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.