Among the guests at the recent Seattle International Film Festival were the director and subject of the documentary “Buck,” Cindy Meehl and Buck Brannaman.
The film profiles Brannaman, the real-life “horse whisperer,” and follows him around his circuit of horse-training clinics, where he pre
aches his gentle-but-firm gospel of dealing with animals.
I spoke with the two in a Seattle hotel room. Brannaman was wearing a large cowboy hat, hand-painted vintage Western tie and a beautiful cow’s-head tie clasp that, he explained, was created by Edward Bohlin, a silversmith who created saddles for Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, the great singing cowboys of the movie past.
Question: Cindy, how did you reach the point where you thought this would be a film?
Cindy Meehl: I’d seen Buck in action at his clinics, and he was mentioning making his book “Faraway Horses” into a film. And it immediately occurred to me what a tragedy it would be for someone to see only an actor play Buck. Because there is no other Buck. As far as the horsemanship, you have to see Buck do it.
Three months later, I was still thinking about it, and so I thought I would ask him. The worst thing that would happen is he’d say no, and then I’d be off the hook. But he didn’t.
Q: Was there anything that happened during the filming process that you didn’t want included in the film?
Buck: No, because everything I do with horses is scrutinized, and I absolutely want everybody to see everything I do and realize that what I do is not any kind of a trick.
I’m doing everything that I hope they would learn and go home and practice and get good at themselves.
The reality of working with horses, and people, is that occasionally I have to be brutally honest with someone about their horse, and them.
And I would never do it to hurt someone’s feelings, but they’re paying me to be honest, and sometimes that honesty can shock people a little bit. But I would be phony if I wasn’t completely honest about what the horse was telling me and what I felt like I needed to say on the horse’s behalf.
There are people that go to my clinics that have been goin’ for 20 years, and there’s one that always brags about being probably the student that’s cried the most times in a Buck Brannaman clinic over the years.
And she used to say, “Buck would make me cry every time we’d work together,” and I’d say, “No, Courtney, I didn’t make you cry, I helped you cry.”
Q: Does a documentary filmmaker ever have to be like a horse trainer? Know when to push, pull back, that kind of thing?
Cindy: You know, Buck says that horses and life are all the same. You want to have patience, sensitivity, leadership, and all those things you pretty much have to have to make a film.
So, yeah, there are quite a few parallels when you think about it.
Q: Have you been surprised by the reaction to the film?
Buck: We were just in New York City last night, and the room was filled with people, some of ’em probably haven’t been within a mile of a horse. Yet they still connected with the film in the way that I hoped that they would. You see, some of the lessons you learn in working with horses — often, people will come up and say, “I could’ve sworn you were talking about raising kids rather than talking about horses.” Well, I am.
Q: Has anything changed since the film was shot?
Buck: There may be a few more people come to watch my clinics, but my clinics have been booked full for riders for years and years, so I’m not really looking for any change in my life.
Q: So you still make the circuit described in the film?
Buck: Oh, yeah. I’ve been doin’ it 29 years now. Might have another 29 left in me if everything goes right.
Q: You must have seen a lot of things change in those years.
Buck: When I was growing up with my foster parents, the methods of working with young horses were, by today’s standards, pretty primitive. It’s not that we weren’t doing the best we could with what we knew — people weren’t out there trying to be mean to horses — but there wasn’t the knowledge that there is now.
In the last 50 years, there’s been quite an enlightened approach, and not just in the world of the cowboy. People are willing to look at things a little bit differently from what grandpa used to do.
So that’s kind of encouraging, because it’s not like we don’t get to see enough bad news these days.
Q: You just mentioned the cowboy. What’s the profile of the cowboy in this era?
Buck: It’s still out there, but you’re not gonna see it from the interstate. You know, there are some people that think of the term “cowboy” as being someone irrational, maybe primitive.
And frankly, I hope that by people seeing this documentary, they might re-think what a cowboy is. Some of them are fairly sophisticated. They want to make their living from the back of a horse, and it is a devotion, because you probably won’t find a lower-paying job, but it’s something they love to do.
It’s not a bad thing to be called a cowboy if you come from where I come from.