In theaters now is Buck (read review), the story of the legendary cowboy Buck Brannanman who works with horses and helps people. The film itself is an amazing documentary for audience members of all kinds, you don’t have to have a horse to buy a ticket or enjoy the film I assure you. Though the film escaped me at Sundance, I finally caught up with it recently and had the privilege of sitting down big man himself, Mr. Brannanman to speak with him about having his life, scars and all, put on the big screen in order to help people.
I’ve interviewed a lot of people, but this was one of the most intimidating interviews I’ve ever done because being both a horseback rider and a filmmaker I had so much respect for what Buck does, the film as a whole and the message he carries with him. Luckily he’s one of the sweetest and most straight-forward men you’ll ever meet and if you know how to work with a horse, you know how to talk to Buck. And I’m sure that through working with horses, and learning to read situations, I was no challenge for him at all…
This film has turned you into a bit of a celebrity, what’s that like for you?
Well, I guess I don’t really see myself as that, really. You do appreciate people recognizing what I’ve been doing for almost 30 years now. Through this horse thing, I’ve never tried to be a rock star, I just tried to do the right thing, tried to help horses, tried to have some kind of a positive affect with people. I love what I do, so it’s kind of cool that people have “discovered” me. It’s like, I’ve been right under your nose for years!
Working with horses forces you to listen, really listen. There’s something about this film and the way you work that has that same effect on the audience in the theater. Any ideas as to why?
Well the horses of course have taught me so much about honesty, I mean that really is the center point to the relationship with a horse. You can’t lie to him. You’re not going to fool him and he won’t lie for you either. The way the horse responds to you is really a reflection on your relationship with the horse, and on us as a person. If I had a dollar for every time someone says in a clinic when their horse is being naughty, where they say “Buck, I swear to you he’s not this way at home.” and I always say “yes he is, it’s just not so bad that you can’t live with it.” And then when you get away from home it might be amplified because you might be a little nervous and he might be a little nervous in this atmosphere but he’s that way at home you just don’t see it. Then I would say “because you don’t see it, doesn’t make it any less real, it only means that you don’t see it.”
The horse tells you things about yourself, sometimes it’s not so good, but if you’re willing to listen, then you can effect the changes that you need, and that’s a big step in the right direction. We humans are proud, and sometimes we could’ve heard the same thing from another human being but we might not listen, and the horse doesn’t have anything to be gained by revealing these things to you.
Have you always had this kind of calm demeanor that allows you to work with horses and people this way? You couldn’t have started out like this!
Oh absolutely not, it’s a process of learning and trying and failing, then trying again. I’ve never wavered from what I wanted to be and what I’d like to be in my life. But no, I didn’t start out like that at all. It didn’t start out all fuzzy and warm, there was a lot of trouble and I made a lot of mistakes and I did things that were just stupid around horses, and people! At least I’m trying to advance to where I’m not making the same mistakes over and over again, so I don’t make them again.
You’re so open about your life and your troubled past, when did you become okay with speaking about it publicly?
Well I think when I realized that people who were going to ride with me and be around me, they needed to realize that I’m just as every bit as vulnerable as they are and that I don’t have this charmed life where everything has just been perfect. They needed to know that I’ve had some of the same struggles that they’ve had and had to deal with it the best way I knew how. That can be very disarming to people, to where they then feel comfortable enough to kind of share where they’re coming from. Until you get to know them on that level, you’d be very limited on what kind of progress you’re gonna make with them, whether it’s with their horse or whatever it is you’re talking about. They have to kind of connect with you a little bit. And I’ve learned over a period of time that, no one would ever take that and turn it into something negative. They realize that there’s a certain amount of trust I’d have to offer them to tell them. And in turn they can trust me.
You talk about working with Robert Redford and movie horses in the film, what do you think about the way that they use horses on film sets?
It’s a different world than what I’ve come from and far be it for me to judge but all I know is what I do with horses is try to get the horse to be a partner. My horses work hard, but I work hard, but I work with them, they’re not a slave to me, yet I am the boss, I run things, I’m the leader. But that doesn’t make me any better than the horse, we both have our responsibilities. My horses enjoy their work and doing it with me and they’re my friends as well. Sometimes people are almost afraid to ask that the horses might respect them, that’s what you would you would do with a human friend. On a bad day, it might be a dictatorship, on a good day it might be an enlightened monarchy. You deal with whatever you have and you try to get through it with as little trouble as possible, that’s kind of how I approach life really.
What was it like to see your life on screen?
Well, you know I guess I haven’t really thought about it all that much other than the fact, that it sort of gives us the opportunity to put this out there to people who aren’t necessarily horse owners. Which is something we really talked about early on, that if it was just going to be something that appealed to horse people, there wasn’t a lot of point in doing it. But Cindy has seen early on that there was a awful lot of people who will never come in contact with me, because they don’t have a horse and they’re not from that of that world, that she thought that they could find some joy and get something out of seeing it, and realize that there’s a lot of things you can learn about horses that really do cross over to [human] relationships with each other, especially with kids.
In the film, you help a lot of people with their problems as well as horses, how do you help the people and see the changes that need to be made?
The people that I’ve met, you’ll meet some people that will bring a horse there and you see how they get along with a horse or don’t get along, and they’re doing everything that’s contrary to a horses nature. They really don’t fit in with the horse and it’s pretty easy to identify some things in their everyday life that gives them a bit of a hard time as well. What I’m saying is, the things that they might learn through working with a horse, to become something desirable to the horse and to where he accepts you, and he wants to be around you and he’s even compelled to be with you – that there’s some things we change. If you made those kind of changes within yourself, to where that horse really can’t stand to be away from you, than there’s some things that change all throughout your life. The way you approach problems. There have been so many times over the years where people have said “man I thought I was just coming to this deal to get a little bit handier with my horse” and I say “well, in the beginning that’s all I thought you were coming for to, but it turns out it was about something else.”
When you get to the one horse that you’re not able to help, what is that like for you?
Well the interesting thing is, the most difficult horse you saw throughout the documentary was not that horse. It was the sorrel horse that Bill rode for the girl named Paige. That was actually the most difficult one that you had the opportunity to see. He wasn’t so lethal on the ground but he really wanted to buck someone off. He thought there was no point in a human getting on his back and doing anything. But it worked out great and of course Bill rode him around and had a great time. With this yellow horse, for me the big picture was, whether you’re going to have horses, or dogs, or kids, with that comes responsibility and it’s not just a mater of putting a roof over their head and keeping them head, you have responsibility to be their caretaker and teach them how to fit into the world, teach them what they need to do to survive, teach them right from wrong, and I’m happy about that because of the people who have seen this, they really see the bigger point.
The other thing that interested me, that someone pointed out, “you know I saw your foster mother in that documentary and what she meant to you and what she did for you in your life, and that horse could have just as easily been you” has I ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. So if in through telling this story, if that yellow horse makes people thing about responsibility and how maybe they would raise their kids or a young horse, that horse will get more done in his brief life than a hundred horses that died of old age. For the greater good it was the story that needed to be told.
It seemed to me like it wasn’t the horse, but the way the horse was handled that stopped it from progressing.
If you noticed when I was working with the horse, we got quite a bit accomplished, we got him saddled and ridden around. But as long as I’m there to sort of run things. The margin of error on a horse like that is so paper thin that if I wasn’t there everyday with the girl, it was a guarantee that she would have been hurt or killed, or worse and innocent person, maybe someones child that would be somewhere near a horse, that as attentive as a mother can be, she could just look away and that kid would be right there with that horse.
What’s the range of reactions you get from people who you tell the hard, honest truth to?
You sort of measure someone when they’re a student, as to how you might approach um. But that’s not so different, that’s the same way you might measure a horse. There might be some horses, like some people that might be a little inclined to tune you out, shut you out, and that’s going to relative how they were handled before I met them. And for those kind of horses you might need to have your presence change in a way where you appear to be ten times your size in order to be effective. Then you may have another horse that’s very timid and very fragile and it just wouldn’t take much to get him really lost and really afraid, and you might have to appear to be 1/10 your size. Theoretically the human is supposed to be the smart one, if we are then we need to be able to adjust to fit the situation, not just think, well this is how you work with horses, I’ve done this with 500 just like you.
You explore as you get acquainted with a horse what it’s going to take to get the point across and for him to understand what you would like him to do, with the least trouble possible, you’re trying to avoid conflict. Years ago, 40-50 years ago, the conventional wisdom is that you create conflict and you win, and you conquer it. Unfortunately that’s how some people deal with each other still. They might be critical of how the old cowboys work with live stock, 100 years ago. Well, people still deal with each other that same way, they’re just not cowboys. You can’t make something happen with a horse, but you can set it up and let it happen. You set it up in a way where eventually your idea becomes his and that’s a hard thing for some people to get through their head, they seem to think that the harder the push and the more they assert their will, the more that, that is going to pay off, well it doesn’t. When they learn that about horses, that it’s not going to pay off, then pretty soon they rethink how they might approach situations with other human beings as well. It’s been an interesting thing. I didn’t know what I was in for when I started this deal, but it sort of picked me and now it’s all I do.
Check out Buck in theaters now!