The Real “Horse Whisperer”

For years, National Geographic has helped people discover the deeper meanings behind human relationships with animals through “Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan” on the National Geographic Channel.

The name of “Dog Whisperer” itself though is a tribute to the famous book and film “The Horse Whisperer,” based on the work of several people who have dumbfounded horse owners and crowds with their ability to quietly and peacefully communicate with “trouble” horses who had seemed unapproachably violent to others.

Chief among these sources of inspiration was Buck Brannaman, whose incredible life story is now told in a new documentary, “Buck,” a Sundance Selects Release opening this weekend in NY and LA. Rising from an abusive childhood, Buck discovers and shares with others the transformative power of learning to communicate with animals and people not through violence or intimidation, but through leadership, sensitivity, compassion, and respect.

We spoke with Buck about his experiences, horses themselves, and what they can teach us all.

What are some of the lessons that translate between working with horses and working with people?

BB: You know, in life you might have an idea that you think is a great idea, but if you just try to cram it down someone’s throat, or  you try to impose your will on them, it just doesn’t generally pan out–and it sure as hell doesn’t work with horses. Until you can get smart enough to where you set things up in a way that your idea becomes the horse’s idea, you’re just banging your head against the wall.

What do you say to people who think it’s like slavery to use animals to work for humans?

BB: For me it’s not a slave type relationship. That’s not the way I look at it with a horse. I look at it as the two of us doing something together.

Someone does have to be the leader and someone has to be the follower … I’m the leader, but that doesn’t make me any better than the horse, it doesn’t make him any less than me.

I couldn’t do what I do without him, and at the same rate, I can provide him comfort and a safe place to be, and an environment to live in that’s maybe free from a lot of the threats and the harm that would come to him otherwise. So the horse is a gift to us, to humanity. It is, I believe that. And for that, there comes responsibility. If the horse is gonna work for you and work with you, then the best thing I can do for the horse is to make it as good a life as possible.

Has working with horses helped you to communicate with other animals as well?

BB: Yeah, I think so. I’ll say this, that it does give me an appreciation for someone else—maybe it’s someone who works with dolphins. Honestly, I don’t know a damned thing about a dolphin. I sure do appreciate someone who seems to have a nice relationship with one and that they understand each other. You understand what a devotion it is to achieve that level.

Brannaman on horseback, as seen in “Buck,” directed by Cindy Meehl. Photo by Ezra D. Olsen. A Sundance Selects Release.

Do you think this ability is something more humans used to have but we’ve lost in the modern world?

BB: It’s always been a rare thing to be able to achieve what I consider a highly exalted position—to become a horseman. And mind you I’m not calling myself a horseman, but I do know a couple … But I don’t know that there has ever been lots and lots of horsemen, because it’s such a devotion.  I mean, how many Leonardo da Vincis were there?

Does this give you a sense of how animals communicate in general, without rambling on like we do?

BB: Horses are very keen on body language, and what I refer to as “presence,” and expression. They know quite a bit about you before you ever get to ’em. They can read things about you clear across an arena.

You’ll see things on TV where people are hollering and screaming and acting like idiots around cattle trying to get ’em to move in a certain way or move to a certain place, and there isn’t anything more counter productive than acting like an idiot like that. Position, and angles, and posture, and the speed that you move has so much influence on them, it’s really quite easy if you just engage your brain and keep your mouth shut, you know?

Are there other ways for people to get the benefits of working with horses?

BB: It’s amazing what a healing effect horses can have on kids—particularly troubled kids—that might bridge the gap that a well-intended human just can’t do. And whether it’s working with horses or working with dogs, or with with any kind of an animal, there’s something to be gained there that hopefully people will become a little bit more interested in through the course of this documentary. I hope so.

Learn more at www.buckthefilm.com and on Buck’s official site, www.brannaman.com.

Wildlife

Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.