What “Buck”, the Horse Whisperer, Can Teach Therapists About Preparing Clients for Trauma Work

During the first few minutes into the documentary, “Buck“, horse whisperer, Buck Brannaman, emphasizes the importance of preparing a colt for riding. To paraphrase, to a young colt, the idea of a having a human being putting a saddle on its back, and then allowing that same human to ride on it is a completely foreign concept to a horse.

Buck starts by teaching his students how to communicate with their horses by developing a rapport and relationship with the horses long before the saddle goes on. As Buck put it, a horse can sense a person’s energy, and, therefore, it is important that the horse understands what a student’s intention is, and for the student to understand why a horse will react the way it does.

Buck’s approach is to prepare the horse to be ridden in stages. They begin by simply “asking” the horse to turn, and then to walk. After that, the students will try to place a blanket on top of their horses, just so that the horses will get used to the idea of having something on their backs. Once the horses get used to the blankets, the saddles are then placed on the horses. Rather than mounting the horses right away, the students are told to just try putting their weight on the stirrups, and standing up. Then, finally, the students can mount their horses for riding.

During training, the students check in with the horses, to make sure the horses understand what is happening, and to make sure the horses feel comfortable.

Buck’s approach to “breaking in” a horse is similar to the way a therapist should approach a client about preparing for trauma work. To a client, the concept of going to a stranger’s office to discuss traumatic events in their lives is completely foreign. A therapist cannot expect a client to completely open up on the first visit, let alone conduct a full-blown EMDR session.

A therapist must build rapport and trust before they guide a client to tolerate the emotions that come up when processing trauma. Part of that is properly communicating that there are stages to trauma, especially EMDR. When good preparation happens, the client is likely to have good results as opposed to forcing the client to confront their trauma too quickly without the necessary tools to have success.

Just as no two horses are the same, no two clients (or traumas) are the same. Although Buck has his bag of tricks, he approaches every horse as if they are different, and implements the appropriate remedies depending on the way each horse communicates.

Even though there are clear protocols to performing trauma work, therapists must be sensitive to the fact there is a human being sitting across from them and need to stay curious about how this person is communicating their traumas verbally and non-verbally. Then therapists can respond with the sensitivity needed to be able to reprocess their traumatic events.

Therapists can learn a lot from Buck on how to approach their clients and prepare them for solid trauma work.


UPDATE: Another riveting and heartbreaking film related to “Buck” would be “The Mustang.”

Equine assisted programs, especially used in conjunction with EMDR therapy, have been found to be helpful in healing trauma, anxiety, and PTSD. Many of equine assisted therapy programs rely on public support to keep them going.

This is only a short list of the program we were familiar with. Please note this not necessarily an endorsement of these specific services, nor do they all provide EMDR therapy. Please reach out to them directly if you are interested in their program, or for more information on how to support these vital programs.

If you know of other equine assisted therapy programs, especially those that provide EMDR therapy, please feel free to list them in the discussion section below.