Oxytocin and "Buck" the Horse Whisperer

July 29, 2012

Having just seen the documentary called “Buck” I’m here to tell you that it is just as much about oxytocin as it is horses. For those of you who don’t know oxytocin is (among other things) the empathy hormone. Buck Brannaman, America’s most famous horse whisperer and soulful philosopher otherwise known as “Buck” is a marvel of a man. A true original. Watching him transform wildly bucking, snorting, colts and fillies into loving companions who happily and fearlessly, follow their owners around like baby ducks without a tether was fascinating. The packed movie theater in Pasadena CA agreed.

Watching him access, touch, gently coax, saddle up, sit on and ride formerly scared, suspicious, confused colts was a truly an awe inspiring experience. It is abundantly clear to me that Buck’s technique is designed to get oxytocin flowing in horses minds. Not just the talented ones. All of them, even the scariest violent stallion, but more about him later.

When it comes to training animals (think water for elephants) man is capable of bad behavior. In our primitive efforts to get animals to comply with our whims we have subjected them to a horrifying array of ignorance, impatience, tortures and beatings. For the record torture is not an oxytocin releasing behavior.

Buck learned this the hard way. Raised by a cruel father who regularly beat him, by the age of five he understood as much about abusive training techniques as your average turn of the century circus bear. His once loving mother died when Buck turned eight at which time things really took a turn for the worse.

Speaking in a soft, pleasant, and often erudite Montana drawl, Buck reflected on his youth as “Buckshot” a cute (my observation, not his) little blond cowboy kid who, along with his brother “Smokey” he was trained to perform rope tricks. Dad took them on the road to rodeos, fairs and all manner of public venue. He even landed them a Sugar Pops commercial on TV.

Describing Dad as the stage father from hell denies the word substance. He whipped his boys for every mistake they made. Not that he required a “mistake” to do so. Most evenings after a few pulls from the bottle he whipped them again just for the hell of it. And hell it must have been. To avoid an unjustified beating a 5 year old Buck ran out of the house on a subfreezing Montana winter night and curled up for three death defying hours with the family dog in an old oil barrel in the yard, only to have to ultimately return to the house for warmth. Oddly his father did not beat him when he returned. It wasn’t until being forced to shower during gym class (Buck would never take off his cloths for fear of exposing the whip scars covering his back and legs) that his horrified coach set the ball in motion to remove both he and Smokey from their abusive home. They were placed in a home with a loving foster mom who to this day Buck refers to as “Mom”.  

The story of Buck Brannaman is the story about how an abused boy found the path to oxytocin through his love for horses. It is a story about how oxytocin can help us turn savage hurt into grace by operating from a reservoir of patience and profound love.  In the movie’s thrilling conclusion we watch Buck work with a potentially brain damaged and very dangerous young stallion. Having lost his dam (mother) at birth, the colt was literally pulled out of his mother’s womb by his owner then bottle fed. Such oxygen starved births often mean brain damage. Moreover this birthing process deprives the birthed of oxytocin. Oxytocin’s first duty is to induce uterine contractions.-no oxytocin there. Oxytocin’s second job is to establish a deep relationship between mother and child-no oxytocin there either. Oxytocin’s third job is to induce lactation. But, since the “Orphan” colt was raised on a bottle he didn’t get any of the oxytocin necessary to establish a true mother/child bond a precursor for healthy boundaries.  The net result grew into a three year old rank stallion who, after running with a band of 18 other stallions (a completely irresponsible practice) became a very scary stallion with no sense of boundaries. Buck described him as the closest thing to an equine predator that he’d ever witnessed. Though Buck was able to find a measure of mutual respect with the stallion, the next man wasn’t as lucky. Shortly after Buck turned him back over the stallion reared, fangs bared, lunged and took a chunk out of the guy’s head-straight through his cowboy hat-tossing the horrified man to the ground like a rump roast, blood spurting everywhere. The speed of the stallion’s attack was truly frightening. It reminded me of a similar incident in my own youth when my mother’s horse savaged me from behind as I was feeding him hay in a  field. Despite vociferous protestations my Mom didn’t believe that I hadn’t provoked the horse. She changed her tune when the horse bit off my little sisters forefinger as she was feeding him on Thanks Giving Day. My Mom, like the owner of the rank stallion, made the intelligent decision to have the animal destroyed. All that remained was for Buck to somehow get the beast back into a trailer. True to form, Buck accomplished this task in an eerily quiet 3 minutes. 

The movie also beautifully depicted Bucks happy oxytocin based bonds with his horse-savvy daughter Reata, his beautiful wife, his foster Mom, and the countless friends he has made coast to coast while teaching his seminars. Paired down to a fascinating 88 minutes from over 300 hours of footage by director Cindy Meehl, it’s obvious why Buck won the audience award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.