One has to witness the work horse trainer Buck Brannaman does with his animals to appreciate it as an art form.
In the documentary Buck, filmmaker Cindy Meehl paints a portrait of Brannaman, who is considered by many in the industry to be a real-life “horse whisperer.”
Using techniques in the field of natural horsemanship, Brannaman works with the philosophy that horses can be trained by understanding the way they think and communicate.
“Horses are very sensitive and perceptive,” Brannaman told me during an exclusive interview. “You don’t have to be physical with them. Because the physical nature of the training can be so subtle people think, ‘How did he do that?’”
During our interview, Brannaman talked about why he wanted to make the film and include the story of his abusive childhood and what he thinks has to happen before a trainer can have the same spiritual connection to animal that he has built over the years.
What were your thoughts when you saw the entire film?
The first time I saw it in its finished form was at Sundance. I was really proud of [director Cindy Meehl]. It was a pretty daunting task to put something together like that. I know she was trying her best to really tell the story and not disappoint me.
Did she ever voice those feelings to you? I would imagine it is daunting to put a 90-minute film together about someone’s entire life.
Not so much because she was too busy trying to get everything shot. The problem she had to deal with was when I told her, “Cindy, you’re going to have to find a way to shoot this as if I don’t even know you’re there.” I said I wasn’t going to change my clinics or neglect my students in any way. I told her she would have to anticipate what was going to happen and be in the right place and the right time. If something cool happens with the horses, it’s not going to happen twice. She got really good at anticipating things.
Was it also important to you that she shoot the film in that way so everything would feel more natural? Sometimes people change the way they act when a camera is around.
Really, we both wanted the film to feel like you were part of my world. Nothing was staged. It was everyday life for me. She shot a lot of footage of me, something like 300 hours. I didn’t even think about the cameras. I have a lot of responsibilities at the clinics. I couldn’t really even worry about the cameras. I just had to worry about my business.
A lot of people would say there is something mystical that happens between you and the horses during your training. Do you think that is true?
Well, Tom Dorrance, who is sort of the godfather of this style of horsemanship, used to say, “Buck, it’s all about field, timing, and balance.” Years later he said, “Buck it’s all about field, timing, balance, and one other thing, but I don’t know what it is.” Toward the latter part of his life he decided that – for lack of a better term – it was field, timing, balance, and something spiritual. It’s a connection between the human and the horse. But, he said, the other three have to happen first.
Was there a specific point in your life where you realized that spiritual side of the training happened?
I don’t know if you can say there was a certain day. It’s like you're walking toward a light, but it looks like a star because it’s so far away. Then you just put one foot in front of the other. You keep pressing on. I’ve worked with thousand upon thousands of horses. Before I knew it, I could do in a week what used to take me six months. All these years later, I can do in an hour what used to take me six months.
How do you feel about other animal trainers and the techniques they use, specifically the ones that star on reality shows?
Well, some of them really seem to have a connection to whatever animal it is they’re working with. The ones that are most impressive, I can't help but think if I met them and had a conversation with them that there would be a kindred spirit – some philosophical things that would be very similar.
If an opportunity like a reality show ever presented itself to you – maybe on the CMT channel – would that be something you might think about doing?
Well, maybe. Maybe if it was done in the same way Cindy shot this where it didn’t change my life and I could keep doing what I love. There would be some potential to put a message out there for the horses on such a larger scale than what I can do driving down the road in my truck and trailer. There could be some potential for something good to come out of it.
What have you learned from horses working with them for so many years?
What I’ve found for myself was that over the years you’re trying to find a way make the horse feel comfortable and relaxed to be with you. That’s when you really establish a relationship and feel you can get something accomplished with the horse. But there are things a person has to change within themselves to get to that point. That’s the point when you really are accepted into the horse’s world. Those things transcend horses. I’ve heard it from other students of mine over the years. They say, “I thought I was going to get better with horses just by hanging around them, but I found out by applying the same philosophies I do with the horses to the some of the things I have to deal with in my own life, things get better for me.” I sure found that to be true within myself.
There’s a saying that goes, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Why was telling your childhood story important to the documentary?
For me it’s because I thought there might be people that watch this documentary who have endured the same things I endured as a little boy. Of course, the conventional wisdom is that they’ll probably end up in a gang or in jail or something really dire. The message I wanted to convey is that you don’t have to accept that as something preordained to how you’re going to turn out. Someone might steal your childhood, but they can’t steal your will. There is a point where you’re given the opportunity in life to stop blaming everyone else and start taking responsibility for your life. You’re not always going to get closure and resolution, but sometimes you just have to leave it all behind.
Your positive attitude is such an inspirational part of the film. How much of that is you just trying to become the exact opposite type of person your father was?
Most of it to be honest with you. You can attribute a lot of the choices I made in my life up to this point as a result of doing my best not to be anything like my dad was.
Other than horses, are there any other animals in your life?
Well, we have plenty of dogs around the ranch. My wife has a couple of Jack Russells. I was one of those guys who said, “I will never have a Jack Russell ever in my life!” Word to the wise: Don’t say that because you will end up with a Jack Russell sometime in your life. I have to admit I’ve grown very fond of them. It pains me to say that. I can’t wait to see them when I get home.
Do you think you might have the same connection with them as you do the horses?
I think probably I do. Of course, my expertise lies in what I’ve devoted my life to. I wouldn’t pretend to be a great gift to any other animal. My interest has always been in the horses, but I do have an appreciation for other people who have devoted their life to other animals and have accomplished great things.