Natural horsemanship unites trainers, animals and owners at Clews Ranch in Carmel Valley


By Diana Saenger

Dan M. “Buck” Brannaman, a renowned horse trainer and practitioner in the field of natural horsemanship, recently held his horse clinic at the Clews Horse Ranch in Carmel Valley. Working alongside Christian Clews, Buck returns to the ranch every even year to do a four-five day clinic on horsemanship and cow working.

Brannaman’s philosophy of working with horses, which is based on the idea of working with the horse’s nature, gained national attention last year when Cindy Meehl’s documentary “Buck” hit the big screen. A true American cowboy and horse gentler, Brannaman was the inspiration for the Nicholas Evans novel “The Horse Whisperer” and Robert Redford’s adviser and double for the 1998 film based on the book.”

Brannaman has been coming to the Clews Ranch to do clinics for 15 years and had become close friends with Christian Clews. His family owns the sprawling 40-acre ranch where they have been boarding horses since 1992.

“Buck is amazing,” said Clews’ mother Bunny. “We used to host Ray Hunt, one of Buck’s mentors who used to come here, and then Buck started coming. We offer on-site training for horses and riders, roping and cattle working.”

Christian Clews grew up with a family who owned and loved horses. He attended La Jolla Elementary and then La Jolla High School. “I won a personality award in high school because I wore a cowboy hat and boots all through school,” he said. “I thought a cowboy was the greatest American hero so that was going to be my occupation.”

Before digging his heels into the ranch permanently, Clews became a fireman in Deer Springs for seven years until an injury sent him full-time back to the ranch. “There was nothing better for me than to get up out of bed, head outside to run my own business, manage 90 horses and 30 head of cattle, rope and give clinics to horse owners,” said Clews who is on the same bandwagon as Brannaman about teaching owners to communicate with their animals.

“Your horse is a mirror to your soul, and sometimes you may not like what you see. Sometimes, you will,” said Brannaman in an interview with him last summer. “People don’t understand what’s going on with the horse, how he thinks, and what it takes to get him to make the right decisions. It’s almost like the more modern and technical we get the more instincts and connection to nature we lose. On bad days it’s like a dictatorship, but on a good day it’s an enlightened monarchy. That’s why people are so interested in what I’m doing because it’s such a great feeling to connect with the horse and feel like that horse depends on them.”

After getting a degree in animal science and working with horses at his ranch and across the country, Clews agrees with this philosophy.

“People have come here for years to learn from Buck; but I used to have to beg people to come to the clinic,” Clews said. “The documentary brought a lot of attention to what he does and we had a large response for the clinic that just ended —both in horsemanship and cow working — as well as more than 300 spectators. It’s nice to see Buck getting the publicity he deserves.”

Brannaman is keen on respect — something he and his brother Smokie never received as kids from their dad, a vicious and abusive bully who beat them regularly. Eventually, it was Brannaman’s Christian foster parents who changed his life and created a goal for him to make a animal feel safe. He wrote three books to help those in the midst of darkness to realize there are choices in life.

“My childhood was taken, and I can’t get that back,” Brannaman said. “But no matter how bad someone is treating you, the one thing they can’t take from you is your will. So because of the things I went through as a kid, I could feel how the horse felt.”

Clews is happy living and working on the ranch and mentoring his 13-year-old son Colton. Clews loves his ranch, the work and teaching owners new ways to live with their animals.

“When you learn how to use equipment properly and learn to respect the different disciplines of riding a horse, whether it’s English saddle, bare back with feathers, or dressage, it doesn’t matter. A good horse is a good horse and a bad horse is a bad horse. And a bad horse comes from bad horsemen,” Clews said.

The Clews ranch itself has undergone a significant transformation. In 1905 the Carmelite Sisters of Mercy established a dairy farm and monastery on the property (thus how the name Carmel Valley came to be). They also operated St. Joseph’s Hospital on Sixth Ave and Market Street in downtown San Diego, which was eventually named Mercy Hospital.

Visitors are welcome to visit the Clews Horse Ranch on some Sundays. Call (858) 755-5022 or visit

for more information. Clews Horse Ranch is located at 11500 Clews Ranch Road, San Diego, 92130.