AC Interview: Buck Brannaman
The original "horse whisperer" talks about his work, life, and the 2012 Spur award-winning documentary Buck.
Has Buck earned you a degree of celebrity?
Well, it’s one of those things. A lot of people already know who I am in the horse world. But the mainstream would never have known about me any other way. The film definitely broadened my name recognition. But my clinics have been full for years. It just makes the wait list longer. I wish they’d have done the film 25 years ago! [Laughs]
I couldn’t possibly have reached as many people from just doing clinics. Frankly, our idea was that we wanted people to relate [to the film] even if they were not horse people. Long after the hype of all this is over, the people that came to the dance will still be there. I told [Buck director] Cindy Meehl: “Don’t figure on being able to direct me.” Cindy was there to witness my everyday life. And I needed to be loyal to my students. I have to be true.
I didn’t think a documentary like this would amount to a whole lot, so I didn’t think I’d have to give so many interviews. [Laughs] I told Cindy: “If you do a good job, I’ll do whatever I can to help you. Just don’t disappoint me.” Well, I kept my word. She did, too.
Do people walk up to you now?
Yes, in airports. I was in Dallas recently getting my diesel generator worked on, and the guys recognized me, the secretaries in the shop, too. It wasn’t many years ago that I couldn’t get arrested in my own home town. [Laughs] When the excitement wears off, though, I’ll go back to what I was doing before. It feels good for being recognized for giving it a good try.
You describe horse training as being “healing.” Why?
For a lot of people it’s about self-discovery, finding things you need to adjust, change, or improve. When you find that the horse is compelled and interested in you, something in you changes. That can be healing or move you deeply. There’s a difference between mastering something physical and working with an animal. There’s a spiritual component to working with a horse. You’re dealing with the spirit of a live animal that thinks and makes decisions. In nature this animal would have nothing to do with you. “Natural horsemanship” is just words. It’s not natural at all. There’s an abundance of trust that must be developed for you. Imagine if humans were that pliable.
You also describe riding as a “dance” but relate it to giving the horse a job. Which is it?
That’s easy. My work is my play. I found a way to make my passion to be the same as how I make a living. I’d be doing this even if I didn’t need to make a living. A horse can have a job and not be a slave. He can look forward to it and enjoy it. That’s the same for me.
What’s the story with the black horse you ride in the film?
Rebel? He’s at home now. I raised him, and I’m awfully proud of him. He’s right at the fun stage for me now. It’s that last stage that’s interesting and difficult for me. For that first 30–60 days of training a horse, I used to be really adequate. But I sort of stalled out, so I worked real hard the last 20–25 years to finish horses and make bridle horses out of them. That’s where I can really improve on myself.
How many horses do you haul?
Three—usually a couple of green horses and one experienced horse. I kind of trade ’em out throughout the year. That way I can stay caught up riding my own horses. Some guys make their careers off one horse; kind of a trick horse, a wonder horse. I’m not knocking that, but for me I’m trying to get better and study. That means taking out new horses. It’s a life study. When I’ve finished a horse, I turn him out and basically stop riding him, except taking him to the occasional branding so I can enjoy him.
How much do you travel?
I travel and put on horsemanship clinics for 9–10 months a year, every year. In fact, 2012 is the 30th year that I’ve been doing clinics. If you add ’em all up, I’m over 1,700 clinics. We average 12 students for a colt class; 25 or so for a horsemanship class. I offer five different classes [colt starting, foundation horsemanship, two levels of more advanced horsemanship, ranch roping, and cow working], and each clinic site picks two topics for the four-day program. I generally arrive a day or two early to rest my horses and prepare. I’m a bit of a night owl, so after a clinic I’ll take off and drive through the night. I like to drive through the big cities at 2 or 3 in the morning to avoid traffic. They never know I was there.
How many miles do you log?
In the early days, I put on more miles. All my clinics were so scattered. I’d put one on wherever they’d have me. These days I return to the same places annually, and I probably drive 30,000–35,000 miles a year. But that’s just driving one or two days a week, so that’s an awful lot of miles at a time. Internationally, I alternate years between Europe and New Zealand and Australia. Those are usually two-week trips in the fall or winter; my “off” season.
You joke in the film about your wife, Mary, having lots of dogs. Have they replaced you yet?
[Laughs] No, but we had a tough year and lost a couple. We have three now: two Jack Russells and an Australian Shepherd. They keep her busy. They’re a handful, that’s for sure. I met Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, not too long ago when he came to one of my clinics in California. Mary had warned me not to say anything to him about her dogs. But I told him that she said that, and he got a big kick out of it. It’s funny, Cesar and I are sort of kindred spirits philosophically, but he works with predator animals and I work with prey. He’s very sensible and has some great intuitions.
Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance were your mentors. Do you have any apprentices?
I do. There’s a handful of people around the country that have been riding and studying with me for many years. You don’t know what 30 years of devotion will do, but I can guarantee that there will be a next generation. And they will likely go way beyond me.
Ray’s widow, Carolyn Hunt, and I put on an event called the Legacy of Legends to demonstrate difference aspects of riding and to raise funds for scholarships for young people to attend clinics and ride with good hands. It’s a showcase dressage, cutting, working cow, jumping, reatta roping, and colt starting. We’ve do two now. The last one was at the South Point in Las Vegas, and the next one will be in February 2013. Some people will hang their hat on Ray Hunt or Tom Dorrance just to make money, even if they never met them. This is our way of paying tribute to the legacy of Ray and Tom and to continue their work.
Only one of your three children appears in the film. Are the others horse people, too?
Not really. You want your kids to feel happy and good about themselves. The rest they’ll work out on their own. You never know what your kids will be drawn to. Our oldest daughter, Lauren, went to University of Colorado and lives in Denver and is a social worker. Our middle daughter, Kristin, works for a public relations firm in New York City. Only our youngest, Reata, was seriously drawn to horses.
What rig do you drive?
I traded in that Freitlighner from the movie and just bought a 40-foot RV. My youngest daughter Reata is about to go off to college, Montana State University, and I’m hoping to get my wife to travel with me. She would not have survived long in my living quarters horse trailer. She’d probably want to kill me, so I upgraded. I pull a 20-foot horse trailer with enough room for three horses and a tack room, so I take up a lot of road. It’s like a sail when it gets windy. Coming across Texas was like a wrestling match. But it’s a nice camp when you get where you’re going. Back in the day, I drove a dually and horse trailer. That was 25 years in hotels, and I got sick of it. It’s nice to be able to sleep in your own bed and to put away your own things. Living out of a suitcase is tough. It’s different driving an RV, though. I’ve noticed that truckers really hate RVs and assume that it’s some old guy in there. Won’t let you merge and all that. I think to myself: “Hey man, I’m working for a living, too. Just trying to get where I’m going.” They can definitely be a little bit cranky. I think they might be jealous. RVs sure are nice.
What’s the media exposure been like?
In Australia, I did “The Circle,” the equivalent to “The View” in America, and I got to meet Olivia Newton John. That was fun.
I’ve done promotion in 25 markets, probably 600–700 interviews in the last 12 months... I was a little bit dubious of David Letterman, though. He’s an entertainer and a comedian first and foremost. I’ve seen him have fun at the expense of people, so I was guarded for the first 30 seconds. But he was really respectful, and we had a nice talk. I got to meet Eddie Vedder backstage. I got to thank him for the use of his song in Buck. I know he didn’t write it for us, but it felt like he did. Touching lyrics. I could hear that song 100 times and not get sick of it.
Do you have a problem with students getting enamored with you and losing the message of horsemanship?
Most people around the clinics know that I’m married. I don’t have any problems with anything sinister. Its pretty clear to people that I’m not shopping. I adore my wife, and she adores me. Anyone that has a public job knows that that’s the kiss of death.
Are you close to your brother Smokey?
Yes, we’re close, but we live a long ways apart. He had a long career in the Coast Guard, and I’m not much of an ocean kind of a guy. I love to fly-fish, though. No sharks out there.
Your mother seems like a lovely lady. How is she doing?
Mom is good. She’s 87 this year. Getting old. I’m so happy that she was in film. She’s had a great life. If only on thing happens from this film, it’s that people admire and appreciate Betsy Shirley.
Can Robert Redford ride a horse?
Ya, he’s had horses for quite a few years. He’s ridden a lot. We spent about a year together—five months filming the Horse Whisperer and about a year working on the script. We’ve been friends ever since.