'Buck': Helping Horses With People Problems In Buck, filmmaker Cindy Meehl tells the story of Buck Brannaman, a cowboy who channeled a childhood of abuse into a unique career as what some have dubbed a horse whisperer.
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'Buck': Helping Horses With People Problems

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'Buck': Helping Horses With People Problems

'Buck': Helping Horses With People Problems

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NEAL CONAN, host: Buck Brannaman doesn't break horses. Buck Brannaman starts horses, and the distance between those two words contains an entire philosophy that's explored in the new film "Buck." The documentary, directed by first-time filmmaker Cindy Meehl, won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It also kicks off our coverage of the American Film Institute's annual Silverdocs Festival. This week, we'll focus on three of the 108 films that will play in the six-day festival in Silver Spring, Maryland.

"Buck" follows Buck Brannaman as he teaches clinics for people with horse problems and, as he puts it, horses with people problems. We want to hear your stories about unexpected lessons you learned from horses. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We're also going to be joined by Cindy Meehl, the film's director, but now, Buck Brannaman joins us from the road in Denver. Thanks very much for being with us today.

BUCK BRANNAMAN: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And what does it mean to start a horse?

BRANNAMAN: Well, what we think of in working horses this way is you might kind of consider that maybe you gave the horse the opportunity to help you understand how you might work with him in a way that he maybe got to make up the rules how you teach him, and, of course, with that, it's really all about getting the horse comfortable where he realizes that that you don't mean him any harm. You may want him to move in a certain way for you and eventually lets you ride him around, but at the same rate, that he realizes he doesn't have to defend himself or fear the human.

CONAN: Yet that's very different from the philosophy that a lot of people have that you need to dominate the horse and make clear who's the boss.

BRANNAMAN: Well, yeah, that's - that has been around for a long time and - but I would say this, it's getting less and less. This method of working with young horses that I've been doing, that I've learned from Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance, is really generally accepted, especially here in America now.

CONAN: I wanted to bring Cindy Meehl into the conversation. She joins us from the studios at SiriusXM here in Washington, D.C. Nice to have you with us.

CINDY MEEHL: Thank you. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, you maybe set out to make a film about a horse trainer. You seemed to have made a film about philosophy.


MEEHL: I know. Well, I did start out thinking that it was about horses myself, and then, I realized that everything he was teaching, everything I had learned from him was translating into my life, and everyone else that I kept interviewing along the way said the same thing. So I think what was resonating with people is how much it's about people.

CONAN: How much it's about people. I wanted to play a scene from the film, and this is - there's a young woman who comes to - maybe not-so-young woman who comes to one of Buck Brannaman's clinics and has a problem with a stallion who's - well, let's hear Buck analyze the problem.


BRANNAMAN: (as himself) He's as close to having been turned into a predator as you're going to find...


BRANNAMAN: (as himself) ...because he's been wrecked.



BRANNAMAN: (as himself) I want to give the older horses a chance to get him some manners.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) He's run with some studs, and they take him...

BRANNAMAN: (as himself) You're nuts for having that many studs...


BRANNAMAN: (as himself) ...running together. Lady, I'm telling you that most people don't need studs, and for God's sake, they don't need 18 of them. I don't know what you're trying to prove. And if you've got a lot going on in your life, probably a lot of it is a lot bigger story than this horse.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Yeah.

BRANNAMAN: (as himself) You ought to be a SEAL team member or something, as much risk as you like to take. Why don't you learn how to enjoy your life? Life is too damn short. This horse tells me quite a bit about you. So this is just an amplified situation of what is. Sound fair?

CONAN: And, Buck Brannaman, I have to ask you that's a - well, that's a lot to take from - lot to read into the situation of one horse with a problem.

BRANNAMAN: Well, I've been doing this for a long time. And, unfortunately, you'd be surprised how often you see, you know, these sort of things revealed in - through the horse about the person and that horse being a pretty extreme case. But nevertheless, the horses do reveal a lot of things about us and some of them are real good and some of them aren't so good. And I'm not - I haven't made a great reputation on sugarcoating things, so I don't guess I'm going to start now.


CONAN: I guess not. Cindy Meehl, there's a moment in the film where it's made evident that the approach that Buck Brannaman is talking about and the one that Ray Hunt helped him learn is the approach where it's not just about dealing with horses. It's about how you treat your family, your spouse, your - how you look at life.

MEEHL: Mm-hmm. Right. Well, I think what he is teaching is how to be a leader to your horse and how to have sensitivity as you approach this animal that is so much bigger than you. But yet, it's a prey animal so it is fearful, it wants to protect themselves. So in order to have presence and have the skills to approach this animal, you know, if you get those skills and those are going to translate into your life in how you deal with the people in your life, and that's a very powerful message. I think that's what's really resonating with people who see this film.

CONAN: And, Buck Brannaman, it's obviously a lesson that played an important part in your life too.

BRANNAMAN: Oh, sure, they did. I went to live with my foster parents when I was 12 years old, and I've gone from a pretty tough childhood and the horses where really a refuge for me. That's the place I went to hide. And for a time, the only friends I have in the whole world were the horses. And to be honest with you, I probably didn't have that much to offer the horses at that age that they offered me a lot, and they offered me a lot of opportunities to learn things about myself that I really needed to learn. And 10 years later, I'm spending my life trying to pay them back.

CONAN: You talk about a tough childhood. The film tells us it was a very tough childhood, being abused by your father.


CONAN: And it's, as you know, people who are abused have a tendency to become abusers themselves.

BRANNAMAN: Yeah, that's sort of the conventional wisdom and that's what most people think. And yet, I realized that pretty early on that people were expecting me to go the wrong way because of the background of my dad. And I knew that people were going to be inclined to sympathize with me and even make excuses for me, and I just made up my mind that I wasn't going to accept that.

And everybody, I would think, at some point in their life are offered the opportunity to exercise their free will and maybe stop blaming everybody else. You know, there's a point to where it longer works, to blame your mom or your dad or your aunt or you uncle or whoever give you a hard time. There's a point where it just doesn't work anymore. You have to take responsibility. You have to own it.

CONAN: We'd like to hear from those of you who've learned some things from horses too. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Caress(ph), Caress with us from Syracuse.

CARESS: Hi. Thanks very much for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CARESS: When I was 16, my dad bought a piece of land in Central Texas and - with his brother - and wanted us to go spend summers there. And we were looking for a horse to help out on the land and saw an ad in the paper that said there was a free thoroughbred quarter horse in town, and we answered the ad. And sure enough, this woman had had three generations of this line of horse in her family. And because of a financial situation, she had sold the horse to a man who had badly abused the horse. She then put her house up for mortgage to buy him back and was just...


CARESS: ...to make sure that the horse could have a place that was going to be, you know, forever good to him. And we were fortunate enough to be able to provide that for him. But my first two months with that horse were one of the best lessons in my life. It just took so long to assure him that I was not going to be the same kind of abusive rider that he had had. And my dad and brother could never ever get on him. The first time I got on him, he rode straight towards the barbed wire fence and put his head down and let me just fall right into it.


CARESS: But we developed it slowly but surely, but it was just as your guest is saying, it's about me learning about not that he's going to do it to me every time, but me also learning to provide that level of consistency for him so that he could, once again, learn to trust people. It was a just a remarkable time in my life and I'm so grateful that I had it. And...

BRANNAMAN: Well, thanks, Karen. You know, it's interesting that...

CARESS: ...it's has long years thereafter, you know, getting ridden three months out of the year and the rest of the time being able to kind of graze in a wild pasture, so.

CONAN: Go ahead, Buck.

BRANNAMAN: Well, that's cool. Yeah. My teacher, Ray Hunt, he used to say when I was a kid, you know, I'd be kind of concern about maybe a young horse going to buck with me, maybe, when I'm - was going to put the first ride on, and he'd say, you know, if you think he's going to buck with you, he'd probably won't disappoint you. And sure enough, they wouldn't. And there were so much to just having the confidence that you felt like you can help the horse. And it's amazing how sensitive they are. And Tom Dorrance used to say...

CARESS: Yes, they are, yeah.

BRANNAMAN: ...he used to say, you know, the - you're just trying to get the horse to really understand and believe that the human might even be better than what he actually is.

CARESS: Mm-hmm.


CARESS: Well said. Well said.

CONAN: And the horse is still doing well, Caress?

CARESS: Pardon me?

CONAN: And the horse is still doing well?

CARESS: He died about five years ago.

CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.

CARESS: That's a - yeah.

CONAN: But - yeah.

CARESS: We're just still so glad that he got to spend those years that way and the life lessons I will forever take with me.

BRANNAMAN: Good for you, Care.

CARESS: Yeah, yeah.

MEEHL: It's great.

CARESS: Thank you very much for taking my call.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

BRANNAMAN: Great talking to you.

CONAN: We're talking with Buck Brannaman, who's the featured performer in a new documentary called "Buck," which is playing this week at the SilverDocs Festival, won the audience award at the - Robert Redford's thing. I forgot the name of it.

MEEHL: Sundance.

CONAN: Sundance. Yes, right, OK. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can get another caller in. Let's go with - this is Laura, Laura with us from Story in Wyoming.


LAURA: Hi, Neal. Hi, Buck, how are you?

BRANNAMAN: I'm fine. How are you, Laura from Story. I must know you.

LAURA: Well, we've never met, no. But my daughter and your daughter are in the same grade, so...

BRANNAMAN: Are they, really? All right.

LAURA: Yeah. They go to school together, Reata and my daughter Sarah. Anyway, I called - I'm so impressed by listening to you, Buck. And thank you, Neal, for your program. I listen all the time.

CONAN: Well, thank you for that.

LAURA: What I was telling your screener that I was 11 years old when I got my first horse. He was a half Arab, half quarter horse. He was going to auction to become glue and he was not broken. He was crazy and wild, as a matter of fact, they called him Satan.


LAURA: And I had him boarded with some folks who are - they were my trainers and my riding teacher who I knew instinctively at that age were very abusive and were going about it all the wrong way. But that was the only people I had to teach me. And when my horse was trying to learn how to back up for me, the old man who ran that barn took out - Rafiq(ph) was his name. His name was Satan Rafiq, it was an Arab name. Rafiq wouldn't back up and old George took out a pocket knife and started carving it in from the horse's chest.



LAURA: And I was sobbing and crying and got off my horse instead, and he wouldn't move. He would not that move, that strong-willed little bugger. I loved him so much. And I said, that is not the way to teach him, even at 11 years of age. And I was not the wise old horse trainer that this guy was. And I got off my horse and I whispered to him and told him that it was going to be OK, he could trust me. All I wanted him to do was back up. And sure enough, once you know, Rafiq started to back up. And that was...

BRANNAMAN: Well, you know, Laura, my teachers used to tell me, when you get it the way you can do less, you'll get more. It's...

LAURA: Absolutely.

BRANNAMAN: ...amazing how that is. And yet, isn't that unique? I think you made a really good point there in that even at 11, you might not had a lot of experience with horses, but you did know right from wrong, didn't you?

LAURA: Absolutely. And I learned at that moment, Buck, to always trust that instinct and the knowledge that I knew right from wrong, and always go with it.

BRANNAMAN: Good for you.

LAURA: Yeah. Thank you so much for all of your wonderful work. And thank you for your program again, Neal. Have a great first day of summer.

CONAN: Oh, thanks, Laura.

BRANNAMAN: Nice talking to you, Laura.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Nick, and Nick is with us from Wilmington in North Carolina.


CONAN: Go ahead, please.

NICK: Well, I was, I'm on vacation and I'm sitting on a Home Depot parking lot, listening to your radio station here. And I've trained horses all my life and - but now I'm an auctioneer for a living. And it was - I've always thought this: horses have taught me how to read people. You stand - this guy here, Buck, knows what I'm talking about. You stand around being - long enough for the horse (inaudible) is back long enough and you learn what his next move is gonna be. And I've carried that over into auctioneering. I've learned the patterns of people how they learned - basically, how they think, what they think, when they're going to think it. And I've learned all of that from a horse. And I could never learn that from a person.

BRANNAMAN: Well, it's interesting there are so many things that if a person is open to it and humble enough to let the horse teach you, there are a lot of things you can learn about people. And for me, personally, about myself that - and early on, frankly, Nick, some of those lessons that I learned about myself are a little hard to learn but absolutely necessary at the time.

NICK: And they can teach you what to do and they can teach you what not to do. You know, you're just talking about the (unintelligible) factor there. You got to learn at a certain time where the horse or a person either want to step back and go, well, maybe or maybe not.

BRANNAMAN: Right. Absolutely.

CONAN: Nick, thanks very much for the call.

NICK: Man, I enjoy - I'm enjoying listening to this. You all have a good day.

BRANNAMAN: Thanks, Nick.

CONAN: Bye, bye. I'm gonna take a personal advantage of the last minute or so, Buck Brannaman. I've been on a horse maybe twice in my life. That was a long time ago. I'm about to go later this summer on a pack trip through the wilderness in Alaska on a horse. I'm scared. What should I do to get ready?

BRANNAMAN: Well, you know, I'll tell you one thing that you're going to be riding a little bit of a distance, so one thing that you need to bear in mind right off - and this is a typical mistake that people make - don't roll your knees in and grip with your knees or you aren't going to have any hide left on the inside of your legs real early on and you're going to suffer the rest of it. So think about kind of turning your toes out and let your legs kind of wrap around the horse.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

BRANNAMAN: And put some weight on the ball of your feet. Just like if you're going to do anything athletic, work off the ball of your foot. But if you can keep from having the inside of your knees touching that saddle, you apt to survive it. And surviving, really, is a good start.


CONAN: That's what I'm hoping to do. Thanks very much for the advice, and we appreciate you taking your time on the road there...

BRANNAMAN: You're welcome.

CONAN: ...in Denver. And, Cindy Meehl, good luck with the movie.

MEEHL: Thank you. Thank you. We're very excited about it.

CONAN: Buck Brannaman is a legendary horse trainer and the focus of the new documentary "Buck," which plays at the AFI SilverDocs Film Festival this week. He joined us from Denver, Colorado. Another of the documentary films will be featured tomorrow. Alex Gibney's "Catching Hell." It's the story of Steve Bartman, the young Chicago Cubs fan who many blame for the Cubs' lost in game six at the National League Championships in 2003.

Also tomorrow, Jon Huntsman declares, Rick Perry thinks about it, and Ron Paul wins the straw poll. Political Junkie Ken Rudin will join us. We'll focus on the president's war powers and Libya. This is TALK OF THE NATION form NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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