Horse News

You Can Also Lead a Horse to Nirvana

Story by David Carr ~ printed in multiple versions, New York Times edition

Holding true to our Sunday “Soul and Minding Washing” exerices we give you the story of the original ‘Horse WhispererBuck Brannaman” ~ R.T.

LAST Sunday evening Buck Brannaman strolled the High Line, two stories above the streets of Manhattan and hundreds of miles from his native habitat, the ranch country where he runs clinics in enlightened horsemanship. The documentary “Buck,” which won a Sundance audience award this year and will open on Friday in New York and Los Angeles, details his shamanlike skills around horses and the people who ride them.

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The sun was falling toward the skyline across the Hudson River and Mr. Brannaman was enjoying a stroll after dinner at the Standard Grill. He walked like a cowboy, traversing the High Line with a gait in which a horse can be inferred between his wide-set legs. He looked like one too, with an expensive custom-made straight brim from the Rocky Mountain Hat Company and a salmon-colored cowboy shirt. A woman shooting photos began firing off frames at the sight of a real live cowboy on the High Line, and Mr. Brannaman, humble in all aspects, promptly stepped aside so the woman can get a shot of whatever it is she is so interested in. It was him of course.

People tend to stare at Mr. Brannaman wherever he goes, not because of his get-up. He dresses like a working cowboy most days, give or take some ostentatiously fringed chaps; it’s more because of what he knows. Mr. Brannaman, who has been riding since before he could reach the stirrups, uses a mystical empathy to calm horses, forgoing the casual violence that is so much a part of horse breaking.

For three decades in clinics all over the country Mr. Brannaman, 49, has taught that riding a horse is like dancing, a combination of wooing, leading and mutual respect. A cult figure among both the horsey set and working cowboys, he is about to reach a much wider audience courtesy of the 88-minute documentary distributed by Sundance Selects from a first-time director, Cindy Meehl. The movie may gallop along on four legs, but it is not about horses so much as the two-legged creatures who saddle them.

A minute into the film he states it plainly: “A lot of times, rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems.”

Over dinner, working his way through a New York steak, he said: “If you are only trying to appeal to horse people, why bother? When you get to the point where a horse accepts you, trusts you, it can change you as a person and change the way you relate to other people, not just horses.”

While all that sounds sort of cowboy crunchy, New Age for the Old West, with horses and humans just in need of a little understanding, Mr. Brannaman is in fact tough and unforgiving in the ways that matter. A doting father, he is never confused about who is in charge: “On a bad day parenting is a dictatorship, and on a good day it is an enlightened monarchy. Children — and horses — want to be led.”

Mr. Brannaman, who lives on a ranch in Sheridan, Wyo., is an advocate of so-called natural horsemanship, a Zen figure in boots who is interested less in breaking horses than in enabling them to find a place amid the expectations and requirements of humans.

“Like a lot of people I was very skeptical at first,” Ms. Meehl said in a phone call about how she came to make her first film. “For most horse people what he was talking about was such a foreign concept, and then you saw what he could do with the horses that people brought him. Nobody talks to you like Buck, nobody rides like Buck, and nobody teaches like Buck.”

She added, “He empowers people to do things that they never thought they could do, like make a film, for instance.”

A pretty well-received one at that.

“Cindy came out of nowhere,” said Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment and Sundance Selects. At the film festival “all of us who were there were really surprised that such a remarkable film came from a first-time director,” he said. “We do a lot of art cinema, but ‘Buck’ sort of transcends that. You can’t see this film and not be affected, in part because it is about so much more than horses.”

Ms. Meehl felt it was important that Mr. Brannaman’s approach to life both on and off the horse end up in front of an audience and decided, despite the challenges, that she would be the one to make it happen. A designer of couture evening wear and an accomplished horsewoman, she took care in conversation to describe her filmmaking as full of learning and talented collaborators, but she is pretty certain that she was the right person to direct “Buck.”

“I didn’t doubt myself,” she said. “I know there are a lot more people with more skill and technical knowledge about making films. But I understood from the beginning why he was important, that if you stick around and listen closely, you will hear one ‘aha’ moment after another.”

Mr. Brannaman, a student of Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt, early advocates for laying down the crop, spent much of his early life being whipped in the manner of a horse by an abusive, alcoholic father. He escaped that tyranny on the back of a horse, learning to ride at a level that few achieve. Even those who know little of horse culture will recognize the poetics of his riding. Mr. Brannaman can do anything on a horse — “God had him in mind when he made a cowboy,” said Gary Myers, a ranch owner who appears in the film — and the camera revels in his ability, with jaw-dropping slow-motion interludes.

“Watching Buck ride is like watching a cloud float through the sky,” Robert Redford said in a phone interview. He modeled his character in “The Horse Whisperer” after Mr. Brannaman and used him as a consultant on the set. “He taught me so much, but he also let me use his horse, and it responded to such subtle movements that you just had to say, ‘Wow.’ ”

Mr. Brannaman doesn’t get what all the fuss is about: “I’ve seen the movie maybe 15 times, and I never notice myself. I’m always looking at my horse and what he’s doing.”

Comparisons to Cesar Millan, the so-called dog whisperer, will no doubt be made, partly because both men seem to have superpowers when it comes to animals, but it’s not quite right. As Ms. Meehl points out, dogs are predators and horses are prey. Training dogs is often about channeling their aggression, while horses have fear baked into their nature.

Mr. Brannaman’s willingness to see things from the horse’s point of view has served as a taunt to the more traditionally minded.

“There are people, people who have their ego involved, who will bring me a horse that could hurt me, just to prove that they are right,” he said, shaking his head as he ate. “I am embarrassed for them. How can it be that they are willing to put someone else’s life on the line, someone who has a wife, kids, people who depend on them, just to make a point. I see them coming a mile away.”

Mr. Brannaman still spends much of the year driving a truck and trailer to put on four-day clinics, priced low so that he gets all kinds of people and horses to work with. And once the movie splash dies down, he will happily get back in that saddle.

“In a few months the excitement of all this will be done, and I will go back to being me,” he said over coffee after dinner. “I am not one bit delusional about that.”

The first time Mr. Brannaman saw Manhattan, he was a young rodeo performer doing rope tricks on “What’s My Line?” But what looked cute on television turned dark and scary behind the curtain. After Mr. Brannaman’s mother died, his father expressed dominion over his children in brutal ways. The boy eventually was put into foster care with a family that understood that the quiet young man had come through a lot. Mr. Brannaman’s ability to embrace and surpass his own woundedness serves as a fulcrum for both his clinics and the film.

At a clinic in the film a woman shows up with a buck-wild stud horse that had been deprived of oxygen during a troubled birth and through lack of training has morphed into a menace to everyone who comes near him. An experienced cowboy trying to get a blanket on him is even bitten on the head. Mr. Brannaman reminds people at the clinic that it is not the horse’s fault that he can’t seem to live in this world.

“All your horses are a mirror to your soul,” he said. “And sometimes you might not like what you see in the mirror.”

It becomes clear that the horse is beyond salvation, beyond the reach of Mr. Brannaman, and will have to be put down. But first the horse has to be put in a trailer. Rather than corner the doomed animal and shove him in by force, Mr. Brannaman waits him out until the horse steps onto the trailer of its own accord. It is an elegiac, endlessly sad scene, one that lingers. A woman at the clinic asks why he took so much time and patience on a horse with no future.

He answers, “To have contempt for the horse never would even occur to me.”

27 replies »

  1. I was corrected a long time ago that this gentleman was the real horse whisperer.

    I thought there were also 2 older brothers (can’t remember their names) that were really the first. I think one has since passed after the brothers and estate had a money battle of some sort.

    Thanks R.T. I hope I get a chance to see the film.

    BTW, if anyone goes to the NYTimes, look at the op-ed piece “When Food Kills”. It ties in to our cause; as we have always contended.


    • The NYTimes is read by most everyone in D.C. involved in politics and the tv media.

      I wish the author of “food kills” would write about the slaughter of US equines for human consumption.


    • Denise: the brothers you heard about were Tom and Bill Dorrance. Along with Ray Hunt, they are often referred to as the Trinity of Horsemen as they were some of the first (that became known) for stepping away from the brutal approach of “breaking” horses and discovered a way to work WITH a horse rather than FORCING them to do what they wanted. Their way of dealing with horses expanded with people like Mike Thomas, Buck Brannaman, Monty Roberts, and today’s horsemen/women such as Pat Parelli, Buddy Uldrikson, Mark Rashid, Stacy Westfall, Chris Cox, and many more. I wish more of these well-known horse people would step up and voice their opposition to the cruelty of the BLM participants. At least films like this will show alternative gentle methods to dealing with these magnificent teachers that are being taken from us each time the BLM group goes into gear. Blessed Be.


      • Note that Mark Rashid is pro-slaughter. Months ago, I received a copy of a well shared email among horse advocates where he wrote to one of them. I won’t paste it all in because he gives several paragraphs of all the standard “millions are starving, wolves are eating the cripples” stories trotted out by Slaughterhouse Sue and her ilk. Here is just his final paragraph which says it all:

        “As I mentioned at the outset, I truly appreciate and respect your perspective on this issue. However, in my opinion humane slaughter of any animal is not cruelty. Intentionally setting up a situation where tens of thousands will slowly starve to death, or otherwise die a slow and painful death, is. As far as I’m concerned, horses deserve better from us than that, and that is why I am in full support of humane transportation and slaughter of horses here in the U.S..”
        Mark Rashid

        Rashid is by far not the only one who support slaughter. It’s important to know who you are doing business with – ask your service providers so you can choose not to enrich the pro-slaughter horse eaters rather than to do so unwittingly. They certainly do not deserve the business of anti-slaughter and wild horse advocates.


  2. Oh I am so moved by his heartfelt way of going with the horses and what an amazing story of what brought him to where he is now in his heart…

    While all that sounds sort of cowboy crunchy, New Age for the Old West, with horses and humans just in need of a little understanding, Mr. Brannaman is in fact tough and unforgiving in the ways that matter. A doting father, he is never confused about who is in charge: “On a bad day parenting is a dictatorship, and on a good day it is an enlightened monarchy. Children — and horses — want to be led.”

    I LOVE THESE WORDS, they are so true, he not only learned from horses but from a tough childhood and the abuse from his Dad, which for him, he took the other avenue, soft, loving but strong, not abusive. I am blown away and so deeply moved by this wonderful person,Mr. Brannaman, thanks so much for sharing, R.T.


  3. I would love to see this movie! I absolutely love his book and the sequel is great too. I’d recommend it to any horse lover. In fact, I’d recommend it to anyone, if I could get passed the preconceived idea that it’s only about westerns, or horses. If you look beneath the surface it’s about how you approach life.

    Maybe that’s why some people abuse and hate animals. Like he says in this article they are a mirror an not everyone likes what they see!


  4. Its so wonderful to read about someone who understands the horse but more importantly honors their being. Thanks for this Sunday interlude RT. it helped me wash away the ugly.


  5. This was fantastic! Thank you so much, R.T., for sharing this with your readers. I don’t subscribe to the NY Times, so I would never have seen this. I am happy that one point is cleared up for me: I read somewhere long ago that “The Horse Whisperer” was based on Monty, and that he was angry about it because it wasn’t factual, and that he had completely disengaged himself from it. Silly me, I never watched the credits at the end of the movie. Now I realize the old adage is true: “Believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear.” I hope this movie comes within a hundred miles of me, because I will make the drive to see it.


  6. This is the film’s Website:

    You can find out places around the entire county where it will be playing. They’ve added a lot more since a friend sent me info about it, and it’s garnered additional awards as well.


  7. Obviously I don’t have the whole story here, but the only option was to put the horse down? How many hundreds of broken horses have we taken the effort to find forever rescue homes for – wild and tamed alike – and no one thought of just finding a place to turn this horse out so he could live out his days as a horse?


    • yeah, that statement kinda struck a cord with me also. Sort of a head tilt ‘huh?’. I can only think & hope that there were extreme circumstances in the horses existance that would had saved him from a life of great suffering & dis-ease. Head still tilted at this time. Looking for a way to see the Docu. Blessings to All! ~_~


  8. I have to agree that the horse should not have been put down, but a place for him to spend his life out until he crossed over the Rainbow Bridge. This I believe was a hasty made decision that should have had more attention paid to finding a home for him with the right end result. I am right now trying to decide on whose methods to use in training a one blind eyed Arabian I saved from Auction and two Arabians that I rescued that originally were staring in a pasture. I’m trying to decide between: Monty Roberts, Clayton Andrson, and now I see this articule. If anyone has any adivise or suggestions, I would love to hear from you. My e-mail address is I would love to see all killer buyers and those transporting animals to slaughter to look themselves in the face and it they don’t see the killer in them, they are hopelessly flawed and sick. How they can look themselves in the mirror and not see the killer in themselves is beyond me. Why do these people get to breath another breathe? There is something wrong here. But again, look at all the killers we feed each day in prisons across the country. This is a joke that these people get what they get, but our beautiful wild and domestic horses and burros don’t get what they deserve — the live their lives with families and in peace. What an injustice. We humans are terrible.


  9. It is easy to sit here and say that they should not have put this horse down, but I think it is an insult to these people’s integrity to question their decision. You can plainly see even from only the small amount of footage on this horse that he is agressive to the point of insanity, he had brain damage from oxygen starvation at birth, what makes you think that he could have been turned out with or without other horses to live out his life. He is clearly extremely aggressive and would probably be just as aggressive with other horses too. A clear liability to anyone or anything around him, what would you say if someone walked into his pasture one day not knowing and he killed them? I really think that you should leave these types of decisions to the professionals, I am sure that this would have been absolutely their last resort and for the sake of this horse the most humane thing to do for him. What type of life would he have had in solitary confinement for the rest of his life which would probably be another 20 or 30 years? Would you be willing to take on this type of liability for the next 20 or 30 years? I am sure it was not an easy decision for any of the people involved, very sad and uncommon situation.


  10. I don’t believe it’s about putting the horse down or keeping it alive.

    This is about humans going through a process of making life and death decisions.

    I think the only argument to made is why it took the owner so long to reach out to someone like Buck and do the right thing.

    And in the end the right thing was done…right?

    Not knowing the history, I wonder why the foal wasn’t put down because of the oxygen issue; was a vet there?…did they wait too long to make that painful decision? I don’t know.

    Was the horse put down via true humane euthanasia or Mexican slaughter? If it is the former, the right decision was made. I’m not walking in their moccasins.

    But remember, this was not a genetically crazy horse…..this was a biologically by birth damaged horse. I don’t think God makes crazy horses….some humans do though.


  11. I’m not sure if I read it right, but I read that putting the horse down was a scene in the movie?

    I don’t know for sure, that’s just how I read it? Maybe it really did happen though?

    Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing the movie.. Mr. Brannaman has always been someone I looked up to and more times than not I find myself saying, ‘Now what would Buck do?’

    Thank you, R.T., for everything.. Thank you ALL for everything you do for the horses..


    • Ooops!

      Sorry for the extra post..

      If the horse being put down actually did happen.. It could possibly be they couldn’t find a home for him that was safe for him? Sometimes a horse that is so fearful that lashes out can’t be contained by usual means..

      Possibly the lack of oxygen, which I’m thinking is the biggest problem was that of some brain damage too.. 😦 He probably couldn’t be caught to be diagnosed? Just guessing?


  12. The Today Show with Kathie Lee and Hoda just did a segment on Buck. Hoda saw the movie and thought it was great. She said she loved Buck. They gave it a very positive spin for even non-horse lovers.


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