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The Horse Whisperer

In 1976, a native New Yorker made his way to Colorado. He loved horses, and had spent the better part of his young life with the majestic animals. Now, 35 years later, Tony Brunetti is the cowboy he always wanted to be.

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 This article was a finalist for the 2012 City and Regional Magazine Award in the photography category. 

Tony Brunetti first pet a horse when his family was on a day trip to upstate New York, far from their bustling tenement in a predominantly Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. Tony was just five or six years old at the time, and a group of five horsemen stopped to let the wide-eyed boy have a closer look. “I felt the muscle and the bone and the hair, and the smell. The beauty was just overwhelming,” he says. “I knew right then and there that that’s what I was going to do for the rest of my life.” After the horses moved on, Tony followed the hoof prints along the dirty street, trying to catch up with the magnificent animals that had come upon him almost as if by some divine plan.

The young New Yorker didn’t waste time in pursuing his dream. As he got older, he landed himself a string of jobs that would take him from a gig at a Queens stable to training horses for the New York City Police Department’s Mounted Unit. He dabbled in horse racing—as a jockey—before taking a position as the assistant trainer at an exclusive horse farm in Florida, where he oversaw the conditioning of the prized animals bred for life on the racetrack.

By the time he was 23, he had started a family with his young wife, Denise, and found the circus life of horse racing didn’t offer the kind of stability he needed. It also didn’t offer the Roy Rogers ruggedness he’d dreamt about as a child. “When I was back East, I was always considered a horseman, you know, being around thoroughbreds,” Tony says, “but I always wanted to be a cowboy.”

So, in 1976, he came to Colorado—and over the years became one of the best horse trainers in the state. Today, Tony showcases his work at the Extreme Mustang Makeover competition, in which he takes a wild mustang to show-ready in just 100 days.

Ring of Fire

Tony trained a three-year-old gelding named Brooklyn for his first Extreme Mustang Makeover competition. On the first day, Brooklyn was resting his head on Tony’s shoulder. By the ninth week, Brooklyn could jump through a ring of fire, tolerate pistols being shot from his back, and had even toppled his biggest fear: crinkly, noisy plastic tarps. Tarps are notoriously challenging for horses, who are especially sensitive to the sound and spontaneous movement of the tarp, often rearing and snorting at the sight of one. Tony began his performance for the Makeover with Brooklyn draped from head to hoof in a tarp, riding around the arena to Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra.” Brooklyn would go on to draw the second-highest bid during the sale following the event.

Two Become One

After years of working with horses on other people’s property, Tony’s youngest son joined a small group of partners to purchase a boarding facility named TBR Ranch in Fort Lupton. The facility offers a variety of boarding services, but has recently been home to the family’s latest endeavor: training horses for the Extreme Mustang Makeover. The event gives top trainers just 100 days to transform a wild horse into a show-quality animal. When Tony wants to show someone how he sees his horses, he’ll grab the person by the collar and pull sharply. “It’s rude,” he says, imitating the riders who opt to steer their horses by brute force. His preferred method, one now widely accepted among the world’s best trainers, uses a system of pressure, timing, and release designed to build a bond of trust between the horse and its rider. “I want to make my idea the horse’s idea,” he says, contrasting his curt collar tug by putting his arm around the person, politely turning them without more than a small, gentle gesture.

All in La Famiglia

Tony (whose childhood home in Brooklyn is pictured on the facing page, top left) and his wife, Denise, have three children—Anthony, John, and Christina—six grandchildren, a dog, and a string of horses that Tony collects, trades away, and replaces with cyclical regularity. The difference between his children and his horses is probably best distinguished by his family’s permanent and important position in his life: They still eat together each Sunday, meeting at Tony’s Western-decorated house in Broomfield. “When you really think about it, training horses is not much different than raising children,” he says. “You gotta be clear; it’s gotta be black and white. When they do wrong, you let ’em know it’s wrong. When they do right, you let ’em know it’s right. So it’s really not a big thing. Children just don’t walk on four feet.”

The Gang

Tony’s transformation from Brooklyn city boy to Colorado wrangler is perhaps best exemplified by his membership in the Hole In The Wall Gang. This invite-only group of 49 men, which takes its name from Butch Cassidy’s outlaw band, has a tradition deeply rooted in a passion for horses and Western lore. The group ranges from Hollywood actors to ordinary tradesmen, with membership turning on little more than a person’s overall fit in the group. The 34-year-old organization mounts a yearly ride to a secret location to relive a piece of Western history. It’s not exactly the first place you’d expect to find a New York City transplant, but then again, people really are a little like horses. “They’ll always do something to surprise you,” Tony says.

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