Buck Brannaman always dresses like a cowboy, no matter what the occasion, but the story goes that everyone who's ever met him reckon it's no gimmick. Buck, who says no-one's ever called him by his given name Dan, “like ever,” looks and sounds like the real thing.
Born in a small city called Sheboygan, in Wisconsin, USA, Brannaman grew up in the west and today lives on a ranch in “a little place in Wyoming”. He spends most of the year travelling, teaching folks how best to look after horses in special clinics, based on the notion of “natural horsemanship”.
In the sub-culture of equestrians and cowboys, rodeos and horse shows, Brannaman is a famous name and face and pretty much always has been his whole life. Buck and his brother Bill were once child stars on the cowboy circuit in the USA. As expert rope trick-artists, they were called 'Buckshot and Smokie, the Idaho Cowboys'. Managed by their father, the boys' were a big hit with crowds, and even featured in a couple of national TV commercials. As adults, Bill left the west and joined the coast guard. Buck took up the cowboy life full time. When author Nicholas Evans was researching the contemporary cowboy life for his 1995 novel, The Horse Whisperer, he found Brannaman, who became the prototype for the book's hero, Tom Brooker. Robert Redford played that part in his 1998 film of the book and Brannaman was the movie's technical consultant. Running parallel with this seemingly all-American yarn of success is a dark tale of terrible psychic wounds emerging from years of parental abuse.
When SBS meets Brannaman in an upscale Sydney hotel to talk to him about the fine new feature length documentary about his life and work called Buck, from filmmaker Cindy Meehl, he's dressed in a big cowboy hat, boots, rodeo dress shirt, a puffy tie-scarf and Sunday best trousers. Brannaman was making a stop over in the city to promote the film after returning from a horse clinic in Jindabyne, NSW. In a day or two, he says, he'll be off to New Zealand for another clinic.
Brannaman seems a little shy, somewhat diffident, his eyes unable to fix on anything for long. He is very tall, rangy, and fit, with a face that's tough and soft at once; he's like an old western photo brought to life. His voice sounds a little like Tommy Lee Jones' without the Texas drawl. Still, his answers are made without hesitation, direct and frank, even when the subject is painful like the beatings he and his brother took from his father. “There was never a time where I wasn't terrified of him,” he admits, explaining that the Rope-Trick act was “forced”. “To be a good trick roper you have to practice an unbelievable amount,” Branaman says. “For us as kids, even when we were little fellas, it was [as far as dad was concerned] practice your rope tricks or get whipped, so practicing looked pretty good to us.”
When Brannaman was eight he found his father was a “pathological liar… a pretty tender age to turn cynical”. At 11, his mother passed. The beatings grew in frequency and ferocity. “In the last couple of years it was life threatening from one day to the next.” One day in junior high school, the football coach noticed large deep fresh scars on Buck's back… and old ones too. Bill and Buck were taken away from Branaman Snr., and raised by loving and kind foster parents; their father was never charged. “He would send us birthday cards,” Buck says. “He wrote how once we turned 18, he would hunt us down and kill us.”
This is the only time in the interview when Branaman makes eye contact; he does not appear angry or sad. That calm self-assurance is the strong seam of optimism that lies deep in Meehl's film, which says Brannaman took five-and-a-half-years to complete. Starting off a bit like a lightweight National Geographic at-one-with-nature piece, Meehl gradually evolves the film into something richer, and deeper.
Packed with detail about life on the road in the cowboy sub-culture and using archival footage, talking heads and observational studies of Brannaman at work (he looks and sounds like a pastor preaching at the alter of Good Sense and Horsemanship!), Buck emerges as a stirring portrait of a kind and generous man who has used the tortures of his youth as a way to stir compassion in others. “Horses saved my life,” he says simply. He joined his foster family but, he explains, “In a primitive sense, all I wanted was to be left alone. I just wanted some sense of peace and I realised pretty early on that's what a horse really wants.”
He believes the therapy he has to offer in his clinics is directed to the owners rather than their charges. “You sort of use the horse as a medium to help the person.” Buck talks about his talent “as sorting things out inside yourself, so you can get along better with the horse. You can't help but have some things change within you when you do that.”