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June 20, 2011

Behind The Scenes With Buck Brannaman

Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Buck, the documentary that chronicles the story of real life “Horse Whisperer” Buck Brannaman, opened around the country on June 17. After the Los Angeles screenings of the movie, Brannaman was on hand to answer questions about the filmmaking process, his life's work and more. Here’s a selection of some of his responses.

Q. How did filmmaker Cindy Meehl sell you on the idea of making a documentary about your life?

A. I’d gotten to know her through my clinics, and we’d gotten to be friends. I was pretty comfortable with her. We were at a friend’s ranch in Montana, and she said, "Buck, I so wish that people outside the horse world would have a chance to see what this is all about. I’d like to tell that story."

I’d been asked a few times over the years, and I’d say, "Go ahead, do a documentary. Just leave me out of it."

But she just caught me on the right day, and I said, "Go ahead and do it." I always felt like she wouldn’t disappoint me. She understands that I’ve devoted my life to trying to do something good.

But I told her, "If you do this, you have to understand that my loyalty lies with the people who have been with me all along. After all this is over, those are the people who will be with me the rest of my life. So you’re going to have to figure out how to shoot this as if you’re not there."

Q. From an early age, you were a performer, and you seem so natural in the film. Did you have to get comfortable with a film crew following you around?

A. That didn’t bother me, because I just did what I do every day, so nothing really changed about my life at all. Early on, I was an entertainer—I did rope tricks at rodeos. My dad really thought a lot about Montie Montana. He was never going to be Montie Montana, but he wanted [me and my older brother, Smokie] to be. When I did that, everybody was 500 feet away—I never had to look anybody in the eye, and I never had to talk. I stuttered so bad I couldn’t get out a word.

Q. How do you approach your work?

A. You’ll have some horses in trouble that have been that way for a long time. It’s too bad, but most of it is due to the human being and what they’ve exposed the horse to. At the end of a session working with them, you feel like you really got something accomplished; you feel real good about things.

And you go out first thing in the morning, and the way he responds to you, you feel like you didn’t do a damn thing the day before, like you’re starting over from nothing, and it didn’t carry over. And you think, "Why did I even do it yesterday?"

But under those circumstances, if you’re not willing to go back every day and start over, you shouldn’t have started to begin with, because you might have to start over a lot of days in a row before it carries over from one day to the next, or one month to the next or one year to the next.

But one day it will, if you’re willing to start over enough times from zero. One day it’ll surprise you, and it’ll start off maybe farther ahead than you left it the day before. And that’s quite a thing for both of you. But you have to be willing to wait that out. Having had a lot of experience at doing this, I could start over 500 days in a row, and it doesn’t bother me a bit. I’m going to be the same guy at the beginning of the day each day as what I was the day before.

Not everybody has that in them. I often tell people, it doesn’t make any difference to me where I start my day, it makes a difference to me where I finish my day. Did I leave things a little better off than how I started? It doesn’t have to be perfect, but if it’s just a little better off than how I started, I got along just fine.

Q. Were you disappointed in the outcome of the colt at the end of the film?

A. No, I was disappointed in the people. There was nobody more sad than me. I thought about it quite a lot. Obviously, this is going to be shown to lots of people who really don’t have much of a background in horses, and I really want people to get the big picture. Whether you’re going to have a horse or a dog or children, with that comes a great responsibility, not just to feed them and have a roof over their heads but to teach them right and wrong and do all the things to help them be able to fit into the world.

I’m so pleased that people have been touched by this. If you think about that horse, if not for my foster parents, Betsy and Forrest Shirley, I was that horse. To be honest, that horse actually may have accomplished more in life than a hundred horses that die of old age.

Q. Did your biological father treat horses differently than he did people?

A. The short story is no. My father wasn’t good with horses, and he was cruel to dogs and he was cruel to people. There was never a time in my life, not one day, when I wasn’t terrified of my dad. But I didn’t see the real dark side until I was about 5 years old.

I remember to this day just like it was yesterday that there was this horse, and she was in the corral, and her friends were out in the pasture, and she was just a little impatient. She was just pawing and fussing a little bit. She would have settled down, but it made him so mad. We were building something, and he picked up a claw hammer and threw it at this mare, and he hit her right between the eyes. It put a big old dent in her skull. She lived—it didn’t kill her, but it knocked her down. I saw that early enough on that I had a pretty good idea what was coming. It’s too bad, but I also learned early in life what not to be like.

I found a way that I forgave him. There were some things that were pretty hard to forgive, but I just didn’t want them to follow me around all my life. He was an older man when I was born—he was 52. When [my brother and I] went to live with Forrest and Betsy, for the next few years he’d send us a birthday card every year and tell us when we turned 18 that he was going to kill us. And he’d send us letters telling us that he was watching us through his rifle scope. That’s kind of a tough thing when you’re 12 years old, looking over your shoulder.

Q. What are you opening up for humans in working with horses?

A. Obviously, I come from a background where you make your living on a horse. He’s your partner to do your job. A lot of people don’t even know what that’s about, doing a day’s work on a horse. That’s the world I came from. There’s another dimension to the horses, and that is that God didn’t just put the horse here to do a day’s work for us. There are some great things that can come of that relationship that help us to learn about ourselves.

If you can find a way to be able to meet the horse on his terms to where he accepts you, and he is safe with you, and he feels comfort with you, and that you’re no threat to him, that changes you as a person in a way that you’re a whole lot more appealing to other people as well. For some people, the horse might be the only way to get to that point. You might be too proud to listen to another human, but the horse, he doesn’t have anything to gain by telling you the truth.

Q. What are your thoughts about shoeing horses?

A. These days there’s gotten to be some people who look at not shoeing horses as almost like a religion, and they base their premise on the wear and tear that a horse’s foot gets is less than [that of] wild horses.

If you have a job on a horse, a lot of times you’ll ride 40 or 50 miles a day, which is far more than any Mustang travels. The Mustang migration is relative to the feed, the weather and the ground conditions. Going into winter, a Mustang will have pretty long feet, because they’ve got to paw through the snow all winter long. By spring their feet are getting very short, and they’re getting sore-footed. But about that time they’re ready to have their foals, and they go have their foals where the snow melts first, in the bottoms of the canyons, where the ground is really soft and there are no rocks and the feed’s good. So their feet start growing all over again.

In ranches in some parts of the country your work might involve trotting 25 miles over lava rock, and you put a 200-pound man on a horse and a saddle, and you aren’t going to get very far [barefoot]. It’s just common sense.

Q. Have you had any serious injuries?

A. I’ve had a few but nothing too bad. The worst one was I hurt my back a few years ago. I had a horse that was real touchy and who really looked like he was going to want to buck with me. I’d ridden him, and we were getting along great, and he got too close to the fence and my foot hung up in the fence and just about jerked my leg off. He kind of jerked me off the back, and that kind of scared him, and he bucked me off over his head. He stepped on my ribs and broke three ribs, and he stepped on my back with the other foot, and he stepped on my hip. My head hit the fence and I got a big old gash in my skull.

Needless to say, that sort of stirred up a little bit of a disc issue in my back, but I was more concerned about a collapsed lung. I asked everybody if I could take a five-minute break, so I went to my horse trailer and got some duct tape and duct-taped my head together because these hats are expensive, and I didn’t want to get blood all over it. I got a clean shirt on, and I had to go back and ride that horse because I couldn’t quit him there, ’cause we’d be in trouble the next day.

About a month later I herniated four discs in my back, and I had a bunch of nerve pain. I just thought, "I’ll ice it." People were counting on me to be somewhere, and I was only a five-minute drive from Chapel Hill University, and I could have had surgery. But I didn’t do it, and now I have some permanent damage in my leg—from the knee down I can’t feel anything. So lesson learned here: Listen to your wife!

Q. Do you see a trend toward a greater humanity toward horses?

A. I do, and I’ll tell you where it really starts—the average public that owns horses typically is going to come into contact with some professional whom they’re going to pay to help them. And because of the time I’ve spent doing this, and Ray Hunt devoting his life to it before me, and Tom Dorrance before that, their customers are demanding it. People have seen enough of this through guys like me and Ray that they know right from wrong. And truthfully, before you ever met Buck Brannaman or Ray Hunt, you still knew right from wrong.

Q. What’s the single greatest thing a horse has taught you?

A. To fix things up so that your idea can become his and then to wait. And you have to be willing to wait. You don’t put a limitation on how long you’ll wait for the right thing to happen.

Q. Now that you’ve done this film, what’s in store for you?

This is all great and everything, and I’m very touched that people who never would have come into contact with me are interested in what my world is about, but I know there’s going to come a time, just being real, that [Buck] is going to be in the bargain bin at Walmart, and I’ll be right back to being me again. If I can get another 25, 30 years doing this, that’s where I’ll be.

To read a review of Buck, check out the July issue of The Chronicle Connection. Learn more about the movie and find a showing near you on the Buck website.