Buck Brannaman was the inspiration for both Nicholas Evans’ novel “The Horse Whisperer” and the film Robert Redford adapted from it—on which he also served as a technical advisor. Now perhaps the best-known exponent of natural horsemanship, which aims to understand the individual horses and gently lead them to work with humans rather than “break” them into submission with heavy-handed techniques, he’s the subject of Cindy Meehl’s documentary “Buck.” It links his troubled childhood, in which he suffered at the hands of an abusive father, and his experience of firm but sensitive foster-parents, to his own development as both a man and a trainer.
The project, Brannaman recalled in a recent Dallas interview during a national tour for the film, began with Meehl’s participation in the clinics he’s long conducted throughout the country for forty weeks a year. “She first went to a clinic in Pennsylvania, outside of Bethlehem,” he said in a soft-spoken voice. “She rode with me there, though I really didn’t get to know her much then—helped her and her horse, like everybody else. And then five years later, she came to a clinic here in Texas, down near Waco. And then later that summer she rode in a clinic I do at a ranch down in Montana.
“And she said, ‘You know, Buck, I’ve been around this a little bit now, and I just so wish that everybody could see what this is all about, and see that the thing that you’re teaching through these horses transcends horses, that it’s something that you can apply to life in general. And I really feel compelled to tell that story to people who will never go to your clinics, because they don’t have horses and aren’t part of that world.’
“And I guessed she just asked me on the right day, because nine times out of ten I’d have said, ‘Forget it, I’m not interested.’ But that day I said, ‘Well, go ahead and do it.’ Then she kind of had this look [that said] ‘Uh-oh.’ But I trusted her in that we had enough of a friendship that she wouldn’t disappoint me, and do her best to the story in a way that showed some respect to what I’ve devoted my life to. And the next two-and-a-half years she followed me around.
“I didn’t think it would take that long! But she wasn’t really intrusive in any way. I told her in the beginning, this is not like you’re doing a film with an actor. I’m not going to go and stand in a certain place and try to do what I do according to your position. I said, I have to stay loyal to the people that have been with me all along, that came to the dance with me when the music started, because those are the people that, when this is all over with, will still be with me, still want to ride with me.
“And so I said, ‘You’re going to have to find a way to shoot this where you can anticipate things happening that we want to capture on film. So it’s going to be a challenge. You have to be pro-active rather than react, or you’re going to miss things that are special.’ And they longer she went, the better she got at it. So it’s neat how it came out—it does look just like it would if one of you went to my clinic and you were just there, watching. Then, of course, we hoped it would be something that would sort of touch the hearts of people that weren’t necessarily horse people. And that’s no easy task, but sure enough it did. Because as out-of-place as I felt in New York last week, it was such a warm reception it all the places that we screened it, I realized that even though they’re not from the culture I’m from, there’s still a kinship among people in general, they’re still moved by the same things.”
When the shooting was completed, Meehl moved into the editing room, where she whittled some three hundred hours down to 88 minutes. And “Buck” was ready for its premiere at the 2011 Sundance Festival, which Brannaman attended with his wife and daughters.
“It was different,” he recalled. “I didn’t know what to expect, because I’d just never been to anything like that before. Boy, that’s some great people-watching at Sundance, because they come from all over, all over the world.”
It also gave him a chance to spend some time with Festival founder Redford. “After the first night that it premiered, he found where we were—we were having dinner—and he came to see me and we spent some time together,” Brannaman said. “And I saw him a few times during the week. We’ve stayed friends over the years since ‘The Horse Whisperer’ days. He’s a good guy.”
The audiences responded with enthusiasm to the film, awarding it the US Documentary Award. “That’s when I kind of thought Cindy had accomplished what she’d set out to do,” Brannaman said. “The audiences were varied there—you had just about every demographic in the world watching—and then we even did some for the high school kids in Ogden. And that’s always a great test—if you can hold the attention of teenage boys, you’ve really done something. And they loved it, it really appealed to them as well. And I thought, she just might have gotten it done.”
Brannaman sees the film not just as a portrait of him, but as a picture that uses his own biography to show the applicability of his technique with horses to life in general, especially in contrast to the idea of “breaking” horses that prevailed before the rise of natural horsemanship. “I grew up hearing that term,” Brannaman said of the phrase “breaking” a horse. “I don’t think too much of it. It’s sure not what I do, or teach people to do. But there’s been quite an evolution in horsemanship over the last forty years, and all that’s due to Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt, my teachers, and then what I’ve done so far with my life. Times change, and there’s information out there now, and there’s understanding that there wasn’t before.
“When I first got started at this with Ray Hunt, there were a lot of people opposed to him, because he threatened what was the conventional wisdom. There was a hell of a lot of male egos that were really damaged when Ray Hunt hit the scene. And he was resented by a lot of people. And now it’s considered the best approach to working with young horses. What a change he’s made on the world of horses, all over the world—a profound change.”
“Buck” closes with a sequence in which Brannaman works with a severely troubled horse that ultimately proves unreachable. The trainer’s sadness over the animal is palpable, but he sees the episode as one that helps the film achieve what it set out to do.
“I labored over that a little bit,” Brannaman said, “because what I really hoped for—and it turned out that it worked—was that I wanted people to get the big picture, the message that it was really about. And to me the message was that whether you’re going to have horses or dogs or children, with that comes a great responsibility, not just to feed them and put a roof over their head, but to raise them, to teach them right from wrong, to teach them to make the right decisions so that they can fit into the world and turn themselves into something good.
“And I so hoped that people would get the point to that, and they did. And that horse—and most people realize this too—that horse could just as easily have been me. But I was in the right place at the right time when I was about where that horse was, so my life went another direction. And so for that reason, though there was no one more sad about that horse than me, I think through this documentary there’s a pretty good chance that horse will have accomplished more in his short life than a hundred head of horses that got to live a long life and died of old age. So that story had to be told, because it made people think about taking responsibility. So I’m glad it’s in there and the message did come through for people.”