The Importance of Mentorship – Round Table with Buck Brannaman, Lester Buckley and Tom Curtin

From Issue 115

Is having a horsemanship mentor critical to a student’s success? Here, several of horsemanship’s renowned teachers talk about their mentors and their views on mentorship to shed some light on the subject.

Lester Buckley is a horseman and clinician with a broad range of experience, from training some of the world’s top cutting horses, to starting colts on large ranches in western states and Hawaii, to working extensively with top German Dressage trainers at Nordrhein-Westfälisches Landgestüt and German Olympic Training Center in Warendorf, Germany, where he earned his International Trainers License in Dressage and Sport Jumping from the German FN. For more on Lester visit:

“My neighbor growing up in Texas was a real fine man named Delwin Burgh,” Lester Buckley says. “His son and I were the same age. In high school, he started paying me to come by and lope some mares that were coming in for breeding. He had an own son of Doc Bar and he had an own son of Freckles. As a matter of fact, he had Docs Mahogany when Lindy Burch won the Futurity on Mis Royal Mahogany back in the 70s. [Lindy Burch won the title of NCHA Open Futurity Reserve Champion in 1979, making her the first, and still only, woman to earn that distinction.] What he would do is he would pay me $5 a horse to exercise these horses. Through all high school I’m getting on horses that Buster Welch trained, and Matlock Rose trained and Larry Reeder trained that were former world champion cutting horses. I’m getting on them and I’m exercising them before and after school. And I’m learning a lot about how Matlock rode, about how Buster rode, and about how Larry Reeder rode—how these real legendary guys rode by riding their horses. Now I don’t know for sure that those horses needed exercising, to tell you the truth. I think what he was doing was, he was in a position to pay me to come by and long trot these horses everyday and he knew that I was going to be picking up stuff just out there by myself with nobody watching, about how you stop, how they turn around…. So that was kind of my introduction into really good horses. And then I went off to college. I went to Sul Ross [State University] out in Alpine [Texas], and I got a scholarship. And what they did was allow me to follow Ray [Hunt].”

Anytime Ray Hunt was in the west Texas/eastern New Mexico area, the school gave Lester time off and sent him with a colt for Ray’s colt starting clinic and a horse for his horsemanship clinic.

“The only kicker was I had to come back and teach some of my peers,” Lester explains. “My peers, they were really good horsemen, like Cody Lambert and Tuff Hedeman. Most people know them as bull riders but those guys are horsemen. Cody’s dad was a racehorse trainer. Cody and Tuff and all those guys grew up loping those race horses. But those were the guys I was supposed to go back and teach what I learned from Ray. That’s different from just going and sitting on the fence and listening, and then you’re not on the hook.

“So, I had to figure out how to take something that Ray taught—and now I’ll say this, Ray, he wouldn’t know me from anybody because I was always just kind of an average talent rider but I wanted it really bad. I may not have had a lot of skill, but by golly, I had perseverance, so I just stuck with it. All I want to do in my life is just ride horses. So I had some opportunities there in my four years at Sul Ross to go ride with Ray and then come back and try to work it out. And the university let me ride some colts. And Delwin Burgh, he would send me a horse every semester, ‘Can you train this one for me?’ Usually really well-bred cow horses.”

Lester graduated with a bachelor of equine science and a minor in English literature.

“And then I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t think I’ve really got it.’” Lester says. “So I did my Master’s thesis on the snaffle bit and I knew that I was going to train horses. I spent seven years as an assistant trainer to Willie Richardson. Seven years is a long time, so that tells you how seriously I took the mentoring. I had all my high school with Delwin Burgh, and then I had four years of college trying to ride with Ray when I had the opportunity, which wasn’t often enough, but you know every time was a good time. And then after four years of college studying it, getting a degree in it. Then I spent another seven years with a very accomplished trainer, and that was probably my ‘really nailing it down season.’”

Lester explains that he also believes he had another mentor, one he never actually met.

“Willie and Pat Day and Jerry Bailey grew up together, so they were all Thoroughbred jockeys. And then Willie married into the Quarter Horse industry; he married Jimmy Randals’ daughter [Randals was an NCHA president and director of the AQHA]. So that got him into Quarter Horses and he ended up going to work for Helen Groves; she’s part of the King Ranch family. So she had an old trainer named June Mitchell, and I guarantee you a lot of the way I do things is the way June did it, although I never met June. But June mentored Willie and then Willie mentored me.”

During Lester’s time with Willie, he would start all the colts they had.

“Then as soon as they were all started, I would take the B string and he would take the A string and we would start them on cattle,” Lester explains. “And then take them all the way up to their show career. He was different than most trainers because he did not want to ride all of them but he was willing to teach me how to train a cutting horse. Not all of them made cutting horses but everyday—we normally worked six days out of the week—and everyday would go like this: once I got through my starting phase, we spent 60 days getting those colts started and then he and I would go to the barn and we’d saddle each horse and ride out together. He would work one while I turned back for him and then he’d turn back for me while I rode one. And we’d ride back together side by side from the arena where the cattle were to the barn and he would critique my ride. All day long for seven years. You just can’t do any better than that. I knew some kids from college that went to work for some of the other famous trainers and they would just lope the horse and then hand it to the guy. And then they would go get another one, lope it to take the edge off of it and give it to the trainer. Willie wasn’t that way. It was absolutely fantastic!”

The pairing between Willie and Lester proved to be a great match, and they were very successful year after year.

“We had a Super Stakes champion and we’d had a World Champion mare,” Lester says. “And then we finally won the open World Championship with a stallion. I was staying home doing all the training and then he was on the road showing, and it really worked good. When we were home together we rode together and he’d critique my riding all day long, and it was just beautiful. And then one day he didn’t come down to the barn. I knew he was at the house. I figured, ‘He’s tired I guess.’ Then he came down after lunch and he says, ‘Well I got some bad news for you.’ He kind of had a sad look on his face.

“He said, ‘Well, I wrote this letter for you. I’m not very good at typing but I typed it and I want you to read it.’ I read it and then it brought tears to my eyes. Basically the essence of the story is, he said, ‘You’ve been with me seven years now and we’ve done this and we’ve done this. We have achieved this, and I have nothing left to teach you. You need to leave and go create your own life now. Now, you’re welcome to stay but you would be doing yourself a disservice to stay. You need to leave and you’re welcome to share this letter to anybody at any ranch, any establishment anywhere in the world and have them call me.’

“And I said, ‘Well, okay.’ And I did. From there I ended up going to the King Ranch starting some colts there. And they introduced me to the Parker Ranch in Hawaii. I did that for about six or seven years. After that, I opened up my little barn in the panhandle and showed cutters. Then one of the Dressage trainers from Germany was giving a clinic in Fort Worth, Matt Hammond, and I got real enchanted with Dressage. He invited me to come to Germany. Then I went to Germany for another decade off and on studying their horsemanship over there.

“So the mentorship deal is obviously…well, I kind of went longer probably than a guy has to. It kind of speaks for itself; it’s real important. I don’t think it’s critical, which means with the information that’s out there now you could probably be okay.

“I sure liked that I didn’t know that I was being mentored as a kid by being put on really good horses, but I was. And in college, I was pretty serious about studying the horse. And then seven years of assistant trainer to Willie…it’s been a Wonderful Life. I have no regrets.”

Buck Brannaman is a renowned horseman who travels the country conducting clinics. He has authored the books Groundwork and The Faraway Horses, and has produced many horsemanship videos. Learn more at:

“I think if a person is serious about pursuing the art of horsemanship, you really have to have a mentor,” Buck Brannaman says. “You have to have a teacher because you couldn’t possibly live long enough to discover all the things that you’d like to learn on your own. Even if you live forever, you still might not. So people who are interested in the pursuit of this [horsemanship], the best advice that I could say is surround yourself with people that not only know more than you, but know a lot more than you.

“Free advice is worth just about what you pay for it. And when a person is green at this, they’ll find that it’s human nature: everybody wants to be an authority. Everybody wants to be a teacher. Years ago Ray [Hunt] would have people in clinics and he’d say, ‘Well today you can’t spell it, and tomorrow you are one.’ And now even the teaching business has gotten to be a big business. Which means, anything that becomes a big business where there’s money involved, there are also a lot of people that jump on that train because they think that, “It can’t be that hard; I’m just going to do that; I’m just going to say that I am, and I am one.’ That’s the hard thing for greener people is being able to discriminate who their teacher might be. And a lot of times they’re disappointed a few times before they find someone that kind of fits them. And some people get discouraged to the point that they quit the horse thing. They get bad advice. They get hurt. They get in trouble. They wreck their horse. So that’s a challenge that green people have.”

One way to help avoid getting hooked up with the wrong teacher is to go and check out many teachers who come recommended by others, Buck suggests. And there are some other pitfalls he sees at times.

“People that dance around from one teacher to another their whole life,” Buck says, “they are spinning their wheels. And what makes them dance around to the next teacher is, maybe, with their current teacher it became difficult and they realize that they might have to work hard at it. And when it becomes difficult and you’re really challenged, you could have the next guy that says, ‘Oh no, no…this is easy. Very easy. Follow my deal.’ Anyone that’s around this—and it doesn’t make any difference if they ride with me or someone else that’s teaching them about horses—every one of them that has been in the business for a long time will tell you it’s hard, even if you’re doing everything right. It’s hard to get to be a good horseman. When I started to ride with Ray, he already had started thousands and thousands of colts,” Buck says. “Why wouldn’t I go to someone like that rather than someone who had done less than a hundred?”

When asked who were his mentors, Buck says that’s really very easy to answer.

“When I started, I would say probably in fairness my first mentor was my foster dad. He was really the first one that transformed me from having grown up as a rodeo performer and trick roper. I had always ridden, but I never really considered being a cowboy or riding colts until I went to live with my foster parents. My foster dad Forrest Shirley was really my first mentor. Was he the sophisticated horseman that Ray Hunt was? No, he wasn’t. But he was a good cowboy, and he inspired me to want to be a good cowboy. And then after I got out of high school at 17, I started riding with Ray Hunt.

“Of course when you say Ray then that’s synonymous with Tom Dorrance and Bill Dorrance, too. They were big influences on me, as well. But predominantly it was really Ray Hunt because without Ray Hunt, oh, I don’t know where my life would have taken me. I tell people, pretty much that what you see me doing that might look pretty good to you, you can just attribute that to Ray Hunt. Anything that I do that maybe doesn’t look that great to you, I probably came up with that on my own.

“If you don’t have some true grit and determination, and an unusual work ethic, even with great teachers you’re only going to get to a certain point. You might get to where you’re kind of handy but you’re not going to be able to reach your full potential. You have to have an unusual work ethic to become a good Horseman. Some people are just naturally handy people that are real athletic. But it’s not just athleticism [that makes a great horseman]. I’ve seen really athletic people ride poorly in terms of what they offer the horse. You will see some people that have a really nice feel the way they go about working with a horse, that fits horses, that’s really agreeable to a horse. And it’s not something that maybe they were taught. But it’s part of that person’s nature. But there are God given things that some people have that maybe would make them progress a little quicker than others.

“I’ve always been an advocate of just really, really working hard at it because I’ve seen some people that maybe didn’t have a lot of raw talent that just had a passion for it. It’s what they wanted to do and they worked really hard at it and became really handy with horses. So, the nature-nurture thing, I would say it’s probably a little bit of both.”

Tom Curtin teaches horsemanship clinics across America. Tom grew up in Montana with his father who ran an outfitting and packing business, and he spent many years learning from horsemen like Buster Welch and Ray Hunt. For more info visit:

“I grew up in south central Montana,” Tom Curtin says. “My dad [R. L. Curtin] had a little ranching operation and outfitting business. He was a heck of a horseman and a great teamster. That movie Dances With Wolves, all those mules in that movie belonged to my dad. So I actually grew up around good horsemanship. We had really good neighbors. There was an elderly gentleman that I always respected by the name of Clay Donohoe. There was another gentleman by the name of Bill Dugan. Those guys all buckarooed and cowboyed. So I got to grow up around that. Then after I got a little older, I got to go traveling around. We could get the job done—don’t get me wrong—but we were just getting the job done, if you know what I mean. We never had any finer tuning or understanding. But then I got the opportunity to go to work for the King Ranch under the supervision of Buster Welch. Buster became quite a mentor to me and he helped me a lot, and just with life in general. And then with the understanding of having a nice horse to be able to go get a job done—to have you able to be really efficient at your job, whatever it might be, by having a nice horse.”

Training cutting horses per se wasn’t the draw for Tom when he went to work at the King Ranch.

“When I went to work for Buster, I didn’t go there to learn how to train cutting horses, I went there with the mindset: I’m learning how to handle cattle ahorseback,” he says. “And to this day Buster has no equal, as far as I’m concerned, on people that can handle cattle horseback. I’ve never seen anybody that can handle cattle horseback like he could.”

As much as Tom learned from Buster, he says there was another mentor who became even more influential in his learning horsemanship.

“All the time I was growing up I had heard about Ray Hunt,” Tom says. “My dad was shoeing a bunch of horses one time for a fella there in Big Timber, Montana. I don’t think I was probably 12 years old and I actually got to see Ray, and I didn’t even know what I was looking at. But then I got an opportunity to start working with Ray and being around him, and he really changed how I do things. So I think these mentors, being around people going back to my dad, my dad always says, ‘If you want to learn something, you find the best that there is in the business and try to learn what they’re doing.’ That always kind of stuck with me.”

Tom says that a good mentor needs to be more than an excellent horseman.

“Let’s call it an exceptional hand,” he says. “Ray talked about that a little bit. Ray made a comment one time, he said, ‘If you ever see someone doing something with their horses that you can’t tell what they’re doing to get it done, you want to get ahold of their shirt tails and don’t let go.’ When he said that he was talking to probably five or six hundred people there that day but I felt like he was talking directly to me. It’s kind of one of those deals he would always say, ‘If the shoe fits wear it; if it doesn’t, I wasn’t talking to you anyway.’ Boy I tell you, the shoe fit!”

Tom says that he was very fortunate to have met his two main mentors, but that they were quite different from one another and that they approached horses with very different styles.

“I was very blessed that I met Buster and I worked for Buster for three and a half years, and I got to spend the time I did with him before I went on this journey with Ray, so to speak,” Tom says, “because I don’t think I would have got what I was looking for out of Buster if I would have met Ray first. I think that was very crucial in that whole journey because I would have never have been as open-minded about Buster if I’d met Ray first.

“I was around Ray basically close to 20 years. I hosted 16 to 17 clinics for him. And what was really neat was Ray, when he would come in, he usually would take an extra week or so and stay with us. And then a lot of times he’d invite Trina [Tom’s wife] and me and our daughter to come stay with him. I wouldn’t say I spent a lot of time as far as on a day-to-day basis with him—I never worked for Ray—but we did spend a fair amount of time together doing a lot of different things.”

Tom admits that, as with any mentor, Ray might be a good teacher for one person and not work out so well for another, but that Ray had been an excellent fit to help him improve his horsemanship.

“If you were really interested in it, boy, he’d try every way he could to try to help you figure something out,” Tom says. “He had everything in the world to offer if you could take it, build on it, do something with it. On this subject that we’re talking about, probably the most valuable thing that I can tell these young people trying to look for mentors, is if they’re within a discipline, look for somebody that has that kind of a mindset and has spent a little time in that area.”

Years ago, not many people knew about the kind of horsemanship that Ray and Tom Dorrance were practicing and teaching, Tom says.

“Nowadays, it seems like it’s changed a fair amount,” he explains. “And what’s become kind of interesting to me now is, I think in just about any discipline you can find someone that’s kind of on the same page with what those guys were doing. And if you’re interested in a particular discipline, that’s what I would search for and look for in a mentor: someone that is able to take the ability of the natural instinct of the animal and getting them to do what you would like them to do because they want to, not because they have to. If there’s something particular that interests you, find someone who’s one of the best in the business [in that area of interest]. I had some mentors of these older generations—they lived with, used, and spent time with their animals. I think that the best way to go about this would be, find someone that’s been successful in getting something done.”

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