June 28, 2011
Bucking the System for Horses
New film on Buck Brannaman documents a mission of humane horsemanship
Yes, Virginia, there is a horse whisperer. Now in theatres, the lyrical film “BUCK” reveals the heart and soul of Buck Brannaman, a trainer whose insightful methods inspired the central character of the novel and movie “The Horse Whisperer."
Brannaman’s journey to legendary status started with the years he suffered physical abuse at the hands of his father. Placed in foster care with a rancher and his wife, he gained the respect and guidance he needed to heal—and found comfort and friendship with horses.
At 17, Brannaman met Ray Hunt, a proponent of the natural horsemanship method of training that was the opposite of everything the aspiring cowboy and one-time trick roper knew about horses. “There was an expression to his horses; there was a calmness and a serenity to his horses that I’d never seen,” says Brannaman. That meeting determined the rest of his life.
”BUCK,” winner of the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award, follows Brannaman around the country as he teaches owners to communicate with sensitivity rather than punishment, dispensing healing in the process. Brannaman spoke with “All Animals” associate editor Arna Cohen for this excerpted interview.
Why did you turn to horses as a child? Why not cows or chickens or dogs?
When my brother and I went to live with my foster parents, we had already ridden horses all of our lives because we were performers. As far as working with horses and connecting with them, it started for me with my foster dad. He was the first man that I’d ever known that I really wanted to be like, and he was really interested in horses. Early on, he told me that if I wanted to be able to make a living and wanted to eat, to make sure that I could ride a colt and shoe a horse.
I had come from so much trouble with my real dad that I sort of hid in with the horses. I spent all my time playing with horses down at the barn. That was where I seemed to find some peace. I felt like they were the only friends I had in the world, but at least I had a friend.
Do you still do things pretty much as Ray Hunt taught you?
I’ve tried to stay as close to what he taught me as I could. But of course every person’s personality and feel and awareness is going to change it a little bit. There could be two really gifted painters that do beautiful work but it looks different. And what makes it look different is their soul went into it at one point beyond the fundamentals of simply painting. And that’s with horsemanship as well, when a person is interested enough or passionate enough about it. My horses have a certain expression, almost like a trademark look that people can identify, like I used to see in Ray Hunt’s horses. That’s from years of study and devotion to it.
In the film, you work with a dangerous young horse who ultimately is euthanized. You told the owner that the horse told you a lot about her. What did you mean by that?
The horse won’t cover for you; the horse doesn’t lie. The way he responds to you and reacts to you really does tell a lot about a person. It helps me to understand how to approach somebody. Maybe I can try to say the right thing at the right time that might help them in their life.
Of course I’m there to help the horses, but I’m sure you could see that the big picture is, what can you do for your fellow human being at the same time?
How have you transferred your experience working with troubled young horses to working with troubled kids?
Homeboy Industries is a group out of L.A. that’s taken a lot of these gang kids from the city, helping them to get an education and go to college and get jobs. We’re sort of folding a little bit of a horse program in gradually to help these kids. They have no background in horses, but there’s something really cool that happens between these young men and the horses. When they get around them, it’s like they turn into little kids again. It’s a cool thing, and we’re just getting started with that. I’m excited about where that may go.