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INTERVIEW | Meet Buck Brannaman, the Real-Life Horse Whisperer

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire June 15, 2011 at 4:47AM

Revered horse trainer and real-life cowboy Buck Brannaman is used to a busy, road tripping lifestyle. For three decades in clinics all over the U.S., Brannaman has taught horse owners what is commonly referred to as 'natural horsemanship': a philosophy of working with horses based on understanding how horses think and communicate. Now with the release of Cindy Meehl’s documentary on his life and troubled childhood, "Buck," Brannaman is busier (and bound to become more popular) than ever.
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Revered horse trainer and real-life cowboy Buck Brannaman is used to a busy, road tripping lifestyle. For three decades in clinics all over the U.S., Brannaman has taught horse owners what is commonly referred to as 'natural horsemanship': a philosophy of working with horses based on understanding how horses think and communicate. Now with the release of Cindy Meehl’s documentary on his life and troubled childhood, "Buck," Brannaman is busier (and bound to become more popular) than ever.

A hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival where it won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award, "Buck" follows Brannaman as he travels around America to spread his gospel. Incorporating interviews with friends, colleagues and family, Meehl paints a portrait of man who used his painful past to inspire others to be become better people. The man is the real deal.

indieWIRE caught up with Brannaman in New York to discuss why he agreed to take part in "Buck" and what life is life under a camera lens. IFC Films opens "Buck" beginning this Friday in New York and Los Angeles followed by a roll out around the U.S. in the coming weeks.

[Editor's Note: This is the first column in which iW will regularly profile documentary subjects.]

How did this all come about?

Over the years I had been approached to do documentaries on me a few times. I always would say, “That’s great you want to do one, just leave me out of it.” Because frankly it’s a risk having someone put on film what your life is about, when I’ve spent 29 years doing something good. Someone can misrepresent you and then you can’t make it go away.

But I had gotten to know Cindy a bit. She had been to some of my clinics. We were having lunch at a friend’s guest ranch in Montana and she said, “Buck, I just wish more people were aware of what you’re doing. It’s not just about horses. It’s something that would appeal to people in urban environments. If they could just see your message come across.” She asked if she could do a ‘little’ documentary about me. I don’t know if she just caught me at the right time, but I said, “Go ahead and do it Cindy.” And we were done talking.

Were you apprehensive at all, given it was her first documentary?

That didn’t bother me and I’ll tell you why. When I wrote my book “The Faraway Horses,” people would say, “What in Sam Hell you writing a book for?” Why not? There’s no rule that you have to be a certain age to write an autobiography. Then a couple of friends said, “What make you think a publisher’s going to read it, let alone publish it?" And I said, “What makes you think they won’t?” The first publisher that read it did a deal with me. So the fact that that worked for me, it didn’t even concern me that Cindy hadn’t done it before. But I’m a bit of a dreamer by nature.

You said Cindy originally pitched it as a short to you? How long did the actual shoot last?

She was shooting really pretty steady for two and a half years. There were a few times I had to remind myself that I let her do this and told myself to go the extra mile and not be a big baby about it all. But there was never a time when I thought, 'Man I’ll be glad when they get the hell out of here.' It was melancholy when it was over. My life went on just the way it was, but I got attached to everyone. I miss them.

Did you set up boundaries prior shooting?



No, not really. I knew she respected me. The one thing I did tell her, was I said, "I don’t want you to treat this like I’m an actor in a film. I’m not going to do things on a mark. I won’t do things over. So you’re challenge is that you’re going to have to anticipate and have your camera in relation to me, because I’m not going to move in relation to you."

I knew enough about how things should be shot etc. from working with Bob Redford on "The Horse Whisperer."

How was business at your clinics during that time? I can imagine some of your clients were wary of being filmed, no?

Well it didn’t really affect my business one way or another. It was the same as always. Of course of lot of people were concerned about my business if this were to become really successful. [So far] it's done nothing.

I’ve been doing this for a really long time. I have a limited amount of riders that I will take. For the rest of my year, all of my clinics are booked full. There may be more spectators than usual. But that will peak and then fall off. My life doesn’t change. But that’s okay. I’m not interested in changing all that much.

How was being there for the world premiere in Sundance?

It’s a big deal to get into Sundance. But it occurred to me that there are a lot of people who work on film, where that’s their living unlike myself. They put their heart and soul into making a film. And then they leave town with their heart broken. I thought about all the disappointment that somebody might experience. Yet ours was just the opposite. We were kicking ass.

When Cindy got the Audience Award, I recited a piece Teddy Roosevelt wrote called "The Critic." Basically the message is the credit belongs to the person in the arena, whether he triumphs or whether he fails - the fact that he was there. In short the credit goes to those who were actually in the arena rather than those cold and timid souls who know no victory nor defeat.

Was it tough watching your life story on screen? You went through some really rough patches in your childhood.


The toughest part was [watching] my friend Garry, who talked about what we went through as kids in the film. He’s very dear to me. It kind of tears me up to see that.

There’s another story about Gerry that wasn’t in the doc. During the time of us shooting, I would always fly fish with him. Well, we fished this stretch of the river that goes through a class five rapid. He’s expert at it; very dangerous water but great fishing. The last summer we were filming, the water was a little higher than normal. Long story short he got thrown out of the boat with the oars. It’s like a Reader’s Digest story. I held on to this raft by my fingertips. And I’m telling you, if you don’t believe in divine strength, if you were with me that day you would. I held the boat while my other friend jumped across the boat. Gerry was broached under a rock and was drowning. We saved him. About half an hour later all three of us grown men sat and cried like kids. So we’ve been through some stuff.

To see in the film how much he cares about me…Shit, I can hardly watch it.

How is promoting the film? You did press for the book but this is a whole other beast. You weren’t behind the camera.

Well you know, in my job I’ve been talking about my life for all these years so that people can relate to their horse and relate to their children, or their wife or their husband. So it’s really not hard for me to do, because it’s what I do every day. It helps people realize: if I can share with them, that means that I care about them, and I want things to be better for them.

I can’t say that one single person that’s interviewed me [hasn't had] anything but goodwill toward me. So because of that it’s not an adversarial relationship.. You and I could easily just be having coffee at the Palace Café in Sheridan, Wyoming talking about basketball.

This article is related to: Documentary, Interviews, Buck






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