BUCK IS BUCK BRANNAMAN, the real-life horse trainer who inspired Robert Redford's film The Horse Whisperer back in the late '90s. Director Cindy Meehl met him at one of the clinics he teaches, crisscrossing horse country to impart his philosophy. It's a touching transcendence of a childhood marred by physical abuse, and the result is an admiring portrait that should be required viewing for anyone working with horses.
MERCURY: Is the psychological connection between people and horses superior than to other animals?
BUCK BRANNAMAN: Not necessarily, but it is different. In working with dogs, for example. A dog is a predator, and a horse is a prey animal. When you're working with a predator, you're trying to channel their aggression. With a prey animal, you're trying to calm the horse and have him discover that you mean him no harm. They're different animals, but some people, as close as they're gonna get to nature, because of where they live—maybe the closest connection they're gonna have with animals is with a dog. Maybe that's all that person needs.
Do you believe that living with humans, provided they are treated well, is inherently a better situation for a horse than to remain wild?
It depends on what kind of human they're living with. With my horses, when I'm using them, it's not a slave-type relationship—it's a partnership. It's like dancing together. My horses don't mind a bit of working for a living any more than I do. And when I'm not using them, they're out in the hills, loping around in the pastures, climbing up and down in the mountains and in the plains and the creek. They kind of go right back to where they'd been in nature for thousands of years.
How crucial is allowing them that kind of time?
You know, it is [crucial], but at the same rate there are some people who don't have a place to keep their horse that would be as desirable as my place. I often tell people then that it by all means puts the responsibility on the person—when you work with your horse, when you ride your horse, when you exercise your horses, when you take them for a trail ride—you have to make sure that the relationship between you and your horse is something kind of special, so it's something he looks forward to and enjoys. A horse can very much enjoy being around people. What it's all about it developing a relationship between the person and the horse.
Do you see a moral differentiation between keeping horses to work with versus as a pet or a hobby?
A horse really does need a purpose. I'm not too impressed by someone who just buys a horse as a status symbol. Horses and working with horses has always been one of the fine arts—every bit as serious an art as writing music or poetry or painting or sculpting. I hope that the people that I work with, at least some of them, will be inspired to become artists, where what they do is truly special.
Is art enough of a purpose for a horse? What if the horse's job is to give rides to tourists?
Every horse has a different purpose, no different from people. Wouldn't we all like to be in the Olympics, but we don't all have that going for us. So every horse's job more or less is gonna fit the horse. And the fact that there's still a use for horses means that there's gonna be horses around. I come from a world where you make your living on a horse. You need the horse as a partner to get the job done. The cowboy without the horse can't take care of the cattle, can't cover that much ground by himself. I came from a real working world and, as you know, a lot of people nowadays don't have to make their living on the back of a horse, so it's something they have as a source of enjoyment. I'm not critical of that, because I love horses and I want there to always be horses around.
There's a lot the horse has to offer to humans in terms of [the fact that] it sort of completes the person when they get to where they can understand horses and find a way to work with the horse—when it'll accept you into his world, and the horse will feel support and comfort from you. The sort of lessons you learn from working with horses transcend just horsemanship. It's things you would apply to your life in general. There are some great things for us to learn from the horses. If people were no longer riding horses, even if it was for pleasure, they wouldn't be around anymore. And that would be a very empty place for me if there were no more horses around.
To what extent is your philosophy still outside convention? Is it catching on?
This started with my teachers Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt, and 30, 40 years ago, they were way outside the box, kind of considered freaks. The conventional wisdom was to show who's boss and just impose your will on the horse and sort of force him to submit. Ray and Tom didn't approach things that way. They were really revolutionary. Tom was sort of the godfather of this. He passed it onto Ray, and Ray passed it onto me. I'm happy to say that there are thousands and thousands of people who are accepting this method of working with young horses. There's a humane approach, a consideration of the horse. I often tell people that when you get on the horse and ride him, I say, "You can pet him as much as you want to reassure him. No one's gonna think you're a big sissy because you're loving on your horse." It has been really embraced the last few years. Hopefully, I'll live long enough to make a little more of a mark than I have.
Did you have any reservations about participating in this film?
I already was friends with Cindy [Meehl], so I trusted her and I knew that she would do the best she could to honor me in what she was doing. She didn't want to disappoint me in any way, so I didn't have any trust issues. And as far as some of the things I shared about my life, I'd already been doing that for years in my clinics. People need to know a little bit about me so they can feel comfortable with me. Then, I can know a little bit about them, because that's how I'm going to be able to help them. It's almost like it's the only way I'm going to be able to help someone else, is to show them my vulnerabilities first.