Boys are like colts: their potential begins with their genes.
Lineage is crucial. A foal by Peptoboonsmall out of a High Brow Cat daughter has a much higher likelihood of becoming a performance champion than the offspring of a mustang stallion out of a dude mare. The son of a stable and loving father has a better chance at life than the son of an abuser or drunk.
Similarly, a pupil’s potential is linked to his teacher. So what would you surmise about Ricky Quinn Jr., a 30-year-old horse clinician with this ancestry: the Father of Natural Horsemanship Tom Dorrance begat Ray Hunt who begat Buck Brannaman who begat Ricky Quinn Jr. To know Ricky, you must first consider his “sire,” Buck Brannaman, the subject of the documentary film Buck and the horse expert in Robert Redford’s movie The Horse Whisperer. Brannaman has long been considered one of the most authentic and effective horse clinicians.
Not to say that Ricky Quinn is Buck Brannaman incarnate, but observe him and the similarities will bowl you over: the buckaroo-style hat with a telescope crease and a bunkhouse roll on the back of the brim, the stately vaquero manner in which he sits his horse, the pragmatism, the candor, and the absence of ego. A man cannot escape his “genes.”
But Ricky’s actual paternal genes come from his father, an intelligent and multi-talented man raised in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, a people-person with a kind heart and a dark side. His emotional volatility and alcoholism likely stemmed from his own father, an alcoholic and abuser who landed his wife in the hospital and knocked his son out cold.
Ricky’s father was always looking for the next best thing. New jobs passed by underneath his wife and two children like lines on a highway. Ricky says, “Just when things would go his way, he’d get bored with it. He was never satisfied.”
When Ricky was age fifteen, his mother, Bea Webster, divorced his father. She says, “He was an amazing individual. He could do almost anything but had a hard time following through.” But “Ricky hung around his dad a lot. Everywhere he went, Ricky went.”
After his parents divorced, Ricky lived with his fatherin Ten Sleep. Webster says, “Age seventeen was the turning point for Ricky.” His life had come to a critical juncture. Ricky’s father had quit another job, and Ricky would have to fend for himself until his dad could land on his feet. “He didn’t have any stick-to-itiveness,” Ricky says. “I just knew in my heart and gut that I didn’t want to turn out that way.” Ricky decided to make his own path.
Ten Sleep was not an affluent town, but most people had enough money to live on. “There were people out there who owned houses and who weren’t trying to figure out how they were going to get gas the next day. I wanted to be that,” Ricky says. “I wasn’t going to be the norm of what my family was.” Determined to finish high school, he lived with a friend for a couple of months, afterwards living for a year and a half in a 7' by 10' RV camper parked in the alley next to the Bighorn Bar.
During this time, Ricky broke colts for a local rancher, who paid for Ricky to attend a Buck Brannaman horsemanship clinic. Brannaman was working with a big three-year-old bay, such a striker that he had to bridle him from the fence. Watching Brannaman work, something came over Ricky. Look at that man work a horse, he thought. I’ve never seen anything like this. There’s something about this guy. That very moment, Ricky decided he wanted what Brannaman had. Intensely Ricky analyzed Brannaman’s every gesture, technique, and word. “I absolutely dedicated my life to keeping this style of horsemanship alive,” Ricky says.
Ricky wrote to Brannaman, offering to work for only room and board, but he referred him to Shayne Jackson, owner of McGinnis Meadows Ranch in Montana. Jackson himself was a Brannaman student. After high school graduation, Ricky arrived at McGinnis Meadows in his ’72 Ford pickup, his worldly belongings packed in two Tupperware containers. “He was very idealistic,” Jackson says. “And he was very passionate about wanting to ride like Buck.” Jackson discovered that Ricky had the same knack as his father for doing most things well. “Ricky was real handy,” Jackson says.
Randy Bock, manager of McGinnis Meadows, observed that Ricky was mature for his age, that he was “on a mission” to learn the style ofhorsemanship that Brannaman taught. Young and intense, with an analytical style that cared more about results than people’s feelings, Ricky “was almost a zealot,” Bock says. Early on “he alienated some people.”
Over the nine years Ricky worked at McGinnis Meadows, he rode in more than twenty-seven Buck Brannaman clinics, emulating him so closely that at times he took on Brannaman’s manner, including his trademark limp. A former McGinnis Meadows cowboy, Dan Lorenz, believes this knack for imitation, this way of learning from others, is one of Ricky’s best skills. “Whatever he liked in that guy, he did it exactly like him,” Lorenz says.
Over time, staff at McGinnis Meadows ranch began noticing that Ricky’s thought process and speech patterns were similar to that of manager Bock. Also, they saw hints of some of Ricky’s father’s traits. On one occasion owner Jackson remarked to Ricky how much he sounded like his dad. Ricky wheeled and faced him. “Don’t ever talk about my dad like that.” Jackson says, “I knew Ricky had fought some of the same demons as his father.” Jackson knew he had gone too far, and he never mentioned Ricky’s father again.
Three years after Ricky began working at McGinnis Meadows, his father killed himself. At first Ricky “got down on his dad,” Bock says. But Bock explained that Ricky had nothing to do with his father’s problems, that his dad had given him much. Ricky should go forward building on what he had.
Eventually Ricky’s horsemanship advanced enough for him to begin conducting his own clinics. The Next Buck, some called him. He tended to attract the same type of horseperson as Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman. Ricky is the “closet thing to a Buck Brannaman protégé that I’ve seen,” says Kristi Fredrickson, a clinic host from California.
Most everyone who has ever ridden in a Ricky Quinn clinic agrees that he is an expert horseman who can read a horse from the inside out and get it to perform at its highest ability.
However, many of Quinn’s students believe his people skills need improvement. Laura Lillie, a clinic participant from Oregon, says that early on Ricky could be “kind of a jerk. But his horsemanship was right on.” He “can be a little rough,” says Dottie Davis from North Carolina.
Ricky agrees. “I’ve made a lot of people cry,” he admits with a pinch of regret and a spoonful of deal-with-it. He believes that blunt, CEO-type personalities are necessary to get things done. Perhaps he does not realize that most CEOs make lousy teachers.
Many of Ricky’s students, including Lillie, believe his people skills are improving. In fairness to him, this terseness and straight talk is partly a product of his horsemanship lineage. Brannaman’s teacher, Ray Hunt, was known for his honest, brusque style. Even the gentler Brannaman can be a bit terse. This directness is sometimes a necessity. Ricky explains it this way: It is not his job to worry about people’s feelings, to get them to understand. The teacher’s job is simply to present the information. The responsibility for learning rests with the student.
These days, Ricky has moved on from McGinnis Meadows, but he looks back on his time there with thankfulness. “Buck has always been the mental focus for me,” he says, “but McGinnis Meadows is, in a lot of ways, the place that shaped me.” He continues to conduct clinics all across the country. Participation is increasing steadily as word of his ability spreads.
Ricky is engaged to a beautiful, personable young woman, Sarah Sandusky, and the two of them are building a life on their new place in North Platte, Nebraska. As usual, Ricky is doing much of the work himself. Sarah and he plan to build a sizeable herd of stocker cattle and to continue teaching, traveling, and conducting clinics. The Dorrance/Hunt/Brannaman style of horsemanship “will not die in my generation,” he says.
So what has been the key factor in Ricky Quinn Jr.’s evolution? He takes the good from both his parents and moves past the bad. Whatever qualities he lacks, he learns from his role models. Ask Ricky his personal motto and the words come out quickly: “You are who you hang out with.” Every chance he gets, he rides with Buck.
Story Behind the Story...
Many consider Buck Brannaman to be one of the world's finest horse whisperers. When my editor called to ask if I would profile Brannaman's best student, Ricky Quinn, I thought I'd be writing a normal profile, but the more I reported on the story the more I realized it ran much deeper. I caught some flack from a few of Ricky's friends from what they viewed as my negative depiction, but I knew I had been honest and fair. Profiles that only puff up a person with all his or her grand accomplishments are dishonest and uninteresting. I knew I had been accurate and fair with Ricky slept well knowing I had written a fair piece.