Mr. Movie

'The Real Horse Whisperer' interview

Dan "Buck" Brannaman is the subject of the documentary Buck. My guess is Buck doesn’t use the moniker Dan much. He’s just "Buck."

Buck is one of my favorite films this year and after urging Carmike Cinemas the past few weeks, they agreed to open it in Tri-Cities. The film is about training horses and subtly, about training ourselves.

In my opinion it’s a “must see,” even if you don’t own horses or ride them.

Some background. Buck Brannaman is a horse whisperer. He’s the guy who advised Robert Redford on the set of his excellent film The Horse Whisperer and served as Redford’s stunt double in some of the horse training scenes.

Buck spends much of the year teaching clinics on natural horsemanship. One of them, I am told, was held in Tri-Cities a few years ago. He has done these clinics for 30 years. He uses horses and the interaction with horses to help people learn more about themselves.

The documentary Buck is about his clinics, his philosophy and more.

It was done by first-time filmmaker Cindy Meehl, founder of Cedar Creek Productions. Though not a filmmaker by trade, she felt Buck’s story and his inspirational life needed to be shared with the masses.

Before filming the documentary, she ran her own clothing label Sasha and Cindy Hughes Designs. She designed couture evening wear.

My conversation with Cindy and Buck was done by phone. Cindy and Buck were on a two-way connection, and I was connected as the third party. Her connection was not good. Alas, much of her comments about the movie and her life were garbled and lost.

If you read this Cindy, I did the best I could. My apologies for not being able to understand more of your conversation.

GW: People are impressed with your movie, Cindy.

Cindy: Thank you very much. We worked hard on it.

GW: Why a documentary about Buck?

Cindy: I thought cowboy wisdom is what the world needs right now.

GW: What is cowboy wisdom?

Buck: It’s what I do in the clinics, basically. People quickly come to realize that it’s not just about horses. It’s about relationships and people and some of the things you learn through the horse. There isn’t a week goes by that someone doesn’t say to me, “I apply these same things to my life and how I deal with others.”

That’s kind of the point of the documentary. We hoped it would be something that didn’t necessarily just appeal to people with horses. It sure seems like it has.

This exchange came at the end of our conversation.

GW: Here’s a question for both of you. What do you want me to take away from Buck?

Buck: I want a person to remind themselves from time to time — if not often — to take responsibility for everything that’s happening around them. I also wish that people watching this documentary can be more like my foster mom, and take some kids in and be a foster parent. Take care of some kid that nobody loves and wants.

Cindy: My goal was to inspire people to change their lives. You don’t have to bring your baggage with you. You can do things about it. You can live a good life and a happy life for you and your family and the people around you.

GW: Here’s one observation of society. We have become a people that want others to solve our problems. We want this person or that, or this government or that, to solve all of our problems and meet our every need.

No pain. No effort. Just presto, someone else does the fixing.

Then there are those in politics and in social circles telling me I have to pay more taxes to take care of those less fortunate financially. I don’t mind spending my earnings helping others.

But I do ask those that tell me this is what I ought to be doing with my money and what the “rich” ought to be doing with theirs. “When was the last time you volunteered in your community? When was the last time you made the effort to help out in a school, or go to an organization working with the homeless, or the less fortunate. When was the last time you took a homeless person into your home? Cared for them? Fed them? And let them live with you.”

I did that recently and the guy stayed for more than a year.

My point is, more people need to do that. More people need to care about others like your foster parents cared for you. This is something we do and it doesn’t need government money, or government regulations to accomplish. In other words — people need to stop talking about others needing to step up and do the job. They need to step up and do the job themselves.

Sorry to lecture.

Buck: Gary, I’m getting to like you better all the time.


And that’s where the studio rep told us time was up and our interview was finished.

Putting it in perspective, my conversation with Buck is one of the most positive I’ve ever had with a “celebrity.” And I’d love to meet him some day and continue. Meanwhile, here is the conversation in its entirety from the beginning to the ending I just posted.

I think you’ll agree that Buck Brannaman is a fascinating human being, and I think you’ll agree with me that Cindy Meehl’s passion to bring his story to the screen was worth the effort.

GW: I’ve had a long standing agreement with horses. I don’t ride them, they don’t ride me. It seems to be working so far.

Buck: I have the same agreement with sharks.

GW: I don’t like water either. When I was 25, I worked at a radio station in Kalispell, Mont. I’d lived in Portland, Ore., for the previous 10 years and forgot how beautiful the stars are. I rented from a guy who also boarded horses. I worked the 6-to-midnight shift and every night during the spring, summer and fall after I got off work I’d go out in the pasture and just enjoy the stars.

The horses would be waiting for me by the fence when I came home and they accompanied me on my nightly walk. We became really close. I took them apples and sometimes some hay.

Buck: It’s interesting the connection that people have with horses. It’s almost in our DNA.

GW: Your movie is wonderful and so inspiring. It’s not just about horses and relationships to horses. It speaks to people in general. It reaches them in their ordinary lives.

Cindy: I followed Buck for 2 1/2 years and we edited for a good 10 months.

GW: The movie is gorgeous. The scenery is spectacular.

Buck: Some of that isn’t too far from where you used to live in Kalispell. It’s between Kalispell and Libby.

GW: Personal question. In discussions about your childhood and the abuse you suffered, you mention your brother. Yet we never find out what happened to him. You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want, but what happened to him? Did he turn out OK like you?

Buck: We don’t mention much about Smokey because it’s kind of off the topic. When he got out of high school he joined the Coast Guard and was in there for 25 years and retired.

He got married and raised a family and lives happily in Oshkosh, Wisc.

GW: My father was very much like yours. He was not an alcoholic but he was a very, very angry man. He didn’t beat us, but the verbal abuse and very angry spankings were hard to deal with. We eventually patched it up. He finally figured it out and changed into one of the sweetest human beings I’ve ever known. My dad was my best friend when he died.

I could really relate to your youth. My experience drove me to drugs and alcohol, lots of anger and violence, and unhappy relationships — for them, not me — before I finally got it figured out.

So I can really relate to your life. You mastered your anger. How did you do that?

Buck: I suppose it doesn’t surprise you that I get that question a lot. My great influence was Betsy Shirley, my foster mother. You can’t help but get real positive influence from being around her.

When I went to live with my foster parents, my refuge was horses. My foster dad — Forrest Shirley — loved horses and we spent a lot of time with them. For a long period of time they were the only friends in the world that I had any confidence in.

The horses saved my life. I had to make changes within myself to get along with horses. They weren’t all gentle. A lot of them were pretty troubled. When I was 13 years old, my first real job was to get young horses ready for the public. I had to pay for my food, clothing and expenses because my foster parents did not have a lot of money so I did my part to pay for my keep.

I had to change a lot of things within myself to be around the horses and be accepted by them.

GW: Your philosophy applies to every part of life. Not just horses. That’s the beauty of the movie.

Buck: The changes I had to make to get along with horses changed me entirely as a person.

GW: How did you get along with the cameras and the buzz and energy of movie people following you around for over two years? Did they get in your way?

Buck: Cindy had been around my clinics enough to know where to be and what to expect. In a Hollywood movie you can have one or more takes to get a scene right. With horses you only get one take.

GW: Cindy, what’s interesting to me about this documentary is that you’re not a filmmaker by profession. This is your first work.

Cindy: I’m an artist. The magic of this movie is the people.

GW: These are people that love their animals and want to be better. You spent a lot of time on a lady with a psychopath horse. You wouldn’t exactly call her magic.

Cindy: The people attending Buck’s clinics — for the most part — want to get to know their animals better and to be better with them. Some people have good intentions but don’t have the knowledge and skills to go with it.

Buck: I’ve been doing this for 29 years and I have lots of stories. The lady we used in the movie had some baggage. But when it comes right down to it, who doesn’t? A lot of people find ways to get along in spite of the baggage. She [the lady with the psychopath horse] was in way over her head and had created the monster by the way that it was raised. She realized that, and she also realized that without me looking over her shoulder every step of the way for months, there was no way she was going to survive or help that horse.

Some poor innocent person was going to get hurt.

Whenever I was in the picture working with the horse, we made progress. The real danger of that horse was on the ground. The margin of error with that horse was so paper-thin that if you’re a little out of position or a little inattentive for a split second, he’d have you.

GW: Some people ruin horses. Some people ruin kids.

Buck: That’s the big picture. I hope those seeing the documentary get the point. I want people to understand that if you’re going to have horses, dogs or cats, or children, they are a great responsibility. You have to step up and do your job whether you’re a parent or a horse owner, or a dog or cat owner. You have more responsibility than just feeding them.

GW: The lady with the psycho horse was a really long segment. Why so long?

Cindy: It was a tragic story about a damaged horse. Including it was the right choice.

Buck: A lot of people ask that question. But you know, that yellow horse could have just as easily been Buck.

GW: That’s very true. You could have been in prison all of your life.

Buck: Instead of having the care and upbringing that horse had, I had Forrest and Betsy Shirley. Because of that I didn’t end up like that yellow horse. It was totally the opposite for me.

GW: Tell me about your relationship with Robert Redford.

Buck: We don’t see each other all the time. We’ve stayed in touch since we did The Horse Whisperer. We got to be pretty good friends over the summer we did the filming. I’d been working with him for a year on different technical things prior to the filming.

We had a fairly long working relationship. Through all that time together we got to be pretty good friends. We see each other from time to time. I like him. He’s a good man.

GW: Cindy, how much time did you spend with Robert Redford? Was Buck there you when you interviewed him?

Cindy: I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with him. He was in the middle of editing The Conspirator. Robert Redford doesn’t do many interviews and he was very anxious to do it but it took a year of going back and forth for our schedules to mesh.

GW: Buck, have you ever thought of doing motivational work somewhere besides a horse arena? You could almost teach a psychology class.

Buck: I have done some of that, but I’m so busy doing my clinics. I’ve done things through the several speaker’s bureaus and I’ve done things — believe it or not — for Sprint, Nextel and Wells Fargo. Just a ton of things.

Usually what I’ll do is take a 2-year old horse that has never been ridden. I’ll saddle him up and work with him and I’ll do the first ride on him. It takes an hour and a half. What they see is an untrained horse being afraid and unsure go to a riding horse in 90 minutes or so.

Within that 90 minutes, I do parallels that show how to communicate with a horse and how that very same rule applies to communicating with people.

GW: Any plans to do another documentary, Buck?

Buck: I want to do a feature film on my book The Faraway Horses. It looks like some opportunities are starting to present themselves. Even though I’ve written the book and it’s been out for awhile, the project will not be complete until I get this film done.

*** Editor’s note: the book is Buck’s autobiography.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing for the last 30 years and be perfectly happy with that.

GW: All that traveling has to be really hard on the family.

Buck: My wife Mary understands. This is my calling. This is what I was put here to do. I didn’t choose it, it chose me.

GW: You think you were born to do this?

Buck: All I ever wanted to do was be a horseman. Because of what the horses have done for me, and the healing effect that horses had on me when I was younger and most needed them, I’ve devoted the rest of my life to paying them back.

GW: Do you ever watch the Dog Whisperer?

Buck: Oh, yeah.

GW: I like the show. It’s one of the few TV shows I’ll stop and watch. I watch these people and hope they don’t have children. If you can’t raise a dog then you really shouldn’t be raising kids.

Buck: I go to the city and see people with their dogs. I’ll ask them what they’re doing and they’ll say, “I’m walking my dog.” My reply is, “It looks like it’s walking you.” If they can’t handle a dog then you know damn good and well that’s how their kids respond to them as well.

GW: It is sad. And — back to your movie — I saw the same thing in the lady with the very dangerous, psychopath horse. When she was first introduced in your movie, my first thought was, “I hope she doesn’t have kids.”

I keep coming back to that part of the movie. It was so powerful. When you talked to her, big tears formed in her eyes. You got to her.

Buck: It’s baby steps for someone like that. If someone has themselves in a hole that far emotionally, the best you can do is plant a seed in them and hope it grows into something. You can’t expect someone to clean up their act and change their life in a very short period of time.

Someone like that lives their lives they only way they know. It’s incremental.

That’s what’s interesting about my horse thing. A horse can change everything about the way it lives in a few days sometimes. For a human being, that’s a project.

Cindy: I’ve talked with her since the movie. She is real emotional about that horse.

She was doing the best she could, and it was a tough time. We just really appreciate the fact that she shared her story. It’s a really powerful part of the movie.


For those in the Tri-Cities, if you haven’t seen Buck it’s playing at the Carmike 12. For outside readers, you can find it at art houses. Some of theater chains have discovered it and have booked it.

Do see Buck. I gave it a five on my five star rating system.