In 1998 film "The Horse Whisperer," Robert Redford played a man with a unique ability to train horses that seemed out of control. Few people knew that the character, Tom Booker, was modeled after a real man, Buck Brannaman, a cowboy who escaped an abusive childhood to become a horse trainer of unusual abilities.
A new film documentary, "Buck," tells Brannaman's story, which is about helping people as much as it is horses. The movie won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and following a limited theatrical debut last weekend, expands to more U.S. cities on Friday.
Brannaman, 49, sat down with Reuters to talk about horses, humans and watching his own story told on the big screen.
Q: How do horses mirror humans beings?
A: "The way a horse responds to you tells a lot about your relationship with him. It also tells quite a bit about how you'd approach relationships with other human beings. If the horse accepts you into his world, odds are you're a pretty desirable human being to be around. If it's apparent he can't stand you, there's probably some things you need to shape up in your life that go beyond the scope of working with horses."
Q: In the course of helping people with their horses, you end up helping the actual person. How does that happen?
A: "Most of the things people have going wrong in their relationship with their horse have a lot to do with the baggage they bring to the table. It is manifested in their relationship with the horse. A horse is so sensitive, it can't deal with a person packing that much baggage. It's not a workable situation for the horse. In order to meet the horse at a place where he accepts you, you have to get a handle on that stuff."
Q: You came from an abusive childhood but did not grow up to become the same way. How did you avoid that?
A: "When you go through something like that, the (abuser) steals your childhood and you never get that back. But they can't steal your innate knowing that there is a right and a wrong. They can't steal your will to make decisions. And eventually at some point everybody has to decide which way they're going to allow their life to go."
Q: From your harrowing childhood to the foster parents that took you in -- it's all on screen in "Buck." Is it an emotional film for you to watch?
A: "It is. Particularly the scene where a friend of mine, Gary Myers, is talking about my brother and I when we were in school together. I've known Gary all my life. For him to tell that story -- when it was at its worst with my dad -- to see how that affected him and how emotional that made him, that's hard to watch. I never knew it affected him so much."
Q: There is one scene in "Buck" where not even you could help a violent horse. You said humans failed the horse. How?
A: "Humans failed in their responsibility to help that horse learn right from wrong at an early enough stage before he became lethal. There's a powerful message in that horse and it is about taking responsibility, whether you're going to have horses, children or dogs. That horse could have been me as a kid. But I happened to go into a foster home with two really wonderful people that turned my life around and started me in the right direction."
Q: Your foster mother, Betsy Shirley is also in the film.
A: "Yes, she's still alive at 88. She is so precious. Every time I see my mom up there, I'm crying. And it thrills me to see my daughter (Reata Brannaman) in the film. I never get tired of seeing that part."
Q: You were an inspiration for the key character in the book and film "The Horse Whisperer." What was fact and what was fiction in that movie?
A: "Everything was fictional about it except what the main character of Tom Booker did for a living. That was the only real part. Throughout the course of the film, it took him all summer to work with that horse. In reality, it wouldn't have taken that long to help that particular horse."
Q: Has "Buck" changed you at all since it came out?
A: "Not really, but I hope it changes some people. I hope some people would think, 'I sure wouldn't mind being like (Brannaman's foster mother) Betsy Shirley.' There are a lot of kids around that people don't want, or that have no place. It might occur to someone to follow the same path that she did. If that's all that came of it, it was worth it."