Buck Brannaman is the horse whisperer. No, really. The man who was one of the inspirations for Robert Redford's film, (and is so much more impressive in real life than on the silver screen) is now the subject of a documentary directed by Cindy Meehl, who met Buck at one of his clinics in 2003 not thinking there was much she could learn from a cowboy. In four days, she found herself mind-melding with horses and drawn to his tough love approach to the riders and owners. Buck's rough exterior and empathetic abilities – with horses and people – stem in part from a tough past as a childhood rope-trick star with an abusive father. This dark twist brings a presence to this documentary that no big-screen movie can believably recreate. We talked to Buck as he was traveling in Montana with horses in tow.
In your own words, what do you do for a living?
I help horses. Most of the problem that we deal with is that the people don't understand the horse. What I do in the horse clinics transcends the horse world and people understand the principles without being overpowered.
Can anyone learn to read horses like you? Is it all hard work or is there something innate?
That's the age-old question, whether a horseman was born or made. It may be a little of both. I always figured that what I lack in talent I can make up for in true grit and determination. There hasn't been anybody that works harder than I. The horse is the only teacher I have left.
How do you read a horse? Is there any relationship to the practice and training dogs?
Yes and no. There's certainly the philosophy of how you work with dogs is similar. This is a predator, rather than a prey animal. The horse has body language, posture. You move in certain ways that you need when you're riding the horse. It's a matter of showing the horse the way you move. It's as much a fine art as anything.
You got to work closely with Robert Redford, a young Scarlett Johansson, and other celebs in'The Horse Whisperer'. Who's your favorite?
I've been friends with Bo Derek for quite a few years. I enjoy her. Cindy Crawford wasn't hard to look at, I'll tell you that.
How about your favorite horse?
It's a little hard to narrow it down. There's a horse that's on the front of my book – Biff. He was a very, very difficult horse to work with. I bought him for that reason cause I knew he'd make me better. He was very dangerous to be around. He'd been treated kinda poorly. He taught me so much. I'll always love that horse. He's now retired at my place – and kinda old. I'll miss that horse when he's gone.
Do you have advice for those of us who don't have the pleasure to ride daily – if ever?
Someone that was going to find a horse, the best thing they can do is be pretty discriminating. Be gentle and fill in for them while they ride. They're not apt to know much about it so they're not app to know the horse. As far as people who maybe would be inspired and go out to a guest ranch, most of those horses are real gentle. Sometimes it's a dude ranch and they just let them follow the horse in front. Might as well get a roll of quarters and ride the one in front of Walmart.
Is a man's life complete without a horse?
Of course, we wanted this documentary to be something that would appeal to the entire population. And I understand that some of the lessons that are learned, that philosophically you can approach things the same way. My mentor, [Tom Dorrance, the godfather of this style of horsemanship] would say, "Buck, don't treat him like he is. Treat him like you'd like him to be." He would always say 3 words: "observe, remember, and compare." You can pretty much learn anything by those three words.