Buck Brannaman, the original horse whisperer.
Photo: Courtesy IFC Films
An Interview With
Robert Redfords Horse Whisperer - Buck Brannaman
By Beverly Cohn
those of you who remember Robert Redfords stunning portrayal of
the magical horse whisperer in The Horse Whisperer, it will
be a special treat to meet Buck Brannaman, the gentleman cowboy on whom
Redfords character was based.
First-time director Cindy Meehl has won critical
acclaim for her documentary on Buck Brannaman.
Photo: Courtesy IFC Films
Brannaman is the subject of Buck, a poignant,
beautifully shot, compelling documentary by first-time director Cindy
Meehl and garnered the prestigious Audience Award at this years
Sundance Film Festival. Bucks handling the problems with horses
and their owners can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for how we
handle our human relationships, as the same principles seem to apply.
Brannamans beginnings were less than auspicious
as he and his brother, highly skilled at performing rope tricks at rodeos,
grew up being savagely beaten by their alcoholic, sadistic father. They
were removed from the home by Social Services at a young age and were
raised by loving foster parents who literally saved their lives and
put Buck on a positive road that would take him through life.
Dressed in traditional cowboy attire, the soft-spoken
Buck sat for an exclusive interview with your reporter and the following
text has been edited for print purposes.
Cohn: Youre on a hectic nationwide tour publicizing
Buck. Are you getting tired?
Buck: Someone in New York, who thought I was exhausted,
asked me that question. I told him that I worked really hard in my life
and know what doing a days work is and while I might run a little
short of sleep sometimes, this was far from being hard work. (laughs)
Cohn: How was your New York experience?
Buck: I was apprehensive about New York because I knew
I didnt exactly blend in. (laughs) But, I couldnt
have been more warmly received and I realized that there are some things
about all of us, no matter where were from, that connects us as
humans. Were looking for the same sorts of contentment in our
lives and while some people are searching a little harder than others,
were not all that different. So at this point, I dont mind
much were we go because I know Im going to be around people
who seem to care about the same things I care about.
Cohn: Just about all the screenings of Buck
at Sundance were sold out and there was major buzz about the documentary.
What was that like for you?
Buck: I had never been to anything like that before
so I didnt really know what to expect. I was overwhelmed that
after every screening and Q & A there, was a standing ovation. We
wanted to film to touch the hearts of people in general and I guess
Cohn: You have quoted as saying, Your Horse
is a mirror to your soul. In your clinics, do you have a different
approach to each horse and its owner?
Buck: You might measure your approach to a horse the
same way as your approach to people because there are going to be some
horses, like some people, who might be inclined to tune you out. For
those kinds of horses you might need to have your presence change in
way that you appear to be ten times your size in order to be effective.
On the other hand, you might have a horse that is very timid or fragile
and it wouldnt take much to get him lost or afraid. In that case,
you might have to appear to be one-tenth of your size. Theoretically
the human is supposed to be the smart one so as you get acquainted with
the horse, you explore what its going to take for him to understand
what you would like him do, with as little trouble as possible. Youre
trying to avoid conflict, not trying to create it.
Buck conducting one of his horse clinics. Photo:
Courtesy IFC Films
Cohn: Do you size up the horse problem
Buck: When people bring their horses to my clinic, you
see how they get along with each other. If theyre not getting
along, its easy to identify anything the owner is doing thats
contrary to the horses nature. The things they might learn about
themselves, that are either undesirable or desirable to their horses,
will eventually result in the horses acceptance of them. The things
that change within you will impact your entire life with regard to how
you deal with and approach problems. There have been so many times over
the years where people have told me that they thought they were coming
to one of my clinics just to get a little handier with their horses.
In the beginning, I would tell them that I thought thats all they
needed, but it usually turned out to be about something else.
Cohn: How is your technique different from horse
training methods from the past?
Buck: The conventional wisdom forty or fifty years ago,
was to create conflict. You conquer and win. Unfortunately thats
how some people still deal with each other. You cant make something
happen with a horse, but you can fix things and let it happen. You think
of setting things up in such a way that eventually your idea becomes
his. Thats a hard thing for people to get through their heads
because they think the harder they push and the more they try to impose
their will, that that going to pay off, but it doesnt. When
they learn that its not going to pay off, then they may start
to rethink how to handle situations not only with their horses, but
with human beings as well.
Buck takes a gentle approach to the horses
who are brought to his clinic for training. Photo:
Courtesy IFC Films
Cohn: You came out of a very abusive childhood and
Im wondering if people talk to you about their experiences?
Buck: Its amazing how many people Ive connected
with through this documentary and my book. So many folks have had dark
things happen to them and they come up to me and tell me they are glad
that Ive talked about this and feel like were kindred spirits.
Cohn: Many children who come out of abusive homes
grow up and become abusers. What happened to you that you became
this gentle, loving spirit?
Buck: I do get this question from time to time because
so many kids who were abused wind up in jail or having a life of despair.
In my case, when I first went to live with my foster parents, I didnt
think they could do me much good so my first refuge was the horse. But,
my foster parents offered friendship and a place to hide, which I hadnt
experienced before. Gradually, as I got more comfortable and realized
that they wanted the best for me, and didnt mean me any harm,
I stopped being afraid. My foster dad, as much as I didnt think
he was that wise at the time, never talked about what we had been through.
He just dealt with the moment and gave us direction and purpose. He
would praise us when we did well and chew us out, just like any other
kid, if we didnt do so well. But even when he chewed us out, we
knew that he still loved us. The influence both of them had on me at
twelve years old was a profound turn in my life and set me on the right
"Working with horses sort of picked me
and now thats all I do." Photo: Courtesy
Cohn: Do you have a special turning point memory?
Buck: One summer we were stacking hay and youd
have a little bit of time in between loads where you could sit on the
haystack. I dont know why the thought came on me, but I realized
that because of what I had been through that some people sort of felt
sorry for me. I grew up in a small town and everyone knew what my father
was doing to us. I thought that since they felt sorry for me, I could
pretty much get away with anything and everybody would make excuses
for me. I really thought about that and felt that for once in my life
I didnt want to be any different from anybody else. I thought
this might be my chance to grow up like all the other kids and maybe
I could figure out what it would be like to just be a normal kid. So,
I just wouldnt accept sympathy.
Cohn: There are scenes of you and your brother doing
rope tricks as little kids. You knew if you made a mistake you would
get a beating. Can you remember what you felt like?
Buck: The dread would sometimes be worst than the beating
and its crazy because he would beat us up like he was in a bar
fight. It wasnt just a whipping. It was like he was beating up
a full-grown man. There would be times when hed say, "When
we get home you know whats comin." You knew there was nothing
you could say or do to change his mind. Guaranteed it was going to happen
and it always did. You almost wanted to tell him to stop the truck and
lets just get it over with. They say God wont give you anymore
than you can handle and there have been a few times in my life where
I thought you know I really dont want to know how much I can handle.
Cohn: Why did you write your book?
Buck: Probably the biggest reason why I wrote Faraway
Horses was that I wanted people to know that you can change the
course of your life. The course that was set for me early in life was
going in the wrong direction and it would have been a whole lot easier
to end up just like my dad and yet Im nothing like him. I wanted
people to know that they can do something about it and didnt have
to accept the hand they were dealt. No matter who might have tormented
you, the one thing they cant ever take away from you is that at
some point in your life youre given an opportunity to make choices
and you have to own the path you take because there comes a time when
you can no longer blame other people for where you are and have to take
charge of your own life.
Cohn: Your mother died when you were eleven. Did
she try to protect you and your brother?
Buck: It was a very touchy situation for her. She was
from a traditional German family and would have been disowned if she
had left my father regardless of his cruelty. So she stayed and held
the family together because she thought that was the best thing. Many
times over the years people asked me why she stayed when she knew what
was going on. She had no education or any way of making a living and
had nowhere to go. In the late 60s and early 70s if someone like her
left, she would get blamed. Society would wonder what was wrong with
her that she couldnt keep her family together. Times have changed,
thanks goodness. She lived a very sad life being married to man who
was mistreating his children.
Cohn: Do you talk to other people who came out of
the foster care system?
Buck: This isnt a direct answer because it involves
my mother. I was asked to do a lecture for the foster care providers
in Montana. When I pulled into hotel parking lot at the Red Lion Hotel
in Helena, the answer to why my mom stayed suddenly dawned on me. I
finally remembered, after all these years, that she had been there to
take a one-week real estate course to get her real estate license. She
had passed the exam and was very proud of that. Sadly, she died two
months later and never sold a house. I think she was planning on leaving
and saving all of our lives, but never got the chance to follow through.
Had I not gone there for that conference, I never would have gotten
Cohn: Looking back on your life, did you ever imagine
it would enfold this way and that you would be able to heal so many
people through their horses?
Buck: You know were all trying to figure out how
get through life and Im very humbled that Ive been put in
a position where I might be able to do something positive for somebody
and hopefully come up with saying the right thing at the right time.
Cohn: What would you say to someone whos been
abused or is the abuser?
Buck: When I was a little guy I stuttered terribly.
All the kids made fun of me, but I was a pretty good trick roper and
performer as long as I didnt have to say much. I realized years
later that it had a lot to do with my environment. So I had to cure
my own stuttering and when I saw The Kings Speech
with my family, I thought I feel you man. So, do the right
thing. No matter where you come from, deep down you still know right
from wrong and you dont have to wait for someone to make the right
choices for you.
Cohn: In the film there was one very difficult, tragically
disturbed horse. What message do you want people to take home with them,
especially as it applies to parenting?
Buck: What I wanted everyone to learn was that whether
you have horses or dogs or kids, responsibility comes with that and
its not just a matter of putting a roof over their heads and keeping
them fed, but you also have a responsibility to be their caretaker and
to take care of them. You need to teach them how to fit into the world,
what they need to do to survive, and to teach them right from wrong.
Im happy because some people who have seen Buck saw
that I could have ended up permanently damaged or destroyed like the
yellow horse in the film. Im pleased that they understood the
underlying point and got the bigger picture.
"In about a month, Ill be back to being
me driving down the road, working with horses and people."
Photo: Courtesy IFC Films
Cohn: Whats next for you?
Buck: In about a month, Ill be back to being me
driving down the road, working with horses and people. Im
not really running away from anything Im running to it.
I wrote this book Faraway Horses a few years ago that really
tells the story in depth about my brother and me as kids, covering some
of the very dark things we went through. I wanted to encourage people
that even if you might have a bad beginning, you dont have to
have a bad ending. Cindys documentary has brought up interest
in the story and were actually fairly close to doing a feature
film based on my book. Its really not going to be a horse film,
although there will be some of that because the horse really defines
me, and has been such a great salvation and rescue for me. Working with
horses sort of picked me and now thats all I do.
Cohn: Its been a special pleasure meeting you.
Buck: Likewise indeed.