There’s absolutely no way on God’s green-pastured, stallion-roaming earth you could POSSIBLY convince me that “Buck” would bring me to tears. I can’t stand horses. The thought of enduring 88 minutes with a boot ‘n bolo-wearing cowboy seemed like one big cinematic saddle sore. Before entering the theater, I was already smelling cow-pies and swatting flies.

During three weeks at the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival, I’d spent vicarious company with hyper-violent gangsters, abused women, and coke-snorting roadies. It was a tough slog. Worse yet, I’d failed to track down that one, stand-out gem that prompts a true emotional wallop.

Until a screening of Cindy Meehl’s “Buck.” Suddenly, the sun had come out.

Often referred to as the real-life “Horse Whisperer,” Buck Brannaman tames wild horses. Beatings and lashes don’t take up space in his tool-box of training tricks. Instead, this quietly commanding gentleman employs patience and trust to calm these majestic animals. The transformations are magical, impacting not only the horses, but their often-troubled owners.

In a distinctively deep, Johnny Cash-style voice, Brannaman describes spending forty weeks a  year on the road, planting his traveling clinic in smalls towns like Pendleton, Oregon and Beeville, Texas. His mission? “Helping horses with people problems.” Honing in on equine behavior, the perceptive rider can often identify emotional ripples impacting the horse’s owner. “People bring baggage,” he confirms in the film.

Brannaman has his own baggage. From the age of three, the young roper took his talents on the road with dad and brother. In 1970, the two siblings appeared on television commercials as Kellogg’s “Sugar Pops” kids. It should have been a “fun time,” he reports onscreen, except for one horrific problem. “My dad beat us mercilessly.”

The abuse was brutal, dealt out on a regular basis. His voice trembling and eyes misty, a longtime friend of Brannaman reflects on these dark times. “Buck didn’t want to shower in P.E.,” explains the fellow cowboy in front of Meehl’s revealing lens, “because of the welts on his back.” A school coach intervened, assuring Brannaman that his father would never beat him again.

The abused young roper was soon taken into the custody of foster parents Forrest and Betsy Shirley. “Buck” spends considerable time observing Betsy’s life-changing influence. Thick brown curls and goggle-sized sunglasses can’t begin to hide a heart the size of Mt. Everest. Betsy raised 23 foster sons, describing the positive energy and controlled chaos as “a zoo.” She’s a wickedly wise wordsmith. Her matronly mantra? “Blessed are the flexible, so they don’t get out of shape.”

Brannaman’s astonishing skills are inspiring to watch. Brandishing only a short, flag-like training stick, he facilitates an almost spiritual dance with the horse. He’s firm, but not cruel. His boots step back. Hooves tentatively inch forward. Panicked whinnying soon dissipates into a calm silence. Clearly, this subtle negotiation between man and horse is rooted in trust.

He refers to colts as “youngsters,” pointing out that patience is the crucial element in bonding with a younger horse. “He’s never had a saddle on his back, or a bit in his mouth,” explains this fiercely empathic cowboy. “Then the hides of other dead animals are strapped around him.”

Surely Brannaman is a charismatic, compelling character. But “Buck” would never hit full gallop without Meehl’s brilliant balance of images both mystic and mundane. A well-traveled truck cab strewn with coffee cups and peanut wrappers. Brannaman’s teen-aged daughter lovingly referring to her doting dad as a “travel Nazi,” with his own stubborn way of doing things. Majestic, bird’s eye tracking shots of endless green pastures. Brown earth kicked up by a frantic white stallion. Meehl nails this striking contrast between tiring travel and breathtaking natural beauty with graceful control.

Amazingly, moviemaking is new frontier for Meehl. “Buck” is her first film. A reflection of my own, self-confessed personal bias, it surprised me that “Buck” was helmed by a one-time fashion designer from New York City, and not some saddle-savvy rider from Big Sky Country. Meehl collaborated with a predominantly female crew to bring her debut documentary to fruition.

“Buck” is an extraordinary movie. It’s a hopeful film, but not in a bland, saccharine kind of way. Darkness shadows Brannaman’s tough story.  Prospective audiences with an aversion to the Hallmark Channel should be careful not to misread “Buck” as sentimental fluff. It’s anything but.

Dressed casually in blue jeans and white rancher’s hat, Brannaman is promoting “Buck” from a press room during a frantic round of SIFF interviews. Sitting alongside this temporarily urban cowboy is the blonde Meehl, sporting a navy-blue blouse. The unlikely duo behind “Buck” were kind enough to engage me in a lively discussion touching on the pain of film editing, how modern technology has crippled human communication, and the admirable act of “feeding the cows.”

“Buck” is a film about much more than horses. It’s about people. But I would imagine it was difficult to sell the project to producers.
Cindy: That was the big challenge when making the film. We kept cutting more and more out of it, because we realized that we weren’t gonna teach everything that Buck does in an hour and a half. We brought in more people, making it a human story. It’s about them. No matter who you are, or whether you like horses or not, this film relates to you. That’s what we’ve heard over and over at film festivals. People want to see it more than one time, because it’s about them.

After going through a trauma – for example, soldiers returning from war – there is often a certain hyper-vigilance about interacting with other people. What are the most crucial ingredients for re-gaining that ability to trust others?  
Buck: When you’re put into a situation (working with horses), to where the table is turned… where the only way that you can be successful is for YOU to be trusted, then by the time you come out the other side, you trust THEM. But you have to make some changes within yourself to be able to approach the horse, especially a horse that is unsure, and thinking he might need to save his life, rather than accept you. These changes can then make you more trusting and more open -maybe have a better way of communicating than what you did when you started. So it sort of works in reverse, oddly enough.

We live in an age where much of our communication is virtual – Facebook, and so on. There’s less focus on nuance or face-to-face interaction. Is there something lost in that? Something gained? What are your thoughts?
Cindy: I think we’ve lost SO much to high technology. We’ve gained a lot, but at the same time, it’s so easy to type out an answer to somebody, or put out a message that goes out to a lot of people very quickly. We’ve lost some of that personal, sensitive communication, like you would have with a horse. There’s sensitivity about being in its presence. It’s the same with people. I would love to see more of that come back, where people don’t do everything automatically and electronically.

Buck: In working around horses, when you get to where you’re pretty comfortable around them and understand how to set things up where your idea becomes theirs, there’s an awareness that has to become pretty finely honed. A keenness about the horses. Because of where we are in this modern day and age, people have lost something in that. It’s not really primal, but it is a keenness. I don’t think that a disconnect with nature does people much good. Through working with these horses, I think people really do connect a little bit more with nature. This should have never been lost in the first place. When you get some of those skills and some of that knowledge, then you can take it and you can use it somewhere else. You don’t necessarily have to have a horse. It’s amazing how those things apply to life in general.

Cindy, after shooting “Buck” you ended up with 300 hours of footage. You had to cut it down to 88 minutes. This was your baby, but the story has to be told in a manner that’s palatable for viewers and condensed for theatrical release. Are there specific examples of things you reluctantly had to cut from the film?
Cindy: There were so many things we had to edit out. There was a story that Buck told, that was one of my favorites that I filmed. I fought for it until the end, but it didn’t make it in. I asked him in an interview, “So if you have the flu or something, do you still have to go to work?” He kind of rolled his eyes (laughter) and said, “Of course. If I’m sick, there’s nobody there to take my place.” He’s dedicated to his clinic. He knows that people have saved up to come there, or have planned their vacation around it. He said that when he was young, even if he had the sniffles or it was twenty below outside, the cows still needed to be fed. I thought that was so powerful, because in this day and age, you will skip work for a hangnail. People are so whiny about everything. I thought it was a very powerful message. So if I’m as tired as I can possibly be, after a super-long day, after this film I kind of think to myself, “You have to feed the cows.” I loved the story and the way he told it. That’s one of the many stories I had to cut.

Buck, with your support group of family and friends, has anyone given you a piece of life advice that you’ve applied over the years – a mantra, or self-talk phrase? It sounds like with Cindy, it’s now “Feed the Cows” (Laughter).
Buck: Through all of the years of studying horses and people, (horse trainer) Tom Dorrance once said, “You can learn anything with these three words – observe, remember, and compare.” He said that beyond that, learn to adjust to fit the situation. That always meant so much to me. The last time I was around Tom, he said, “Don’t treat them like they are. Treat them the way you’d like them to be.” At the time, I didn’t know whether he was talking about horses or people. Later, I realized that he was talking about both. I remind myself of that from time to time. Because sometimes, people might come into a clinic defensive, scared, upset, or emotional. The best part of the person isn’t gonna come out the first day. But if I do my part and help them along, I get an opportunity to see the best part of the person as time goes by.

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  1. I thought this interview was among the best I have read. thank you for doing such a good job. May I ask the author: what would you have thought of the film if the entire troubled stallion section had never happened (ie, never filmed and was not included in the film?) Would it have been as moving ?

    For Annette: You can go see Buck, and not have to own a horse. His clinics allow spectators.

    For the rest of you: I enjoyed reading your comments and everyone treating each other kindly, the way Buck is with the horses. even that stallion.

  2. Annette says:

    I just saw “Buck” this past week at the IFC Center in NYC. I thought of all the horse owners I know who would benefit from this film and probably won’t go to see it. It would challenge their notions of how they feel horses should be “trained,” which usually means being dominated and disrespected. And they might not like looking into that “mirror” either. So often riding a horse is not about riding a horse!
    The movie is beautifully filmed and edited, and made even more so by Brannaman’s wisdom and his relationships with horses and people. His empathy is so deep, and it relates to so many issues besides horses, that you can’t help but come away from this film thinking about how you deal with your own life issues and relationships. I wish that I still had a horse. I would go to one of Buck’s clinics in a second.

  3. Stephanie says:

    I disagree Stacy. While it was sad, it was VERY valuable as a lesson. What was the disturbing part wasn’t just that the horse had to be euthanized buy the fact that she felt it was okay to have 18 stallions!! No experienced horse person would ever feel that is okay! It was very telling about her as a person and he used that to make a point that it is our responsibility how an animal turns out. Every decision or even lack of one counts and has repercussions good or bad. Works the same as a parent. You can’t not make any effort to mold your Childs behavior and expect good results. We as a society are lazy. We want instant coffee, microwave popcorn and have no investment in anything. Anything good takes time and patience as well as perseverance. You can’t ignore something for three years and expect it not to have I’ll consequences. That horse may have turned out different with a different owner.

  4. Stephanie says:

    Tina, have you even SEEN the movie? Of course Buck gives credit where credit is due! He studied with Ray Hunt. He makes no bones about that and they even include footage of him. Take a chill pill
    and relax! If it weren’t for Buck and others that followed Hunt and Dorrance no one would have ever heard of them outside of horse circles.

  5. Stacy says:

    I wish that they had cut the whole mess with the woman and the stallion she ruined. Rather than focus on the horse that was ruined from the day it was born, it would have been nice to see a horse or rider that Buck helped turn on a new path…watch the light bulbs come on, see a success story. Rather, that horse was thrown out with the trash and will be euthanized. For me, it was disturbing (and am sure the whole situation was disturbing to Buck & everyone there) but didn’t teach or provide insights. It seems to provide that cresendo of ‘wow’ factor that is Hollywood, but that is where it stopped. It took the focus off of Buck and what he does best…

  6. John Holland says:

    We just saw “Buck” here in Albuquerque and have recommended it to all our friends and family. Buck’s clinics are well-known here, and this movie will reach out to all horse folks and to anyone who needs a better understanding of the true meaning of patience and trust. Please advise when this movie is available in DVD, and keep up the good work.

  7. Mickey says:

    Tina – don’t hate on Buck. He gives Tom, Bill, and Ray all the credit they deserve. He encourages his students to read their books and study their work. They have all passed on and Buck is one of the few horsemen left to carry on their message in a non-commercial manner. The movie is not just about the methods of horsemanship he uses but also about how those methods helped him overcome his abusive childhood. If this movie causes one horse owner to rethink how they work with their horse and that horse is better off, then the whole movie was worth it- whether it was about Ray, Tom, Bill, or Buck. Stupids humans are those who would rather hate and be negative than see the good in something – I think you need to study more Tom and Ray yourself.

  8. KJ Doughton says:

    In response to one reader’s suggestion that “Buck” Brannaman somehow unjustly stole the spotlight from Dorrance and Hunt… he fully acknowledges these influences during the film, with tremendous respect and appreciation. If anything, “Buck” will confirm not only Brannaman’s contributions to horsemanship, but those of his predecessors as well.

  9. Meg says:

    Tina shouldn’t fret. The movie gives homage to Ray Hunt and the Dorrance brothers and the lineage of wisdom that now passes down to Buck Brannaman. The movie isn’t just about training horses, but is about people. It is largely about Buck’s life on the road. It is about his family and how he overcame his abuse by making good choices because of those that helped him along the way. Definitely worth the money and time to see this movie.

  10. Debbie says:

    I am looking forward to seeing this movie very soon and hope Buck’s influence will be as life-changing for others as it has been for me. I caught that ‘spark’ Buck talked about years ago, long before “The Horse Whisperer” ever came on the scene. I watched as clinic numbers increased and Buck’s name became more popular, but I did not see him change – at all. He was decent before, he is still decent after. “Success” does not change a person of integrity and strong character.

    We have lost some great horsemen in the last ten years, I for one am grateful for Buck’s commitment and dedication to the horse (and their people). I do not know if the Dorrance brothers or Ray Hunt would have agreed to a documentary. I am grateful for what is. I do know Buck would not agree to being filmed unless it was the truth without Hollywood’s tainting.

    One of the things I like most about these methods, outside of the gentleness, is the way each clinician who has learned from Tom, Bill and Ray honor them and keep their memory alive. These folks are straightforward, pulling no punches and come from pure motives.

    Buck is doing incredible good. I am grateful to have seen the Dorrance brothers and many of Ray Hunt’s clinics and I hope with this movie the Vaquero tradition will continue to strengthen. These methods have the power of changing lives and making us all better humans, and I’d say in this day of digital overload and impersonal transactions, I’d say this is a well spring in the desert.

  11. Tina says:

    This erks me to no end. This documentary should have been about the Dorrance brothers and Ray Hunt. Buck learned most of what he knows from them. The sayings he coins as his own such as “I help horses with people problems” came from Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt. Tom and Ray never liked the term “horse whisperer”. If you want to learn how to rope, then go to Buck. If you want to learn horsemanship then study Tom and Ray. This Hollywood hoopla is such BS. I’m sorry this movie is being put out in this false context. Stupid humans.

  12. Lisa Eriksen says:

    Buck and Cindy sounds like people you would benefit from spending time with. The more the better. I would certainly like to see the documentary about Buck, and maybe Cindy could make another documentary of the stories she had to cut. I imagine when people see the first, they would like to see more.
    Good luck with the project

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