Buck Brannaman is the subject of the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award-winning documentary “Buck.” Brannaman stopped by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City and spared some time for an interview about the film and his life as a horse trainer.
You reveal a lot about your troubled childhood in “Buck.” How hard was it for you to open up your life like that for this documentary?
Buck Brannaman: A lot of people have asked me that. They thought that I shared so much with people of my personal life. But, I’ve been doing that for years in small doses with my clinics. Some of the things are really dark that happened in my life, some of those things in my life created the empathy I have for the horses and their situations. I found that, in the clinics, if I can share some of that with the people, they sort of think, ‘Man, he must trust me on some level or he wouldn’t tell me these things.’ That sort of opens things up so they can share with me a little bit. You only have four days to do a clinic so you want to establish a rapport as quick as you can and people need to know my life is a lot less than perfect, I’ll tell you that. We all have things to deal with and it sort of puts us on a level playing field. Then we can go to work.
“Buck” seems to parallel training a horse with dealing with yourself and other people. Is this how you look at it when teaching people how to deal with and train horses?
Buck Brannaman: Really, you think of it as being a mutual respect and that is true whether you talk about horses or people. It is funny because here we are in the Cowboy Hall of Fame and my teacher, Tom Dorrance, got honored here. He told me at one time, ‘Buck, don’t treat them like they are, treat them how you’d like them to be.’ I was young at the time and I thought, ‘I wonder if he’s talking about horses or people?’ I thought it must be one or the other and come to find out, it was about both. So, you are approaching the horse by trying to put yourself in his situation, trying to understand where he is coming from. And the horse, the horse is trying to save his life. He might be a little bit troubled and it might be a little inconvenient for the owner who is frustrated at him but it’s not that to the horse. He’s trying to protect himself. So, you’ve got to get them confident that you don’t mean them any harm. Then you might have a chance of getting something accomplished with them that might carry from one day to the other. Again, that’s true with kids. You’re not going to impose your will on kids and make it happen but you can fix it up and let it happen.
You worked with Robert Redford on “The Horse Whisperer.” What was that experience like?
Buck Brannaman: It was my first movie experience. I’d done a few TV commercials over the years back in the day when I was doing rope tricks for a living. That was really my first, and only, movie experience but what a way to start, doing a Redford movie. It was a great experience. Like they say, it’s a great place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.
Was that part of what got this documentary going or did somebody come to you?
Buck Brannaman: It really wasn’t my idea because I just spend my life driving down the road, training horses, and helping people. But, the lady that directed it, Cindy Meehl, had been to some of my clinics. We were having lunch one day at the McGuiness Meadows Ranch in Montana, a guest ranch that I do clinics out of. She said, ‘Buck, there is such a great message in what you are doing in these clinics that I wish that everybody could get a piece of this, could see this and enjoy this. Not just horse people but people that may never have a horse, I know could really relate to you and what you are saying.’ She said, ‘would you mind if I looked into doing a documentary on this?’ And, she kind of caught me on the right day because I said, ‘no, why don’t you just get after it.’ Then she looked like she had just swallowed a fly by accident cause then she knew she had to do it. Nine times out of ten, I probably would have said no. They are doing a film on your life and, if they don’t do a good job, it’s kind of hard to make it go away. But I trusted her, we were friends, and I knew she wouldn’t disappoint me. She didn’t. She did a great job.
You have come full circle in your movie career, showing your movie at Redford’s Sundance Film Festival. How important was it for you to have the audience award your movie as the best as opposed to critics?
Buck Brannaman: I had never done anything like that before. The first screening we went to, I had a pretty good idea that it was going to touch the hearts of people watching this because the response was overwhelming and every one of them were sold out. People were walking out of the theater crying, really moved by it. Our intent all along was to have an appeal to everyone, not just horse people, but everyone and show the kinship between all of us regardless of where our lives had taken us. I knew pretty early on that she was going to win something from this. If you are going to pick anything, the audience award is the deal you are looking for really.