If you’re in the know about horses, chances are good you already know a lot about Buck Brannaman, the celebrated trainer and equine expert famed for spreading the gospel of “natural horsemanship” — the process of communicating with horses through empathy and instinct, not threats and punishment — at the four-day clinics that occupy three-quarters of his time every year.
But even if you can’t tell a pony from an appaloosa, it’s still likely that you have at least indirect knowledge of Brannaman and his sensitive, soft-spoken approach to horse handling. After all, he is the real-life inspiration for The Horse Whisperer, the best-selling Nicholas Evans novel that Robert Redford adapted into a popular 1998 film.
During production of that movie, Brannaman served as technical adviser, horse trainer and (quite literally) role model while Redford performed double duty as director and lead actor. He also served as unofficial script consultant, offering suggestions for a more realistic ending — one markedly different from that of Evans’ novel — that Redford took to heart.
Brannaman survived a Dickensian childhood with a physically abusive father, and later drew upon his hard-won life lessons while developing his humane techniques for training horses and their owners.
Flash forward 13 years, and now Brannaman is ready for his own close up as a genuine movie star. No kidding: He’s the subject of Buck, a visually striking and deeply affecting documentary that has been embraced by critics and audiences as one of the summer movie season’s most pleasant surprises.
Skillfully directed by Cindy Meehl, a first-time filmmaker with a background in fashion and art, the movie is a fascinating and inspiring character study that shows how Brannaman — a discipline of legendary horse trainers Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance — survived a Dickensian childhood with a physically abusive father, and later drew upon his hard-won life lessons while developing his humane techniques for training horses and their owners.
“A lot of times,” Brannaman says early in the documentary, “rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems.” Either way, Buck repeatedly demonstrates, a little horse sense goes a long way.
Brannaman visited Houston a few days ago to promote the exceptional documentary about his extraordinary life. He didn’t have to speak much louder than a whisper to have this interviewer hanging on his every word.
CultureMap: There's a scene fairly early in Buck where you explain to folks at one of your "natural horsemanship" clinics just how bizarre and even frightening any kind of horsemanship might seem to a horse. And I have to admit — I never really thought of it from the horse’s point of view before.
Buck Brannaman: [Laughs] That phrase — natural horsemanship — has been coined by a lot of different people in this business. And, really, it’s like a slogan.
Like if you go to Burger King, you can have it your way. Or you go to Wal-Mart, where there’s always low prices very day. But the term “natural” has always amused me — because there isn’t anything natural about getting on the back of a horse in a fashion similar to how a lion might attack a horse. There really isn’t anything that’s more unnatural than crawling on the back of an animal that’s been a prey animal for thousands of years.
It’s remarkable how much they’d have to trust you to permit you to do that. And it’s remarkable that you can really go against everything in nature and persuade a horse to let you do that.
CM: Of course you could say pretty much the same thing about allowing yourself to be the subject of a documentary. Especially a documentary as revealing as this one. How did director Cindy Meehl get you to trust her enough to tell your story?
BB:Well, we’d already established a bit of a relationship. Years ago, she went to one of my clinics as a result of a recommendation from a friend of mine in Montana. And then it was about five years before she went again. She went to a clinic here in Texas — in Belton — and then I saw her at this friend of mine’s guest ranch in Montana.
There, it’s a little different from a normal clinic, because I’ll have breakfast, lunch and dinner with all the guests. We’ll all visit a little bit, and kind of get to know each other a little bit more.
And while we were having lunch, she said, “You know, I wish there was some way that all the people I know — even the ones who aren’t horse people — could see this, and be exposed to what you’re doing. I just know that it would touch their hearts the same way it’s touched all of us who love horses.”
CM: But why her? Why trust a first-time filmmaker with no real track record?
BB: Damned if I know. Other than the fact that I knew her well enough to know that she wouldn’t disappoint me. And that she’d try to honor and show some respect for what I’ve spent my whole life doing. And it turned out to be a good gamble — even though it was a bit rash on my part. Because it really is a gamble to have somebody tell the story of your life. I mean, what if she hadn’t told the story well? It’d be kind of hard to make the movie go away.
She said, “It’s a great story and it needs to be told. And I’d like to do a documentary about you.” I’d been asked to do that before, and I’d always said no. But I guess she caught me at the right moment, because I said, “Well, go ahead. What’s keeping you?”
CM: You talk about some extremely personal things in Buck. Everything from your truly horrible childhood to your ultimate decision to forgive your abusive father. Was it difficult for you to be so candid and uncensored on camera?
BB: Well, for a lot of years in the clinics, in small doses, I have shared things that are fairly intimate about myself. And the sole purpose of that was to establish a rapport, and a trust, with other people. So that they would realize that I’m just as vulnerable as anybody else, and I’ve had just as imperfect a life as anyone else. I’m no better than anyone else.
Because, you know, sometimes people might come to a clinic and feel a little intimidated and nervous. And as long as those things are kind of getting in your way, I’m not going to be very effective with you. So I found that approach to be real disarming with people. And in turn, they’d feel confident enough to trust me with what’s making their whole situation tick.
So it wasn’t a new thing to me, other than the fact that I was doing it on camera rather than on a personal basis with somebody. The things I say are no different from the things I’ve put down in my book (The Faraway Horses, co-written with William Reynolds). I told the story for a reason, because it may do some good. It may be encouraging to people who are maybe living a life of despair right now. And really don’t see the way out. Or at least a good way out.
I simply don’t accept the notion that just because you have a bit of a dark background that you don’t have a future, that it’s already preordained how it’s going to turn out. I just don’t accept that. That was a big message that I wanted to get across to people — that they could make the choice in their life to do the right thing.
In my case, my childhood was stolen from me, and I couldn’t do a damn thing about that. But my free will is something that couldn’t be taken away. And no matter how you’re raised — most people, if you’re honest with yourself, you still know right from wrong. You just do. Unless there’s something drastically wrong with you mentally. I knew right from wrong.
And so, early on, I put quite a bit of thought into how I was going to live my life as a father if I ever got to be one. In an odd way, I knew quite a bit about being a father long before I became one — because I knew all the things I wouldn’t be.
CM: It’s actually very touching — and more than a little uplifting — when we see you interacting with your wife and children at various points throughout Buck. But we learn next to nothing about what happened to your older brother, Bill, after the two of you were taken away from your abusive dad. Does he prefer to stay out of the spotlight?
BB: Not really. It’s just that we knew the focus of the film was going to be on horses, and my life with horses, and how that effects change in other people’s lives. So it was really apples to oranges in terms of our lives. That, and the fact that we had to figure out how to turn 300 hours [of footage] into 88 minutes [of running time]. In a situation like that, you sort of have to prioritize the message.
But as far as how things ended up for my brother — he joined the Coast Guard right out of high school, and spent his entire career there. And during the course of that, he got married and raised a family. And now he lives a comfortable life in Wisconsin.
CM: Some of the people interviewed in Buck — including Robert Redford — sound like they think what you do with horses is downright magical. But sometimes the magic doesn’t work, right? I’m thinking about those scenes where you try to help a horse that’s — well, pretty much beyond helping.
BB: That horse really was an anomaly. In nature, it wouldn’t have lived anyway. When the mare died, it would have died, too. In fact, it was already essentially dead — and that’s what gave it the brain damage when they revived it. So that’s a very, very rare situation.
The thing is, you’ll notice that when I got done with him on the first day, he went out of the corral in pretty good shape. He led more or less like a gentleman, probably for the first time in his life. But the next day, it was like starting over. It was as if I hadn’t accomplished anything the first day.
With that kind of horse, you might have 200 days like that in a row, where nothing carries over from one day to the next, if you’re going to take on that kind of a project. Maybe 200 days, maybe 500 days later, maybe something would start to carry over to the next day, where you’re not always starting from zero. But it would be a long-term investment of time.
Which is fine. But the big issue there was the lady who owned the horse in no way had the ability to be able to skate that thin line between getting something done and getting herself killed. The margin of error was paper thin on that horse. He was not a big problem to ride. It was how lethal he was after you got back on the ground.
And there’s no possible way she could have survived more than one session without me looking over her shoulder every second. So the moral issue there was, she was not going to survive without me. And that was a horse that probably was going to get somebody else killed.
CM: Why was it so important for you to include the story of this particular horse in Buck?
BB: The whole point to that was, you hope that people would get the big picture. That whether you’re going to have horses or dogs or children, with that comes a great responsibility. And the responsibility isn’t just keeping them fed and putting a roof over their heads. You also have to raise them, and teach them, and help them make good decisions. Help them learn right from wrong. Well, of course, that hadn’t been done with that horse.
And if you think about the parallel here — and I’m pleased that most people have gotten it — that horse might just as easily been me. But the influence of my foster parents at just the right time shaped things up to where I wasn’t a lost cause. Without them, I might just as easily have gone in that same direction.