I loved “Buck,” the new documentary about Buck Brannaman, the real-life horse whisperer who inspired the book and movie. The film is extraordinarily moving. Buck’s gift for animals is a wonder, but it is his understanding of people and his own inspiring recovery from abuse that make it so stirring. It was a genuine privilege to speak with him.
You were training the people on how to deal with the horses, not the horses on how to deal with the people.
Sometimes they don’t realize that when they come to the clinic. They think we’re going to fix the horse. But pretty soon they realize the problem is not really about the horse. It’s really about them.
I love the appearance by your foster mother.
She’s the best. I can hardly watch the last few minutes of the movie with her in it without crying. She’s 88 years old now. And then when there’s a Q&A after the screenings I always go up there crying. Her and her husband moved to the ranch after WWII. It’s a small ranch, nothing grand, and they struggled for many many years from one month to the next. I don’t think they ever had any money to speak of but they always had an open door for kids, long before there was a formal foster care program. They were the place where people dumped their kids off when they couldn’t get along with them, when they couldn’t get anything accomplished with them, like you might dump off a kitten at a ranch because it could turn out to be a barn cat. They had four kids of their own and then 17 other boys they raised over 40 years. I was the last one.
You tell a very moving story about how much it meant to you the first day with your foster parents when your foster dad handed you a pair of work gloves.
I was scared when I met my foster dad because of the horrible experiences I had and the best thing he could do for me was not to put a lot of time into feeling sorry for me. He knew I needed some direction and a job to do. I needed something so I could move on. He knew if we dwelled there too long it was going to be nothing but negative for me. He did the same thing for me I tell people to do with the horses that are troubled. We can’t do anything about what happened yesterday or last year but we can live in the moment and do something about it right now. So we give him a job to do and pretty soon he has something else to think about.
My husband and I are both old enough to remember the TV commercial you made when we were kids.
It’s amazing how many people our age still remember that! In those days you looked forward to watching cartoons Saturday morning all week long.
Has there ever been a horse you couldn’t handle?
I’ve never found one I couldn’t handle, or couldn’t help. But occasionally someone will bring a horse to the clinic that is so far out of their league based on their experience. If they had another couple of thousand horses under their belt than maybe you could do this horse some good. Sometime the human doesn’t have what they need to help the horse. It all comes from the horse. Tom Dorrence, who really was the godfather of this kind of horsemanship, he spent his entire life studying horses and trying to find a way to work with the horse as if he made up the rules how you’d help him to understand, to teach a horse what you’d like him to do. And being real, it’s not always going to be fuzzy and warm. Sometimes there’s going to be trouble and struggles but that’s true in all relationships. It’s true in raising kids. It’s not always going to be Mayberry RFD. But you do the best you can. You try to be as engaged as possible so that when they’re ready for redirection you are there to put them on the right path.
I get everything from Olympic riders and dressage to ranch cowboys to people who ride for pleasure. The demographic of horse owners spans from one end to the other. There are places in the country where people still make their living on a horse. Sometimes the cowboys are the least likely to listen or get advice. Whatever you’re talking about, the male ego can kind of get in the way. All of us men have to deal with that one time or other.
And all of us women have to deal with you men dealing with that! I love the scenes with you and your daughter. You’re clearly so close and have such a loving, trusting relationship.
I never get tired seeing that. I always had an idea of the dad I hope I would turn out to be, nothing like my own dad, and I always figured these things applied to people as well as horses. Even before I had kids I would draw that analogy to people because they could relate to it. In the back of my mind I always thought, “I sure hope this applies the way you say it does!” And sure enough it did.
What do you hope people will take away from the movie?
The big picture is that these things apply whether you’re talking about people or horses. It’s about taking responsibility rather than shirking, that’s true whatever you might be talking about. And, to be honest, I’m hoping that of all the people who might be seeing this, maybe there will be a handful that might get the idea, “I don’t care so much if I can be like Buck, but I sure would like to be like Betsy and step up and give a kid a home, someone that nobody cares about and nobody wants.” If that came of it, wouldn’t that be cool?