Walter Mencken 6:15 p.m., Feb. 28
Horse Whisperer Buck Brannaman Speaks Up
Buck Brannaman is more at home in a horse corral than in a poolside cabana at a trendy hotel in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. But the incongruous setting doesn’t bother him. At least not when he talks about Buck, the uplifting documentary that opens here on June 24.
The film traces his life from his horrendous childhood (his father was a violent alcoholic who beat him) to his career as a revered horse trainer. Brannaman was a role model for the novel and movie The Horse Whisperer. And Robert Redford, who worked with him on the set, considers him “the real deal.”
On this sunny afternoon, Brannaman, 49, is wearing a cowboy hat, a plaid shirt with snap buttons, and immaculate blue jeans. His polished brown boots make me relieved that I didn’t clean up my old riding boots to wear to the interview. They’d never look as good as his.
Like a hero from the Old West, Brannaman has piercing blue eyes and a tender smile. He speaks with the drawl of a calm, assured man who’s accustomed to taking his time. When discussing the darkest moments in his past, his expression is sadder than a mournful country music ballad.
Always, however, Brannaman seems resilient, with the wisdom of a cowboy sage. You feel you could tell him anything about your horse experiences and he wouldn’t judge you or laugh at you. He would try to help.
That’s his job. Though he lives with his family on a ranch near Sheridan, Wyo., he spends much of the year traveling around the country. At training sessions called clinics, he helps people with their horse problems and horses with their people problems.
He’s also willing to answer a variety of questions from a horse-loving journalist.
Valerie Scher: You helped Robert Redford make The Horse Whisperer. So how does it feel to be the star of a movie about you?
Buck Brannaman: Now people are appreciating me for what I’ve been doin’ for 29 years. You always feel good when someone appreciates you if you’ve worked hard at it.
VS: Buck was directed by Cindy Meehl, a horsewoman who found you so inspiring that she became a director. Do you think the film will also interest those who don’t know much about horses?
BB: We always hoped that it wouldn’t just appeal to horse owners. It was important to Cindy that people be able to see that some of the life lessons that are learned through working with horses can be applied to the way humans get along with each other and the way they approach problems in life.
VS: Horses play important roles in movies ranging from National Velvet to The Black Stallion. What are some of your favorites?
BB: I’ve always loved watching Westerns with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. When I’m on the road (teaching at clinics), I’ll have four days a week that are busy and exciting and three days of solitude and sometimes loneliness. So on some of those days, when it’s just me and my horses, I’ll turn on the TV in my horse trailer and watch those old movies.
VS: I recently read that Roy Rogers never used spurs on Trigger. How do you feel about spurs?
BB: I can’t remember the last time I put on a spur. They should never be used in a vengeful way or through anger. I often tell people that if using a spur is the only way you can get your horse to respond to you, it won’t be long before everything you can do with a spur won’t be enough. You’ve got to figure out what you did to ruin him in the first place.
VS: Do you own a special horse that’s your own version of Trigger?
BB: The one I ride the most in the film is Rebel. He’s a great horse – an eight-year-old quarter horse gelding. I really love him. Of course, I say that about every horse I ride. I’ve always told folks that I’m not going to be a one-horse wonder who makes a reputation on one good horse. I want to train as many good horses as I can. I’ve started over 10,000 colts (unridden horses). I can’t even count the others. I get everyone from Olympic riders to someone who has one horse in their backyard. Everybody is welcome. I don’t treat a green (inexperienced) rider any different from someone who has won a gold medal.
VS: You had a very rough childhood. Your father was physically abusive, your mother died young, and you and your brother were put in foster care. Do you think the hardest experiences helped you become an extraordinary horse trainer?
BB: Oh, absolutely. Those kinds of things, albeit very dark, are what make up the fabric of a person. The conventional wisdom for someone who had a background like me is that the last chapter probably wouldn’t read so good.
VS: But people often have the power to change their lives for the better, right?
BB: It’s true. I just can’t go along with the idea that everything is predetermined. My dad stole my childhood from me. I’ll never get it back. But the thing that can never be taken away is free will -- the opportunity to make good decisions later on in life.
VS: Because you were mistreated as a child, do you have a deeper understanding of horses who have suffered?
BB: Yes. In the last two or three years that my brother and I lived with my dad, we’d walk home from school every single day and have the same conversation. We’d ponder whether we’d live through the night. We’d wonder if he’d kill one of us and figure he’d also have to kill the other. It’s crazy that a 10 or 11-year-old boy should have to deal with that.
VS: As terrible as that was, it gave you a whole level of understanding and compassion.
BB: It did. I have an empathy for horses that are troubled and afraid. Some people get mad at their horses but I know what they are feeling. But you can’t simply feel sorry for a horse and relinquish your role as a leader and a teacher. You can’t just spoil them. That’s sometimes what people do with kids who are coming from a real dark place. Rather than give them direction and something to do, they feel so darned sorry for the kid that they give ‘em a free pass. There are no guidelines. That’s as destructive as the other.
VS: I sometimes used to be a little afraid when I was riding, especially if I was jumping fences or exploring an unfamiliar trail. Are you ever afraid?
BB: It’s been a long time since I was afraid. Fear has to do with helplessness. The only thing that conquers it is knowledge. When you learn about how a horse thinks and makes decisions, that helplessness goes away.
VS: Have you ever been injured?
BB: Oh, a few times. The worst one was when I herniated four discs in my back about ten years ago.
VS: How did that happen?
BB: Well, my back got kind of stirred up as a result of playing basketball. I’ve always loved basketball. When I was bucked off a horse, the discs finally blew out and herniated...If I’d had emergency surgery earlier on my back, it may have allowed (more of) the nerves to survive. My right leg is numb from the knee down. I’ve learned to compensate for it when I ride. And I’ve gone back to playing basketball. Now I wear an ankle brace.
VS: It was brave of the movie to show the dangerous, brain-damaged young stallion that couldn’t be rehabilitated. Did you and the director have any qualms about including it?
BB: We thought about it a lot. That horse could have been all right but the human (owner) failed him. The message is all about responsibility. Whether you’re going to have a horse or a dog or a child, you’ve got to be responsible. People who see the film seem to understand that. So that horse’s short life may have more value than 100 horses that died of old age.
VS: If you could go riding with anyone in history, and talk to that person while ambling through a lovely countryside, who would you choose?
BB: I’d like one more ride with (legendary mentors) Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt. I would try to ride with them as far as I possibly could and I’d hope that it would be never-ending. People like that don’t come along every day.
Neither does a horse whisperer like Buck Brannaman.
Photos by Valerie Scher. Read David Elliott's review of Buck.