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Buck Brannaman: New River Clinic, Mar 27-30 2009

By Mike Thomas

This may have been the toughest, and best, clinic that Buck Brannaman ever conducted in his life!

On March 12, 2009, our dear friend and great horseman Ray Hunt passed away, and all of us were still in various stages of severe grief following his memorial service on March 21, 2009, just a week before the New River Clinic. Buck, Paul Dietz and Christine Cook, Hal Coker, Lee Smith, my buddy Judy Horton (WY), Nancy Rae Lee and myself from Arizona were in attendance. Carolyn and the Hunt family and Van Norman and Black families conducted an incredible service. Their strength, love and courage gave us all courage and personal strength. Together we collectively honored our friend’s life by taking responsibility for what Ray (Himself) stood for over the last 40+ years, with clinics. Ray, I am certain, is proud. We went there to comfort Carolyn and the family, and they wound up comforting all of us.

This photo from the memorial service is the only one we will publish. It is Ray’s saddle, hat, lass rope, flag and chaps. One photo simply lets us know that the saddle is empty forever.

Ray Hunt was a major "father figure" to Buck for the last 30+ years. Buck's conduct at the New River Clinic was a spectacular feat of courage and love. His incredible sense of personal discipline allowed him to produce maybe the best clinic of his incredible life as a world-respected horsemen, clinician, teacher, and yes, Educator, at the highest level of "Lifemanship through Horsemanship"!

The following is intended to help our readers understand those words.

Dr. Buck Brannaman, PhD

Clinic Pics

See bottom of page for clinic slideshow and short videos.
In late March, 2006, I arrived at the Chandler, Arizona, Buck Brannaman clinic early, before everyone else, and pulled up beside Buck’s Freightliner. He was inside, on the cell phone.

In a while, he stepped out and said, "Mike, you are not going to believe what just happened. That was Mary on the phone". Of course, I could not know. Then he said, "That was Mary telling me that Montana State University has just awarded me an Honorary Doctorate, can you believe it? They are going confer the degree on the first week of May, 2006 at MSU. You will be there, won’t you?"

Of course I said "yes", but then added, "I have to attend just to find out why a major University would give an Honorary Doctorate to a Horseman!"

Then it came clear…

The answer came very clear on the Friday Night Honors Banquet at MSU. That night, major awards were being given to True Educators - not just teachers, professors and researchers. I came to understand that a True Educator combines all of the talents of the others but adds something extra special!

They don’t just take a paycheck, tenure, benefits and temporary awards to boost their stature at the university or school; they have so much more to give! They give everything they have mentally, physically, spiritually, and with personal integrity, to each student.

What is that "something special"? These awards went to people who could find hidden, suppressed, real talent in one or more students. They could find a way to bring out the hidden talent of the student, to put them on a road of small accomplishments and over time, create an incredible student who would succeed far beyond anything they'd ever imagined!

Buck Brannaman was given the Honorary Doctorate because he is a "True Educator" of people and horses. For 25 years, he had been giving clinics, and on the first day could see every problem that people were having with their horses, knowing that the problem in the horse was the human/rider/owner. Within 1-2 hours he could identify in his mind how to handle each human and horse. He could define a lesson plan, a strategy, a feel for the horse and human, and in the next 4 days bring out the best of both.

It was, and is, about 95% Mental/Spiritual Release, and a mere 5% physical at the end - not the reverse ratio. Buck knows how to get people to think and how to present a winning plan for both. He treats every student in the same way Ray trea ted him for over 30 years. Ray made Buck "learn to think". Buck’s award was hugely popular.

The State of Montana honored a Great Horseman but even more important, a Great Educator of Horses and People... a Renaissance Educator! The amazing Betsy Shirley was present. Her impact was felt by all of us, and Buck honored her.

Betsy, his foster mother and the Lady that reached down into Buck and pulled his personal integrity to the surface, and in her quiet unassuming way, did her magic - and now we get to enjoy our friend Buck.

It turns out, my friends, that wonderful Betsy educated the educator. (Our friend Betsy: The Educator of the Educator!)

See "The Faraway Horses" by Buck Brannaman, Lyons Press:

"Betsy Shirley finished the job that Carol Alberta Brannaman, who died of Diabetes, just simply could not finish, thus they were partners!"

The Last Days...

During the four days of the New River Clinic, Buck had to reach down deep within himself to give something extra special to people and horses. In the past, he would speak reverently and respectfully of Ray at thousands of clinics and demos, in books, articles and speeches, knowing that Ray was still alive. Ray’s life was always a source of insight for living in the future, not the past.

Buck was present at the Hunt Ranch in Era, Texas, north of Denton, while Ray was in the hospital. He was helping Carolyn take care of students, like he had the year before, when Ray was in the hospital and had almost passed then. Buck only left to get to another clinic he was scheduled to start, after knowing Ray was getting out of the hospital to come home on March 12, 2009, and to take over the ranch clinic.

Ray was happy to get back to the ranch clinic as he left the hospital! But Ray never made it home.

The New River Clinic

Paul Dietz, with his friends, organized a great clinic for Buck in New River, Arizona in the Larkin Arena, starting many months earlier. When Paul Dietz organizes a clinic for Buck, it's for his greatest personal teacher and because of what Buck gave him as a "true student of the Inner Circle of Horsemen" over the last 23 years. He has a sacrosanct relationship with Buck, the Inner Circle and the Hunt Family!

Paul is respected by all who know about his dedication to what these great horseman and horsewomen have to offer to the horse. He has truly earned his spurs! Traveling for years with Buck has earned him our collective respect, as we respect the Horse and Trinity of Great Horsemen.

While often stoic in appearance and manner, Paul Dietz is a man where the "river runs deep" in his integrity toward the Horse! His devotion to the Hunt family is unshakable, and he is loved by the family forever.

Buck had to conduct a clinic in Texas just after Ray passed. He attended the Memorial Service in Era, Texas, then taught a Ranch Roping clinic in Wilcox, Arizona, and then arrived in New River, Arizona, all within a 15 day time frame. Buck had every reason to give his worst clinic ever! Instead, he gave maybe his best clinic ever, and it took all of the internal strength he had.


Buck, in spite of the impact of the week and the shock of events, realized it was time to take the first steps to the future, surrounded by friends from the past and new friends of the future. Not once did he let on what his real pain was. Buck realized that now is the time to prove that what Ray lived for is what we are all about!

Buck took responsibility by conducting a clinic that Ray would be proud of. He was selective and careful in relating stories going back 30 years and making it look seamless in his demos, relating references to the past while building for the future, and honoring Ray Hunt, who made it possible for all of us to make, and stand for, what Ray spent his life doing... for the Horse!

The Results!

All the horses in the clinic won, and the people as well. Buck taught the best Cow Working and Horsemanship clinic I have ever seen him conduct! Buck’s new perspective while personally struggling with loss, like the rest of us, was a thing of beauty, intelligence, sensitivity and much more. Buck did a great job of adjusting to a future without our dear friend.

The first day was quite shaky for horse work. Things could have easily gotten out of hand with way below normal temperatures and a chill wind that cut clear to the bone of every horse and rider. In the first two hours of the Horsemanship Class, several horses were near out of control and could have easily spilled their riders.

Buck got them very busy on "sharp serpentines", getting every horse to move his feet quickly but with full lateral flexion, and that made a huge difference! The horses that were marginal to start with began to find a better way without being upset and major changes happened very quickly for both horses and people. The first day of Cow Working was a super lesson on driving and blocking, finding the balance points of the cow, the drive points and the flight zone points. Each student did very well. This exercise was designed to build confidence and success in each horse and rider, and to prepare the cattle for the rest of the clinic by settling them and teaching them how to work as quietly as possible.

The second, third and fourth days just got better with every horse and rider. Every horse that was a problem on the first day continually improved and got better at their job. There were riders who were way behind the horse on the first day, but made huge changes in the way they presented themselves to the horse, and the horses complied and appreciated each rider's efforts. At the start of the clinic, there were certain riders who were far more advanced then others, and their horses and mule reached new levels that were dramatic to me and to anyone who has been around these clinics for so many years now!

Buck: Thank You... My Friend...

This is just a message to my long time friend and I am sure shared by all of us who enjoyed and appreciated his incredible effort at the New River Clinic. You didn’t weaken and your courage made every student and horse realize something very special in horsemanship and lifemanship happened that week.

You introduced many new ways of thinking with the horse, got many people to rethink their own life in terms of lifemanship and their relationship with the horse. You are creating a new fresh approach to clinics, formats, and systems of teaching/educating; finding new ways to celebrate your personal relationship with the Trinity of Great Horsemen: Ray, Tom and Bill. Give it a go, Buck! Just be yourself and all will be well.

Friends: I urge everyone to do the following...

Read or re-read "The Faraway Horses" and "Believe" by Lyons Press, both written by Buck Brannaman. These two books explain that no matter what your background is, or your experience in life, we all have an opportunity to redefine our lives, and especially with the Horse. Remember: Horsemanship and Lifemanship are one and the same.

Thanks Buck!

Thanks Paul Dietz - you’re the pride of the Bunkhouse!

Mike (Himself)

Buck Brannaman Clinic, New River AZ, Mar 27-30 2009

Buck riding 2-rein horse at the end of Day 4