Buck Brannaman is one of today’s leading horse trainers and helped inspire the movie The Horse Whisperer. His gentle and soulful technique to horsemanship has served countless horses and people over the past 29 years, and he has no plans to quit. The new documentary Buck, by director Cindy Meehl, follows Brannaman, 49, as he leads clinics, talks about his abusive childhood, and shows his love for both horses and people. Buck is now in select theatres. Annika
Schaffroth sat down with Brannaman in advance of the movie’s release.
“You know, a lot of people say, ‘That must have been a lot of work,’ and I say, ‘What I do is a lot of work.’” –Buck Brannaman
You’ve been on movie sets before, but what was it like making this film?
This was quite different from The Horse Whisperer because it really wasn’t like a movie set. There weren’t any actors. I told Cindy [Meehl] when she first started the project that I’m going to be loyal to the people that go to my clinics because they’re the ones that came to the dance with me when the music started. I’m not going to neglect anybody, and I’m not going to do anything special. I’m going to do what I do, and your job is to anticipate when something cool happens with a horse, so that you’re in the right place at the right time. I said the best thing you can do is be invisible.
How was it opening up about your past to a larger audience?
It really wasn’t too bad for me because I’ve found over the years in the clinics that when I was able to share a little bit about myself and my past, and show people that I’m vulnerable just like anybody else, and that I’ve had an imperfect life, that seems to put people at ease so they don’t mind sharing themselves with me. It establishes a trust, and when I show them that I trust them enough with things that are intimate to me, they’ll usually return the favor, which makes the teacher-student relationship real workable without wasting a lot of time.
When did you discover that you had a real gift with horses?
I never made the discovery; I’ve just devoted my life to trying to be a good hand with horses. It’s not like I woke up one morning, looked in the mirror and said “Buddy, you’ve got a gift.” I mean it’s just not how I’m wired. I’ve just tried real hard not to disappoint my teachers and what they hoped that I would accomplish. And life is a gift to me, and having received a gift like that, I’m just trying to live it as good as I can. I’m just as imperfect as anybody else, but I want to have accomplished something in my life that was good, and maybe helped some horses and people.
How much about working with horses is teachable, and how much is instinctive?
You’re going to get some people who just naturally have a nice feel for a horse. A horse feels more comfortable around some people than others. But the bigger factor is that through study you can change the things within yourself that you need to change to be able to fit the horse better. Yet you’ll get some people who might have some God-given ability. But if they don’t have some guts and try, it isn’t going to amount to anything anyways.
The film depicts you as third or fourth in the lineage of great horsemen. Do you feel like a trailblazer?
A lot of people will throw around the term horsemen. I’ve only met a handful in my life, and I’m not one of them, yet. But I hope that through this someday when I die, and I hope it’s a long time from now, that if I see Ray [Hunt] and Tom and Bill [Dorrance] again that they’ll figure I ended up becoming a horseman. And coming from them it’ll really mean something. It’s very flattering when someone calls me a horseman. It’s nice to hear, but someday I want to hear it form those guys, to hear them say that I did it like they hoped I would.
Tell me about your horse.
There are two that I rode in the documentary, both are horses I raised. The main one you see the most, the darker colored one, that’s Rebel. All my horses are big horses; they’re all 16 hands or better. I want something I can go cowboy on, that I can go rope and tie down a cattle on, and I felt like the last 25 years that the quarter horses are getting smaller all the time. I’m 6’1” and some of those quarter horses are beautiful horses, but I’d feel like I was riding a pony.
Where do you raise your horses?
We raise a few horses in Wyoming. I raise what I think I can ride. I just had two unbelievable colts born here in the last month by a cutting horse stud that I think one is going to be the next Doc O’Lena. His name is Metallic Cat and he is unbelievable. To me he is to cutting a cow what Michael Jordan was to basketball. I bred him back on my bigger mares, the Three-Bars bred mares, so I’m hoping that this filly and stud end up 16 hands, because they’d fit me to a T.
We raise these horses and run a few steers. Just a big enough ranch to starve you to death if that’s how you were trying to make your living.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
Something that occurred to me that I thought would be cool is that there may be a few million people who see this by the time it’s all said and done and hopefully there’ll be some people there who go out thinking, you know I don’t care so much if I end up like Buck Brannaman, but I wouldn’t mind being like Betsy Sherman. And it might occur to them to maybe go find a kid that doesn’t have a home that nobody cares about and take care of him. If that was the only thing that came of it, it was worth it as far as I’m concerned.
What is next for you? Is retirement in your vocabulary?
No, I hope I don’t have to. If I retire it’s because something went wrong that I hadn’t predicted. There’s no reason to leave what I enjoy. Some people are running toward something when they retire, and running away from something and I don’t have anything to run away from. I’m happy with it. There are other things I want to do that are connected to it. In the next year I’m going to have a feature film on The Faraway Horses, a book that I wrote. But I’ll do that in my spare time. I’m still going to be me.