Buster McLaury
The Quintessential American Cowboy

Buster McLaury wears many hats - cowboy, rancher, horseman,
horse trainer, poet, author, and clinician. Famous western artists have
illustrated him and world-renowned photographers have photographed him.
Buster is best described as the quintessential American cowboy.

Born on the Four Sixes Ranch and raised on the Triangle Ranch near Guthrie, Texas, he is at least a four-generation cowboy. Some people remember when they first started riding. Buster doesn’t remember not riding. It was just a natural part of his life.  Growing up on the 6666’s and Triangle Ranches it was not uncommon to see a remuda of 150 to 200 horses. He was always around men who made their living ahorseback, and he wanted to be just like them. He wanted to be ahorseback. Working on these ranches he would ride whatever horse was assigned to him not knowing much about that particular horse. It was figured that if you were much of a hand, you’d figure it out for yourself pretty quick, and, if you weren’t, it was probably a waste of breath to tell you anyway.  
Here is Buster’s story,  I remember my daddy telling me as a very young button, “Son, if you’re gonna cowboy, you’re gonna have to ride a lot of different horses in your life. All of’em ain’t gonna be good or gentle. But you’d just as well learn to be in the right place at the right time and hold up your share of cattle on whatever they lead out to you. No excuses.” This was the mentality I grew up with. Daddy traded a few horses when I was in high school. They were mostly young horses that we would ride awhile and sell, but we got hold of some spoiled horses with lots of bad habits, too. So I got exposed to a lot of things that I might not have, had I just ridden ranch horses.  

I noticed at an early age that the men who rode the best horses got to work the roundup, drag calves at the brandings, lead the drives, etc. Well, that’s what I wanted to do, so I put a lot of extra time and effort into learning how to make a good horse. The extra effort paid off in that some old timers took an interest in helping this ole’ kid.  They taught me things they’d learned, and without exception, told me to always watch the good hands and learn from them. I remember my daddy saying one time, “Son, it’s about time you learn where them good horses come from,” so I started my first colt at age 11.  Looking back, I know that my horse was scared to death. But my mission at the time was to conquer and ride that booger. And I did. Until he bucked me off, kicked me in the belly and broke a few ribs. I was always a little, skinny, dried-up feller and wasn’t stout enough to manhandle a horse around, so from that time on, I’ve searched for a better way to get along with a horse.

With the help of some good and patient teachers in the last thirty odd years, I have found that better way of fooling with horses. No small thanks goes to my good friend and mentor, Ray Hunt. It was at the 6666’s in the early 1980’s, that I met Ray Hunt. At first, I was pretty skeptical of this “new” way of doing things. But I’d always tried to ride good horses, and Ray could get horses to do things I didn’t even know were possible and get it done with very little fuss. I thought I had a reputation as a pretty good cowpuncher, but with Ray’s help in learning to learn from the horse, things got even better. I wish I had a nickel for every time my daddy said to me, “Think!” Then Ray came along with the same message. There must be something to that “think” business.

I would have to say that my philosophy of horse training is communication. Learning to talk horse to the horse. To convince him that he doesn’t need to be afraid of me and defend himself, so I can explain to him what it is I’m asking him to do. I know that the horse is capable and perfectly willing to do whatever I ask, if I can just present it to him in a manner that he understands. It my responsibility to earn his trust. All the horse is trying to do is survive, from one day to the next. He is a prey animal. His fear and mistrust of me is natural. I am a predator. In order to catch and ride him, I either have to be tougher than he is and make him do what I want, or I have to explain to him he is in no danger from me. I went the “get tougher” route for a lot of years, and I’m here to tell you there’s a better way. Once I earn that trust, I have a great responsibility not to break it, not to get him hurt. It is important to earn his respect, and I’ll do whatever I have to do to get that respect. There is a fine line between respect and fear. I do not want him afraid of me, but I do want him to respect me. Horses operate on a pecking order with other horses.  A horse has an inherent need to know where he fits into the pecking order, whether it’s with horses or with a human. It doesn’t make any difference where he fits, just as long as he knows where he fits. When it’s between he and I, I’m going to be the leader – not the boss - the leader. There’s a difference.

What is my presentation to the horse? You can have the best idea and intention in the world, but if your presentation isn’t any good, things will never work out. What might work for one horse may not work for another. The horse will tell you if you’re on the right track. First I try to figure out just where the horse is when I get in the pen with him.  I don’t mean physically, I mean mentally. If I know where he is mentally, maybe I can get to where he is and help him get to where I want him to be. I just try to make the wrong thing difficult - not impossible - and the right thing easy. I’ll let him work at it and he’ll come up with the right answer before long. I’ll ask him to yield to pressure anywhere it’s applied, then watch for the slightest change and the slightest try and reward that. That’s all I want him to do – try. If I can get him to try, I can get him to do anything he’s physically capable of doing. There’s a lot of feel, timing, balance, and presentation involved. All four of them have to be right or it won’t work, or maybe it won’t work as well as it might have worked. You need to know the feel of a horse, let him learn to feel back to you, and then you both feel together. It might take quite a bit at first, but as the horse gets more sure, the feel will get lighter and lighter until it’s just a thought. Then your idea and his become one. The timing has to be right. There’s a time in there when everything’s set up right for something to work. Then all you have to do is get out of his way and let him do it. If you quit too soon, it won’t come through.  If you quit too late, you’re in his way. Once you get some things working for you and the horse, give him plenty of time to get good at the basics. Get that foundation in there right and solid.  

When I got out amongst the general public, I soon realized that quite a few folks weren’t getting along with their horses very well. There were problems with communication and understanding between horse and human. Some of these deals were minor, and some were already out of hand. The worst thing is that, until something changes, these problems are going to continue getting worse instead of better. The “getting worse” part often becomes dangerous to the rider and/or whoever happens to be in the vicinity. In my opinion, the “something changes’ part is the responsibility of the human. People need to realize that the horse is a living, breathing, decision-making animal. He gets afraid and brave, sure and unsure, sick and well, hot and cold just like you and I. Remember you’re working with a mind, not just a horse. It’s a mind, body, and spirit that just happens to look like a horse. I guess everyone is looking for a set pattern or formula for training horses: do this and this and you get that. Well, it doesn’t work that way with horses. Oh, some folks try it, I think, and every once in a while they run across a horse that their formula really works on, so that really makes them a good trainer. But with other horses they just get mediocre results, so they blame the horse. The deal is just common sense, mostly. You can’t make it happen, but you can sure let it happen. It requires you to work on yourself at least as much as you do your horse, maybe more.

One of the most common scenarios I see is the inexperienced rider who has “too much horse.” This fits a couple of categories – he could be a young horse without much training or experience around humans, or he could be an older horse that has learned some bad habits, either from the present rider or someone in his past.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “I bought this colt so we could learn together.” Talk about a wreck looking for a place to happen! The young horse hasn’t learned that he doesn’t need to be afraid of the human. He hasn’t learned to trust the human enough to let the human support him in strange situations. He may not understand what the human is asking him to do. And the human, due to his inexperience, doesn’t know how to present things to the horse in a manner that fits the horse, to help him understand and trust, or to support the horse when the horse gets unsure. In this situation, one of two things usually happens. The horse gets scared and his instinct for self-preservation takes over, in which case he does whatever he thinks he has to do to save his life (kick, paw, buck, run away, etc.) or the horse learns to just take over from the human and become very disrespectful. In either situation, the human loses. In the horse’s mind, it is not a “win or lose” situation. It is a matter of survival. He doesn’t see it as a contest, as the human often does. But if the human isn’t careful, he creates a “contest” which the horse “wins” because he is bigger, faster, and stronger. Now the human has taught the horse something that he didn’t want him to know. In a worst-case scenario, the human gets hurt, scared, or both, and gets completely out of the horse business. What a loss! The horse can be and wants to be a great friend. And for folks with children, it’s a heckuva lot better than television. But keeping and riding “too much horse” can ruin all that.

Then there are the older horses that have learned bad habits from previous riders or owners. Now, these previous riders never meant to teach the horse these bad habits, but that’s what the horse learned. These horses fill in for the human as long as they can, or as long as it suits them. Then they just take over and either do as they please (balk, graze, refuse to go, refuse to stand still for saddling, mounting, etc., return to the barn, refuse to leave the barn, and so forth) or do whatever they feel is necessary to save their lives (buck, paw, run away, kick, pin their ears, etc.). Most of these bad habits don’t start out to be dangerous to the human, but they can escalate in that direction very quickly. Unfortunately, with horses, you can’t just do A, B, C and come out with D to fix problems. It takes a lot of mutual respect, understanding, and communication between horse and human.

In most cases, the human really loves this horse, and the last thing he wants to hear is, “Get rid of him before he hurts you.” In some cases, this is the best advice. And then there is the horse. He’s trying and he would much rather get along but hasn’t properly been shown how.  He doesn’t want to be in trouble. I can see both sides of the coin. I can see what’s going on, which isn’t good, but I also know how good things could be with some changes on the part of the human.  What is best for you and your horse? Be honest with yourself. If you have “too much horse” for the experience, knowledge, and ability that you have right now, you just have “too much horse.” Facts are facts. You can either sell this horse and get one better suited to your abilities or you can work on changing and educating yourself so you can work through the difficulties. In either case, my advice is to seek the help of a professional. There are reputable people who can help you find a more fitting home for the horse and help you find a horse that better suits your experience. Should you choose to keep him and work through your difficulties, you are embarking upon an incredible journey. It will not be short, cheap, or painless. It takes a lot of “try.” You have to make a commitment. You’ll have to pay for your education, one way or another. There will be bumps along the road but there will also be rewards. Most of them will be of intrinsic value that only you and your horse will know. They’re the best kind.

If I were to write a book on training, philosophy, etc. and no matter how many pages I wrote, it would still be incomplete. The more I learn about horses, the more I realize there is to learn. If I had to pick one “main message” I try to get across to people at my clinics it would be “Listen to the horse. He’ll tell you where he’s at and if he understands what you’re asking him to do. The horse can teach you infinitely more than any human because he is the fact, not the opinion.”

Let me leave you with this. The main thing is to enjoy your horses. Just sit up there, let your feet hang down on either side, with your mind in the middle, and have a good time. Heck, they could have you doin’ something afoot!

Buster McClaury has firmly established himself as one of the nation’s leading top horseman. If you would like to audit or participate at his clinic, Buster will be conducting a three-day colt start/problem solving/horsemanship clinic at the K Bar M Equestrian Center in Waring, TX on March 31 - April 2. Spaces are limited. For information and reservations contact Teresa Shaver at 830-688-1759.

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