How One Grainger County Cowboy is Taming Wild Mustangs
The Horse Whisperer starred Robert Redford as a soft-spoken cowboy with an uncanny ability to tame wild or spooked horses with a gentle touch, look or word. Mike Branch of Flying B Ranch in Blaine politely dismisses the title of “horse whisperer.” But he agrees he may share a similar philosophy with the movie character.
“It’s not about breaking a horse’s spirit,” says the Grainger County Farm Bureau member. Instead, gentling a horse requires the traits of a leader, the very same characteristics required to be a good leader of people. It is “a partnership” between human and horse, the equine expert explains. Branch has written several related books, including Leadership Through the Eyes of a Horseman and Getting Started Naturally … your colts first ride, in which he coined the following guide: “Leadership through trust; partnership through leadership; trust, partnership and leadership through love, understanding and communication.”
He puts each of these principles into play when he tames wild horses at his ranch.
Why mustangs? “In 1971, the protection of the mustang got handed over to the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM),” Branch explains. Because a mustang herd will double in size every four years, to maintain a manageable populace, the BLM began capturing the wild horses, then trying to find them homes.
Branch calls mustangs “basically descendants of American history.” He cites horses brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus and other European explorers, draft horses pulling wagons westward-ho, and a herd lost in a blizzard by Lewis and Clark. Mustangs are known by the name of the area where they settled. “Where they are from is as important to a mustang as knowing the bloodline of a quarter horse,” he says.
The BLM as well as the Mustang Heritage Foundation often hosts events around the country and the world where Branch teaches and demonstrates horse training. Last June, the foundation held a Meet the Mustang event in conjunction with the Robertson County Farm Bureau Farm Days at Paula and Randall Carr’s Wild Horse & Burro Center in Cross Plains. Meet the Mustang events give trainers such as Branch 100 days to train a wild mustang followed by competition to show what the mustangs have been taught. Afterward, the gentled mustangs are often adopted.
Horses weren’t always in Branch’s life. The nomadic journey of being in a military family kept Branch from horse ownership until he was an adult. He jokes his childhood echoed that famous line from performer Johnny Cash: “I’ve been everywhere, man,” which, for Branch, included 16 schools and homes all over the world. When it came time to settle down, he chose Tennessee. “It’s just so beautiful here,” he says.
He began with well-trained horses but soon learned the skills needed to gentle less settled steeds. “I just made it my passion,” he says. “Before long, I started breaking in horses myself.”
When the BLM held a mustang adoption in Knoxville, “I ended up taking a mustang home,” he recalls. Soon after, he trained another mustang for someone else, then received invitations to share his skills at events across the U.S. and even in England and Canada. His days start around 5 a.m. and involve horses “until bedtime,” he says with a chuckle.
“When you get a wild horse, they are quite fearful of humans,” he says. No wonder. “They were living on their own on the open range. Mankind came in and rounded them up and herded them into steel cages and took them away from their land and gave them a bunch of shots and put brands on their necks. Naturally, they’re scared stiff.” The horse trainer’s job, Branch says, is “to develop a partnership with that horse, displaying silent leadership. Then the horse will place its trust in the human.”
Most recently Branch held a multi-month “horse university” event at his East Tennessee ranch. Over the course of a few months, participants returned several times to hone the detailed skills he shares. “A lot of people have admired what I’ve done with Karma,” he says, referring to his current mustang.
Using his horse-training knowledge, Branch has also done presentations about leadership for business executives, police officers, doctors, attorneys and more. He’s even used the techniques of gentling unbroken horses as “an analogy of the gospel of Christ,” he says. “There is a wide audience because the horse has so much to say … if we just open our hearts and listen to them.”