Documentary tells the story of reined cow horse trainers

SNOWVILLE, Utah -- Back when Brandon Buttars rode a few broncs and a few bulls, a local reined cow horse trainer asked him to hop aboard a colt that needed the green ridden off of him. Not one to mind a bucker, he obliged. As he and Jack Forsberg...

Images of Brandon Buttars cutting are featured in the film Down the Fence. Reined cow horse events are known for cutting, reining, and fence work. The fence work is especially fast paced and often delivers heart stopping moments from great cuts to crashes. (Photo courtesy of Down the Fence)
We are part of The Trust Project.

SNOWVILLE, Utah - Back when Brandon Buttars rode a few broncs and a few bulls, a local reined cow horse trainer asked him to hop aboard a colt that needed the green ridden off of him. Not one to mind a bucker, he obliged. As he and Jack Forsberg, Garland, Utah, forged a relationship, Buttars rode a few of his horses in training and show horses.

"I was like, how do you get one to do this?" says Buttars, of Snowville, Utah. "I didn't know you could get one that broke. I had ridden race horses and all they did was run off."

He eventually trained a handful of his own horses under Forsberg and began showing a few reined cow horses, known for their abilities in cutting, reining and on-fence work. Looking back, he remembers Forsberg yelling at him that he was on the wrong lead, and he didn't know what a lead was.

"I was in for an education," he says. "But I sure liked his horses. I couldn't believe you could get a horse to do that."

Buttars learned from his work with Forsberg and others and has found success within the National Reined Cow Horse Association. And now he is featured along with other successful trainers in a documentary explaining the history and traditions of their horsemanship.


The documentary, Down the Fence, features Buttars and a handful of NRCHA trainers, representing masters and up and comers both: Erin Taormino, a young female trainer from Waurika, Okla.; Doug Williamson, who at 75, operates a full-time training facility in Bakersfield, Calif., with his wife, Carol; Jake Telford, Caldwell, Idaho, who began as a team roper and became enthralled by reined cow horses; and Kelby Phillips, Guthrie, Texas, who is one of the nation's top trainers while still in his 20s.

Buttars, a lifelong cattleman, and his family run the ranch that once belonged to the late parents of his wife, Sophia. They run about 250 commercial mother cows in addition to training 15 to 20 head of horses.


The climate of his home state dictates that he rides in his indoor pen during the coldest months of the winter, which also correlate with the busiest months of the cattle operation. March finds him riding outside again after a winter of cutting and working 3-year-old colts on cattle. Once outside, the horses are used on the ranch, trotted through the cows, and used at brandings roping and dragging calves to fire.

A few years into training, Buttars had a not-so-fruitful trip to the Snaffle Bit Futurity in Reno, Nev., in 2000. He returned to the training barn, and in 2005 returned to the event with a mare in training. For the first time, he qualified for the Limited Open Finals. Then in 2010, aboard Halo Cat, a 2-year-old purchased at Fort Worth, he made the Open Finals, marking his arrival as a trainer.

"I would sure like to win the Snaffle Bit Futurity once," he says. "That, and I'd like to be a Million Dollar Rider. Those are my two goals."

When one of Buttars' clients approached him about a documentary about the trainers and horses of the NRCHA, he thought it was a good idea but wasn't jumping at the opportunity to be on camera and featured. After some gentle prodding by Lori Adamski-Peek, who served as the executive producer and director of photography for the film and is one of his clients, Buttars agreed. He admits, with a chuckle, that having the cameras there at the shows where things didn't go as planned wasn't much fun.

Adamski-Peek is a longtime commercial photographer, and her work has appeared in National Geographic and other well-known publications. As a still photographer, her attention to light helped develop the vignettes she said were truly about each of the people's lives. She is also a reined cow horse owner and enthusiast and was eager to show the intensity and story of the reined cow horse industry.


"You can see the influence of the still photography in the film," she says. "We're all about the light and having to tell a story in one frame. It's vignettes of life."

Directed by MJ Isakson, Down the Fences remained a mere idea for a number of years. When Isakson first attended a reined cow horse competition, she was struck by the lack of media attention and public knowledge about the sport.

She spent about six years watching, learning and getting to know the trainers and their families, something that she said helped make the film possible through that relationship and familiarity. Isakson met a team of still photographers through that networking who eventually lent their skills to the film. Isakson tried to tell each trainer's individual story as well.

"Everybody in that community you could make a full-length film about," she says. "They all have their own stories. They're amazing stories, and they care about each other so much, and they care about the horses so much."

Doug Williamson, the elder statesman of the group featured, was one of the individuals most comfortable in front of the camera initially, Adamski-Peek says. He seemed to understand the importance of telling the story and sharing the history and was at ease.

Isakson says the pressure of the film festivals in which the film was featured paled in comparison to showing the film to the trainers and their families for the first time. The pressure to tell each individual story as part of the whole story that includes the history and the present of the industry was something the crew didn't take lightly. The community involved in the film gathered for a screening in Reno at the Snaffle Bit Futurity, and says said it was a gathering of hall of famers and the top trainers in the industry.

"I walked outside after the film and started getting hit with hugs and pats on the back, and everyone was crying," she says. "It was the best feeling in the whole world that they liked it. After that I didn't even really care if film critics didn't like it."

Film critics, though, did like the film, and it garnered a number of awards from film festivals around the country. It is currently featured on DVD and on demand.


One of the crewmembers commented once to Buttars and Williamson that the most difficult part of filming a documentary is to get the people to act like themselves.

"He told me that was the easy part with us," Buttars says. "I remember Doug telling me, 'Well, hell. We're just cowboys. We don't know no different.'"

What To Read Next
South Dakota Public Utilities Commission hits Banghart Properties LLC, with cease-and-desist on grain trades.
John and Sharon Leiferman's bale-grazing success at Dakota Winds Ranch Inc. is just the latest development in a life of frugality born in part by the 1980s farm crisis.
Maddock Ranch has a commercial herd made up of 100 cows and feeds about 400 to 500 calves annually.
Louis and Cyril Keller are the inventors of the Bobcat skid-steer loader and were selected as 2023 inductees into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.