THE real "horse whisperer" is hitting the big screen, writes MATILDA ABEY
Growing up, all Buck Brannaman wanted was to be a cowboy.
But in the process, he became the horse whisperer.
The Montana-born and Idaho-raised cowboy was the inspiration for Robert Redford's character in the 1998 hit film The Horse Whisperer, based on Nicholas Evans's best-selling novel of the same name.
Buck worked on the script for a year with Redford, before helping with the production of the film, which tracks the relationship of a young girl and her troubled horse.
"You know I enjoyed (meeting) Bob (Redford) and we got to be friends, we spent a lot of time together, so we got to know each other pretty good," he said on his recent visit to Australia.
"He is a good guy. I wasn't all star-struck by the deal. He puts his britches on the same way every day, same as I do."
While Buck was the behind-the-scenes star of The Horse Whisperer, he is the bona fide star of the documentary Buck, which tells the life story of the softly spoken 50-year-old.
Director Cindy Meehl, followed Buck around for 2 1/2 years, filming him teaching riders at horse training clinics, which run nine months a year.
It was at one of these clinics Cindy approached Buck to be in a documentary.
"I'd met Cindy in some of my clinics, and we were having lunch one day at a friend of mine's guest ranch and she must have just said the right thing at the right time," he said.
"She said, 'Buck, I feel like there is a compelling story to tell that happens in your clinics all the time, that unless you're a horse person you'd never get a chance to enjoy that', and she said 'I really feel like non-horse people would get it'.
"And it must have been the right moment for me and I just said, 'go ahead'."
Buck has quietly revolutionised the way people around the world train horses.
His method of training horses gently, and understanding their language, was learned from legendary US horsemen Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance.
His method is less about breaking horses and more about enabling a horse to find a place amid expectations of humans.
While devoted horse owners might get a thrill out of his horse-whispering skills, it is his people skills that elevate Buck's story to extraordinary.
"A lot of the time, rather than helping people with horse problems, I'm helping horses with people problems," Buck says in the opening scenes of the film. His early life was one of hardship - Buck and his brother, Smokie, suffered serious child abuse at the hands of their father until a sheriff helped get them into foster care when Buck was 12.
His foster parents raised 23 sons - "our boys", their foster mother Shirley called them - including Buck and Smokie.
"There are so many things I have learnt from my foster parents," Buck said. "My foster dad looked like he was made of barbed wire and rawhide."
However, Buck believes it was his troubled upbringing that led him to understand horses better
"When I first got started with a lot of this (horse training) was when I was living with my foster parents," he said.
"At that time the horses were giving me the comfort, that was my refuge, and later on, that's when I got inspired that I wanted to be a horseman and I wanted to be a cowboy. "That was really all I wanted."
While Buck grew up doing rope tricks, his love of horses transformed into a career, conducting clinics around the world.
"Every day there are moments that make me glad I'm there and glad of what I'm doing because every day I am interacting with horses," Buck said.
He made a whistle-stop tour of Australia and New Zealand last month, conducting one clinic - sold out months in advance - at Jindabyne, in NSW.
"I have met a lot of guys from the Outback stations. I often tell people at home that the thing I like most about Australians is that they are real hardy," Buck said.
"They're game to do about anything, and I like that."
Buck won the audience award for a documentary at the Sundance film festival last year.
"People aren't so different, that's the one thing I have found through this film. I would go to screenings when the demographic of people was very urban, and I would think, 'Wow, I am going to feel very out of place here'," Buck said.
"But by the time that they had seen the film, I realised that the things that sort of touch your soul or move you as a person, are pretty much the same all over. We're not so different."
Buck opens in cinemas today.