Horse Whisperer Buck Brannaman Talks About Being the Subject of a Sundance Award-winning Doc

The legendary horse whisperer considers himself lucky despite the hard life he endured as a kid. He found a calling that some might call mumbo jumbo, but he expresses an uncanny skill at natural horsemanship.
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Legendary horse whisperer Dan M. "Buck" Brannaman considers himself lucky despite the hard life he endured as a kid. He found a calling that some might call mumbo jumbo, but to a vast number of horse owners, trainers and grooms, he expresses an uncanny skill at natural horsemanship.

That talent has made him the go-to guy for working with difficult horses, the inspiration for a feature film, The Horse Whisperer (directed and starring Robert Redford), and the subject of a Sundance Award winning documentary by first-time director Cindy Meehl (a former fashion designer), out this weekend titled Buck.

Raised in Montana and Idaho, the young Buck was a rodeo star as a child, but suffered such abuse from his dad that he and his brother landed in foster care. He responded to that experience of pain by developing a kind of empathetic state of mind that helps him with the horse and his own personal survival.

In this exclusive interview, this unique individual explains, to a degree, both how he gets to that state of mind in order to deal with the horses and how it can be applied to one's own life.

Q: Do you have different relationships with different kinds of horses or is it consistent throughout?

BB: As far as horses go, people will ask about one breed versus another. I have to tell you, I really don't have any prejudice one way or another. I treat every horse at face value, how he/she is as an individual.

That's the cool thing about horses -- they don't have prejudice. They don't care if you're tall or thin or if you're dark or if you're light, or if you're rich or you're poor, if you're handsome or not so handsome. They don't care about that. They care about how you make them feel, and if that's the only damn lesson that someone has learned from horses they'd be way ahead of the game.

Q: Do different horses respond to different kinds of touch or tones?

BB: I often talk about presence, and some people who have worked stock dogs, say border collies, dogs say they will have a presence in working stock. There might be two dogs that are exactly the same size, but one dog will have quite a bit of presence. He'll walk into a pen of sheep and boy, they're all paying attention to him and honor him.

Then you might have a dog the same size without much presence that the sheep will chase him out of the pen. And that's true with horses and people as well, but the human theoretically is supposed to be the smart one.

Q: I doubt that.

BB: As a horseman you'd get a sense of what kind of presence you needed for the situation. You may have a horse that has been sort of spoiled and he's disrespectful that you may need to have the presence as if to appear to be 10 times your size. But then five minutes later you might be dealing with a horse that's very timid and very fragile and very emotional that you might need to have the presence of being 1/10th your size.

It's for the human to be able to adjust that, and a lot of it is your posture and your body language and the way you move around the horse that gives him the message whether or not he should be threatened or not threatened by you.

Well of course you're trying not to be threatening at all, but the way you present yourself on one you might have to adjust it on another horse in order to be able to fit the situation. My teachers used to tell me you need to learn to adjust to fit the situation. Don't just do what you've always done because it might not always work.

Q: That's true in the broadest sense, right?

BB: Yes it is.

Q: That works when you have a conflict with people -- do you take a similar approach with horses?

BB: I do, particularly someone who might be maybe difficult to be around. You'll get some people that just sort of get caught up in a lifestyle of they create conflict and they deal in conflict and they're making war with other people constantly.

Well then they're sort of wired in a way that they set you up to kind of pull you in because they know how to deal with you in a real adversarial relationship. But I might think of it like this, that I try to treat someone not how they are but how I'd like them to be.

You've got to be careful not to get pulled into something and play they game they're always used to playing. So a lot of times you can sort of take them off their game by approaching them in a way that they're not used to. Maybe they don't even deserved to be approached that way, but they might really appreciate it in the end that you maybe give them a little extra rope to work with.

Q: In making the film were there moments where you applied your philosophy to the process of making the film?

BB; I have to say it really wasn't that difficult in the process with Cindy, because early on I said "The way we have to do this is I'm not going to be your actor and I'm not going to stand on a mark for you to focus everything the way you want it, and I'm not going to rehearse it and I'm not going to do it over, because things happen in the moment in working with horses and once that moment is passed it's gone forever."

So I said, "You're going to have to be kind of clever and learn how to anticipate some of the cool things that happen with these horses so that you're in the right place at the right time."

It made it especially challenging really to be able to film something like that and have it work, because it's hard enough when you're doing a feature film and you can tell the actors exactly where they're supposed to stand and where they're supposed to do their business. And she didn't have that luxury in doing this and by golly, she did a good job.

Q: Especially when the horses aren't ones trained to perform, they're there to be themselves. So they're being themselves and that's what she's got to document, as opposed to when you do a movie like The Horse Whisperer.

BB: Exactly.

Q: Did you have to do anything to get the horses to stay or behave in a way that suited the camera situation?

BB: No. She just filmed life like it is for me. So it made it to where other than having to pack an extra microphone on me that was about the only inconvenience. I was glad to get that second microphone out of my pocket after two and a half years, but other than that I didn't have anything different in my life really.

I got used to those guys being around and got to be friends with them, so I missed them after they left, actually.

Q: How did you meet Cindy? Did she own the horses?

BB: I first met her years ago at a clinic here on the East Coast, and I don't even remember where. I want to say Pennsylvania.

Q: You go everywhere, don't you?

BB: Yeah. You name it, I go there. I didn't see her again for four or five years, and then she came to a clinic in Texas with her aunt, and there was kind of a little handful of ladies there and I knew the other ladies pretty well, so we spent a little bit of time together. We'd have dinner in the evenings after the clinic and they were kind of a pretty good bunch of gals, fun to be around, so we'd visit a little bit in the evenings.

And then she ended up going to a friend of mine's ranch in Montana, McGuiness Meadows Ranch as a guest, and that's where she sort of came up with the idea of doing this documentary.

To be honest with you there were a few people over the years that asked me about doing a documentary, and I just said, "Fine, go ahead and do a documentary, but just leave me out of it."

As to why I said yes that day, I guess I just trusted her. We were friends by that point and I knew that she wouldn't do anything to disappoint me, that she really had a great intention. Yet still it's a little risky letting someone tell the story of your life when you've devoted your life to trying to do something good. Someone could just tell the story wrong and wreck years of devotion. But thank goodness she did me right.

Q: You had a rough background in your youth.

BB: My childhood was pretty dark, and we touched on it some in the documentary. It goes a little bit more in depth in my book, The Faraway Horses.

Yeah, that put me in a position to where I had empathy for horses, understanding that some of these problems people cause with horses, it may just be something that they think he's kind of being naughty or that he's trying to do something personally to him, and it's not that, it's not personal with the horse. He really just want to survive, he's really just trying to save his life.

From my background it gave me an empathy for horses that are troubled that I feel for them in a different way. If you've seen something through those kind of eyes you look at things differently. You don't have contempt for a horse that's troubled. Everybody has baggage, everybody has things that they've had to deal with in their life, and it can be something positive depending on how you use it.

Q: And to have that come back around -- there you are at Sundance recognized for your success.

BB: It was kind of different for me because it's not like I blend in real good there, you know.

Q: Everybody's a character there so you fit right in. Was there a little irony in going back to Sundance with having had your relationship with Redford?

BB: Bob Redford and I have remained friends over the years, and we genuinely like each other. By the time we were done doing the film we really felt like we had created a friendship out of the deal. I got to spend a little bit of time with him, to see him a little bit while I was in town, which was nice because he's busy being himself and I'm busy being me so we don't get to see each other too often.

That was nice kind of a bonus. And Bob was so... I think he was real proud that someone had done this and done a good job at it. I appreciate that.

Q: You and your brother Smokey, you suffered a traumatic experience when you were children. The movie didn't cover much of Smokey towards the end, so I was wondering how he is now.

BB: Unlike me -- I always knew what I wanted to be in my life -- he didn't know for sure when he got out of high school. So the choice he made was he joined the Coast Guard and spent 25 years in the Coast Guard and retired from that.

He got married and raised a family and his kids are all grown up now and out of school, and he was a successful dad. He has a comfortable life, he has a nice life. He's done okay.

Q: Have you met other whisperers? There's supposedly a dog whisperer, I don't know if there are any camel whisperers or other kinds of whisperers.

BB: After Nick wrote that book and Bob did the movie of course that became a term that nobody had ever heard of before and of course it became something for a lot of people to hand their hat on. Now there are ghost whisperers; I don't even know what the hell that is.

But no I haven't met the dog whisperer, this Cesar, but I've seen the show some and I have to tell you I think I'd probably like guy. He kind of makes sense.

Q: It might seem funny the camel whisperer idea, but there are camel trainers, and they're supposed to be difficult animals so it could apply to other difficult animals, like llamas or whatever else.

BB: I think you probably could [have them]. But I'm not so interested in riding a camel around doing what I do.

Q: They're supposed to be tough to deal with.

BB: But if that was what I had to do, if that became my job handling them, I absolutely would approach them philosophically the same way I do horses.

My old teacher Tom Dorrance said, "I think you can probably learn anything by these three words: observe, remember, and compare." So I might have a starting place because of my experience with horses, but if I use those three words I don't think it would probably take too long before I'd be getting a little bit accomplished with a camel.

Q: You've done a book, had this film happen, so what are your other plans? Can you teach other people to do this or is it something that's intuitive?

BB: My life is teaching other people this, and there is a younger generation of people coming up that hopefully, if I do my job, they may end up better than I am. I hope they do.

As far as some of the other things, my deal with my book is really not going to be done until we get a film done on that, which there are some opportunities presenting themselves now, there's actually going to be a film that goes over more so in depth of the kids' story, my brother and I when we were younger.

It's really the attention's come to it because of this documentary. People seem to be real interested in it and I'm real glad for Cindy because she worked real hard on this and really tried to do a good thing, rather than just do a film.

She tried to do a good thing and frankly, I hope that maybe through this [film] there might be some people that watch and think, "You know what? I might be able to be a foster parent just like Betsy Shirley was." Gee, that'd be a good thing too.

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