Slow-talking guys in jeans and Stetsons.
Thank you, Ma’am.
Not a whole lot of touchy-feely.
But here’s Buck Brannaman, quite possibly the most important cowboy in America, talking to the documentary camera about his abuse-filled childhood.
About how his widowed father would go on drunken tears and beat Buck and older brother Smokey.
About the winter night when young Buck, terrified of another session of torment, fled into sub-zero weather in his pajamas and survived by sharing a ranch dog’s straw-filled barrel.
Ironically, that tortured childhood may have been instrumental in creating the man Buck Brannaman is today, a real-life horse whisperer whose clinics for horses and their owners are legendary, whose methodology rejects “breaking” an animal and instead relies on his ability to get on the equine wavelength.
After a session with the gentle Brannaman, a horse seems to know telepathically what he wants it do do.
“I dream about horses,” Brannaman said during a recent phone conversation from Oklahoma City, one of the stops on his national publicity tour for the new documentary “Buck.”
“Not all the time. But horses are something that I’ve devoted my life to. I never get tired of them or bored with them.
“And lets be realistic…I’m handy at it. And it’s all I’ve ever really done.”
Brannaman is at the center of “Buck,” a documentary by Cindy Meehl that chronicles not only how this quintessential cowboy does what he does, but provides a deeply moving character study of a man who overcame a horrific past to create a peaceful present. The Sundance winner opens nationally on July 1.
Brannaman said he had few qualms about talking about his painful past, mostly because he’s long done so as part of the clinics he’s run for almost 30 years. That openness makes him more approachable for his clients, some of whom are cowed by his reputation.
“Working with hundreds of people and horses in my clinics, in bits and pieces I’d share my life. It let people realize I wasn’t some bigger-than-life figure you can’t talk to. In opening up it showed a level of trust on my part, and people got more relaxed with me. It helps people to realize that I’ve had an imperfect life. That I’m no better than anyone, else.”
Brannaman may not be perfect, but in “Buck” he comes off as a near-perfect embodiment of a tough, pragmatic but extremely sensitive all-Americanism. A novelist would be hard pressed to create a fictional character that better represents the spirit and virtues of the American West.
For a few years early on, Brannaman said, he was, if not lost, somewhat at sea. After years of performing a trick roping act with Stormy at rodeos and county fairs, a high school football coach noticed the horrific bruises on young Buck’s body. He and his brother were placed in a foster home.
Today Brannaman regards the couple who took them in and provided a loving environment as his true parents.
Some abused children grow up to be abusive adults. Not Brannaman. The film shows him interacting not only with horses and clients but with his wife and teenage daughter. The guy fairly radiates quiet dignity and compassion.
Even big brother Smokey turned out O.K.
“Right out of high school he joined the Coast Guard. Now he’s retired, married and raising a family in Wisconsin.
“He turned out to be a good man.”
Brannaman said he always saw himself working with horses.
“If you’d asked me at age 12 I’d have told you I was gonna be a horseman. I had a career as a trick roper and dabbled with that even after high school. It was a great conversation piece, but not much of a living. I started to excel at horses and now the only time I do rope tricks is to amuse people.”
Typically Brenneman spends eight months a year driving around the U.S., hauling a horse trailer and putting on clinics.
“At the beginning of a clinic there’s an energy there…it’s almost euphoric. Everybody is happy to be doing this for four days. Almost intoxicating.The other three days of the week I’m doing the unromantic stuff: driving, eating at truck stops, missing my family. It’s lonely on the road.”
In 2007 Brannaman decided not to travel. “I wanted to have one year at home with my daughter before she grew up and went to college. What a treasure that was.”
Filmmaker Meehl was a former horse clinic client who believed Brenneman would be a perfect documentary subject.
“She said, ‘Buck, I feel like the things you’re saying and doing are lessons for life. I think your story could appeal to people who don’t know horses or that world.’ She caught me at the right moment. I told her to get after it. ‘What’s stopping you?’”
He did lay down some rules, though.
“I told Cindy that this wasn’t going to be like a feature film where you can tell the star where to stand. My main loyalty is to the people who paid for the clinic. I’m taking them to the dance. I told her I wouldn’t do anything to short them on the experience just because she needed a shot.”
Meehl filmed “Buck” over 30 months, usually employing two cameras. She traveled with Brannaman and was on hand to capture some amazing moments.
Among them was the case of the “predator” stallion, an animal so violent that even Brannaman, who is loathe to give up on any animal, was stymied.
“That horse was an anomaly,” he said. “starting off with fact that he was brain damaged during his birth. It was a mentally handicapped horse.
“That alone means you couldn’t do an average job of raising him.”
That particular horse attacked its handler during the clinic and later was euthanized.
“I hope the message people get from that episode is that with a horse, or dog or children comes a great responsibility. It’s more than keeping them fed and putting a roof over their heads. And if you fall short the results can be tragic.”
There’s a good chance that once “Buck” is released Brannaman will become famous, not just with the horsey set but in households all over.
He doesn’t think it’ll change his life much.
“You know, within just a few weeks the big push on the film will be done. At that point people are going to have to recognize me driving down the Interstate with my horse trailer.”
| Robert W. Butler