Buck Brannaman and How the Horse Spirits Changed Everything

Horses completely changed my life. They are one of the great mysteries and miracles of my pathway into my sovereignty, and last night I was able to revisit that early passion I felt for them.

A little background on why horses made such an impact on my passage. Over the last nine years my entire life has completely changed. Before the big shifts I was married and living in Seattle, looking forward to having children and I had nothing to do with the horse world. When my husband got cancer and died at 37, everything fell apart. I had to find a way to resurrect myself, and that came through reclaiming the essential components that had delighted me throughout my life: art, the land, and adventure. Through these three key elements I found the will to live again.

Part of that metamorphosis was falling in love with horses. The impetus to be with them came out of the blue during a session with my shamanic teacher Valerie Wolf. I blindly chose one of her stone animal fetishes for her to do an intuitive reading, and when I looked at my choice it was this amorphous lump of rock. I had no idea what it was, and Valerie laughed and said no one ever chooses it because they cannot tell what it is. Since I had released my visual attachment to the outcome I was available to spiritual serendipity. Valerie’s reading from the horses said I belonged to them, I always had, and that I would learn a tremendous amount about balance, power and integration through working with them. It had never occurred to me to pursue that world, feeling like in my mid 30’s I had missed the golden age of horsemanship, and it was not a viable option now. And, when I imagined it I saw myself riding through a lush wooded terrain with dappled sunlight dancing across our pathway. I felt like an ancient goddess in the English countryside, poised and peaceful, in my element. So I was brave and I went for it. Time for a  commercial interruption: I have found that to expand your life and claim your passions, it always requires stepping out of your comfort zone. Always.

So I went and did something that scared the hell out of me and I knew nothing about, embracing the equine world. Over the next five years I learned how to be safe around them, how to read them, and what astonishing creatures they can be.


Last night I watched an incredible movie on Buck Brannaman, the Natural Horsemanship expert by accident. http://www.buckthefilm.com/  I took myself out on a date-night, and it happened to be playing on Broadway just up from my favorite sushi joint. The poster has Buck with his head bowed and just the brim of his hat is showing. I did not realize it was about him and luckily I happened to read the promo text next to the poster. It was the last night it was playing and fate brought me to experience the film on the big screen.

Buck Brannaman comes from a lineage of real-deal cowboys who introduced the horse world to the humane and intuitive process of horse partnership called Natural Horsemanship. The old paradigm of horse training was that you needed to “break” a horse so it would bow to your will. It was aggressive, cruel, and really out of alignment with attempting to get such a sensitive creature to make an alliance with you. Horses are paradoxical because they are both gargantuan and timid {well, maybe not timid for the stallions}. In the animal world there are predators and then prey. Horses wound up in the prey category, so they have highly attuned perceptive abilities to keep them from being eaten by the cougar. As Buck said in the movie, we are asking the horse to allow us to climb on their backs as the cougar would do to kill them, and then escalating our extreme requests, we want to toss the dead hide of another animal onto them as part of the process.

Horse Dance Ceremony image by Jak Wonderly

It really is astonishing that horses tolerate us at all considering all of this. And my experience has been that most of them do more than tolerate us, they allow us to partner with them in such deep and profound ways that it is truly a miracle. This extreme sensitivity is also their greatest gift as teachers to us. Because of their keen awareness, they are beautiful mirrors to our inconsistencies and hidden emotions that are affecting everything in our sphere subconsciously. Their need for reliability makes them intolerant of our repressed issues because in that unpredictability we may turn on them and eat them. Sometimes what can look like a great challenge becomes a profound gift in service to others.

As I learned in the movie, Buck is a genius. He is gentle and sensitive and strong, overcoming astonishing obstacles to be in his place. He is a mans man, a bona-fide roping Montana cowboy who really works psychologically with people, transforming horses lives in the process by teaching humans how to take care of their own wounds so the horses don’t have to act them out. He is fierce and kind on calling folks on their part of their horses behaviors, and people listen to him and respect him. His entire life trained him to be of service to this world. As the movie said, if god imagined the perfect cowboy it would be Buck.

Since I am part of making a movie at this time www.PaintedintheDesert.com, it was fascinating to hear film legend Robert Redford honor Buck’s authenticity and wisdom. Redford explained how the film the Horse Whisperer would not have been possible without Buck’s support. Buck taught Robert how to enter the world of deep listening and attachment to horses, and Buck was Redford’s role model for the character in the film. Redford also talked about how refreshing it was to be with Buck’s genuineness in Hollywood’s world of illusion and artifice.

A very big guy!

And now I sit here crying because I loved that world. I loved the horse clinics and the people and the dirt and the round pens and the worn in cowboy boots, and of course, the astonishing connection to the horses. I also fell in love with many of the horse people I met. The intuitive ones I was guided to were so straightforward, sturdy and down to earth that they were like a breath of fresh air. Horses really do cross class and cultural lines, and there is a large contingent of folks who have also fallen for these noble beasts.  Even the most conservative folks will get starry-eyed and mystical sounding when they talk about the mystery and magic of their horses companions. As I watched this fascinating film I missed that world. Horses were like a reunion with something I always craved but didn’t know how to touch, and they never ceased to amaze me with their actions, intentions, and generosity. They could be tough teachers and also so tender it could break your heart open.  Their smell still enchants me like no other and I miss that level of passion for something that brought me in contact with a new community and experiences. I also recognize it is an insane amount of work to get really good with them, like fly fishing, you’d better be patient to actually get to any level of expertise.

Pegasus horse collage by Mellissae

It was a love affair that came out of left field in a world I did not know, and a part of me misses it. At one time I thought I might move to Bozeman, Montana or Ketchum, Idaho and become a rancher. And things do change. Sometimes our most profound initiations are to lead us to another place.

I realized the passion that had overtaken me for the horse world had retreated when I arrived in Texas almost four years ago.  In some ways that was a total relief, not to have such a yearning  to be tied down and release the responsibility of how much work and resources they require. And they always were a lot of work for me, to learn about them and train myself to work adeptly with their particular energy. And in some ways that time I spent falling in love with them, traveling for three years on and off throughout the west was some of the most precious times I have ever had. So I just wanted to share this aspect of my emergence because the draw to earth-plane horses really did leave me, they became symbolic, metaphorically carrying me back to the land. And I miss them, or maybe I miss that feeling of falling in love with a new world. And all of the things that I think can come with that world, wide open spaces, beautiful terrain, cleansing physical labor, loyalty and love and commitment, quiet intuition, connection to the land, honor,and simple kindness.

Thank you to those gods who incarnated into 2000 pound, four-legged bodies. Those magnificent angels who offer us daily their fear and trust, their beauty and vulnerability, their transcendent intuition that reflects us back to ourselves. I can never, ever thank the Horse Spirits enough for how much they revolutionized my life. They are the reason I am who I have become, they opened doors for me that I had not even imagined and they offered me freedom and grace and the vast silence I needed. They carried me back to my true home on the land, and my own creative visions. They are one of my greatest allies and teachers. A true gift.

I also want to thank all the teachers who guided me though the complex world of apprenticing to horse wisdom,  I could never have done it without you. Leigh Shambo of HEAL; Equine Rescue Association in Marysville, WA; Kim McClellan the horse dreamer; Linda Kohanov, Epona and their entire staff; Ruth & Chuck Kraft at Horse Handling “Festina Lente;” Jen Grace and the Horse Dance Ceremonies with Maria & Lynda Yraceburu; Kate Vigneron and the beloved Madera Hills Ranch in Texas;  and the entire Montana horse crew, I fell in love with all of you and your glorious landscape.

  3 comments for “Buck Brannaman and How the Horse Spirits Changed Everything

  1. June 12, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Yes dear one Valerie, you were a pivotal part in that story. When you called me late in the evening after receiving the Horse Dance Ceremony flyer from one of your Dream Group students we were both astonished. Just weeks after the mysterious new name Horse Dancer came for me at our Medicine Walk {which became a vision quest} in Wallowa Lake, and then a ritual coming out of the blue referencing the new where you lived. So beautiful how the Spirits work, spiraling me in a completely different direction. Blessings on your love, guidance and deep connection in all of this. Mellissae


  2. Valerie Wolf
    May 31, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    I remember with mystery and delight your incarnation for a time as Horse Dancer. I am glad you claimed this part of yourself and the horses themselves, truly angels indeed! Love you! Valerie Wolf


  3. August 8, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    Great post. BUCK is definitely an incredible, moving film and he’s a really amazing guy. I’m hoping to be able to audit one of his clinics in person one day soon. And I think it’s awesome that you were able to connect so much with yourself through horses, even if ultimately owning your own wasn’t in the cards. Being around horses can have a remarkable transformative effect on people, even if they’re never going to have their own horse.


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