but were working outside the mainstream trainging methods of the day, looking for a kinder approach to the horse.  When I started learning and using these techniques in the late 90s, “natural horsemanship” was an accepted label that, rightly or wrongly, was generally applied to anything “non-traditional”.


That didn’t last long. Soon we had Natural Horse-Man-Ship and natural horsemanship became synonymous with Pat Parelli’s system. In no time, there were dozens, then hundreds of similar systems popping up, all along similar lines but with just enough difference to be outside the reaches of copyright and patent laws. The bandwagon was rolling.  


The trouble is that any system, rather like any piece of equipment, is only as good as the person using it. There is no system that provides the “quick fix” so many people are looking for. Whichever method you choose, it will only really “work” if you are ready to work on yourself and take the time it takes to master it, practise it, and gain experience and insight. Natural horsemanship is no different – but many people turned to it looking for quick fixes supplied through various “gurus” and personality cults. Many people liked the ideas, but tried to achieve too much too soon, or applied the principles incorrectly or inappropriately – and suddenly natural horsemanship had a bad name. This is where the Chinese whispers come in. One person sees something they don’t like, or don’t understand, and pass on “I don’t like what natural horsemanship trainer X did”, which turns into “I don’t like trainer X’s natural horsemanship” which turns into “I don’t like natural horsemanship” followed by “natural horsemanship is bad/doesn’t ‘work’”.     


Now, a great many of us are trying to distance ourselves from the “natural horsemanship” label because there have been just too many mistakes or misunderstandings at the individual practitioner level that are being generalised to every practitioner and the whole approach.



Who am I, and what am I doing here?


OK, we don’t want the label “horse whisperer”, and “natural horsemanship” now carries a lot of negative associations. “Alternative” can sound a bit dodgy and fluffy, "behaviouris"t sounds too hands-off and theoretical (and in academic circles starts the debate between the “behaviourists” and the “cognitionists” – I’m definitely a “cognitionist”!), and just plain “trainer” prompts the question “what sort of training”. So what shall we call it? Answers on a postcard, please!


Whatever it's called, personally, I’m very proud to be a small part of the next generations on in the family tree of horsemen mentioned at the beginning. My mentor is Richard Thompson, who is primarily a student of Buck Brannaman. Like many others, I’ve added my own “spin” and “flavour”, which in my case comes mostly from the scientific side. I get a real kick out of seeing what we’re teaching being backed up by scientific research, and on the other hand, going back to the drawing board when the theories we had are disproved. Having said that, if I win the Lotto, my first purchase will be a place at one of Buck’s clinics!


I’m becoming ever less picky about the labels. Call it what you want, but if you don’t like what you see under the label, or you find that it “doesn’t work”, don’t blame the label or the approach, blame the person using it.  Go home and pop that “Buck” DVD in the player, and see what can be achieved when it is applied not just correctly, but with real insight and inspiration. That’s the yardstick for the approach, whatever you choose to call it. The goal is not to copy the method, but to emulate the people who use it well.



Order the Thinking Horse DVD here!


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 May 2012

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