Buck Brannaman was the inspiration for "The Horse Whisperer," Nicholas Evans’ best-selling novel and later a Robert Redford film in 1998
Buck Brannaman was the inspiration for "The Horse Whisperer," Nicholas Evans' best-selling novel and later a Robert Redford film in 1998 about wounded horses and their wounded people. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post )

Buck Brannaman sits in a luxe boutique hotel in downtown Denver wearing a straw, round-brimmed hat and a pale-yellow cowboy shirt. He's telling a story about a recent screening held in his hometown of Sheridan, Wyo., of Cindy Meehl's stirring documentary about his work with horses and his young life.

"Buck" is a tale of abuse and rescue — of man and beast — of a troubled home life and a transformative foster- family experience that features the feisty and loving Betsy Shirley.

"There was a little girl," Brannaman starts. "Damn, she must have been 12."

His voice is a campfire brew, only slightly less rich than Sam Elliott's "Banquet beers," "Dodge Ram" timbre.

"She caught me before I left the theater, and she was just bawling. 'I just want to thank you,' she said. 'I've been abused my whole life and it's still happening. But I know it's going to be all right.' "

Given Brannaman's personal triumph, that's not a far-fetched hope.

"So I was crying. She was crying. I was hugging her."

Anyone who believes cowboys don't weep hasn't met Brannaman. And soon, few people won't know him. Earlier in the week, the horse trainer taped a "Late Show With David Letterman" and "Today" did a segment on him. "Buck" opens today at the Chez Artiste.


Born and raised in Montana, Brannaman was credited by writer Nicholas Evans as the inspiration for his best seller "The Horse Whisperer," about wounded horses and their wounded people. Robert Redford, who made the novel into a movie in 1998, says it was Brannaman who broke through some bedeviling equine resistance on the set, even bringing in his own horse to perform a crucial scene.

Buck Brannaman offers clinics for horse folk, "helping people get along with horses a littel bit better." But, he adds, "You can’t
Buck Brannaman offers clinics for horse folk, "helping people get along with horses a littel bit better." But, he adds, "You can't hold it against (the horse) for how his life has been." (Provided by Sundance Selects)

In the flurry of fine films delving into human-animal relationships screening at January's Sundance Film Festival, "Buck" was an emotional standout. Winner of the audience prize for best American documentary, the film makes powerful points about the failings of violence and underscores the power of gentling the young, be they colts or kids.

When their mother died, Buck and older brother Bill, or "Smokie," were left without a protector. Their father drank hard, hit harder. Brannaman's back story is harrowing stuff. The outward ease and talent of two trick-roping boys masked their domestic traumas. When the truth became known, they were taken from their father and sent to Betsy and Forrest Shirley.

For nearly three decades, Brannaman has taken the lessons he learned from Ray Hunt, a major figure in "natural horsemanship," and offered clinics for horse folk from March to November. (He's got one scheduled for Kiowa in late August.)

"When I started out doing this, I guess I thought I was just going to be helping people get along with horses a little bit better, that I might help them to understand the horse, be more effective," he says.

"And, of course, I do that. But I didn't realize that there was a lot bigger picture."

Still, the horses always matter.

In "Buck," a young woman of good if troubled heart brings her rescued orphan horse to one of Brannaman's clinics.

Unpredictable, dangerous, the 3-year-old didn't get a good start in life. That's something Brannaman empathizes with. "You can't hold it against him for how his life has been," he tells those in attendance.

The story doesn't head toward a happy resolution. Bucking furiously, the horse goes back in the trailer. Afterward, the camera follows a slump- shouldered, resigned Brannaman as he walks away.

"I was sad," he replies, asked about one of the most sorrowful moments in "Buck."

"You can't be angry at a person who is that mixed up," he says of the horse's owner. "Obviously, when I was working with the horse, he made great progress that first day." But Brannaman added that it would have taken 500 consecutive days of that measure of progress to save the wounded steed.


Brannaman's life and his hope for the movie are far more upbeat.

"There might be a few million people who see this. Out of that, there might be some people who might think, 'I don't care if I'm anything like Buck Brannaman, but I'd sure like to be like Betsy Shirley. And maybe she would inspire someone to be a foster parent, to give a home to some poor little kid who doesn't have a home, who doesn't have someone to love him," he says.

"If that's all it did, it'd be worth it."

Film critic Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567 or lkennedy@ denverpost.com; also on blogs.denverpost.com/ madmoviegoer