As I sit here reflecting on the past two incredible weeks of learning from Buck Brannaman, I am filled with gratitude. To paraphrase Buck from the last day of the Ellensburg clinic, “In my life, I don’t know if I have been lucky, but I sure know that I have been blessed.” My fellow horsemanship volunteers and I all feel both lucky and blessed to have had the opportunity to stand in the same arena as Buck and absorb as much as we could from this master.

I promise to share stories about our amazing horses and their performances at the clinics, but I need to take a moment to first talk about this remarkable human. Watching Buck communicate with horses will forever remain one of the top experiences of my life. I literally had goosebumps watching every ride he put on his horses!

Horsemanship is a way of life for him, and it shows in his words of encouragement to the riders. He has the ability to inspire greatness and if you are open to it he will forever change your relationship with horses. He also shows saint-like patience with us as we fumble along in his presence. We are beyond grateful for the time he spent with us. The fact that this master of horsemanship, is willing to drive for days across the country to be with us is a gift not lost on me. He clearly sacrifices so much to help us, and I am not sure that is a kindness any of us can repay.

He knows how hard it is for humans to change, but he persists in getting changes in us because he cares so much for the horses. By improving the human, he helps the horses. He humbly tells us he too has made mistakes in the past and learned from them. His hope is that by sharing these experiences, he can shelter us from making the same ones.

He doesn’t sugarcoat the work it takes to be great at this, but he has words of encouragement that we can reach any goals we set for ourselves. Buck’s goals include making bridle horses and sharing the Vaquero style of horsemanship with the world. He respects any goals we have for ourselves that better the situation for our horses. In our case, whether they are companions or riding horses, our first goal is to help them be safe around humans. Do the horses check the boxes od fundamental handling and understanding? If we can help them achieve this, they can survive in the world outside of SAFE’s gates. This seems like a small goal, but with horses that humans have troubled, this is no simple task.

Buck spoke of the levels of confidence we hope to achieve with our horses. First, they must be confident in the environment. Second in the trust that the human will do right by them and keep them safe from harm. Finally, in themselves, that in any given situation they have enough experience, trust and understanding to have confidence they will be okay. Buck has often said there is nothing natural about what we do with horses. It is a gift that they allow us the privilege to build a relationship with them.

The environment he creates in the arena is almost supernatural. It feels as if you’ve entered a space where his talent vibrates into your soul. Whether he is speaking over the microphone about a horse in the arena or sharing a life lesson from his thousands of experiences with horses, he simply makes you strive to do better. In real-time, you have the opportunity to check in with yourself and adjust to improve your horse’s understanding and success. At the end of the ride, you appreciate that you just experienced a little taste of what he gives to every horse he encounters. You leave the arena with his words humming in your head and are inspired to work as hard as you can to improve yourself. Through his brilliance, you feel motivated and, on the path, to getting along with horses and ultimately becoming a better human.

When we spoke to Buck after the clinic, he said, “Others will rescue a horse and think all they have to do is feed and water them, but you (SAFE) are giving them purpose.” In that shared moment, we could all sense that he truly recognized and acknowledged the work SAFE is doing. To have such a gracious nod of understanding was irreplaceable. So concisely, he put everything we have been working so hard to create—a world where a horse that is thrown away or mistreated by others only considered a rescue on day one and going forward is a horse that has value. Buck remarked how frustrating it is when people make excuses for their poor choices and abilities and shift the blame to the horse, saying, “Well, he’s a rescue,” as if that is a justification for the person to allow poor behavior or gives them a license to not ask them to improve their responses. These “rescuers” place the horse as a victim for the rest of their lives and never allow them the chance to be more than the sum of their past. Buck said frankly, “Sometimes the horses end up needing to be rescued from the rescuer,” a fact we sadly know too well and breaks our hearts. At times, people have heard me say that I wish we could call SAFE something other than a horse rescue. There are far too many poorly run rescues out there. As long as SAFE exists, we will strive to do better for our horses and hold ourselves to a higher standard, because our supporters have entrusted us with the lives and futures of these horses.

Years ago, someone remarked to Buck that he should do more for rescue horses. Not only do I love the audacity of that person to tell a perfect stranger what they should do, but they also completely missed the mark. What they failed to see is that by helping people with horses all over the world, he directly helps all the horses those people will ever encounter. As we know all too well, any horse could end up in a dangerous situation if the people around them cause enough trouble. Every day, horses are sent to auction because they “couldn’t get along with people,” and far too many of them lose their lives because of the ignorance and ineptitude of the humans in their lives. I feel this deeply. My years of auditing his clinics and watching his videos have transformed my understanding of what horses need from me to be successful. Over the last few years, I have had the fortune of working directly with him in clinics here in Washington. Every horse I have encountered since meeting Buck has benefited from his influence. While he may not work directly at SAFE, his teachings and philosophy have deeply infiltrated the organization. And I will be bold enough to say that in the last ten years of this shift, SAFE and the horses as a whole have been better for it.