'Buck': Real-Life Horse Whisperer's Story of Abuse, Finding Comfort With Horses

PHOTO: Buck Brannaman
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Buck Brannaman is one of the most respected cowboys in the country, the inspiration for "The Horse Whisperer," and now his own life story of finding peace among horses in the Old West after a tumultuous childhood is up for an Oscar nomination.

"Nightline" anchor Bill Weir was invited to Brannaman's ranch outside Sheridan, Wyo., to watch the cowboy at work. Riding through snow-capped mountains on Brannaman's 100-acre ranch, with his nearly 30 horses, was the perfect setting for the story of a man who spends his life giving back to the creatures that he credits for saving his life after years spent with an abusive father.

Buck Brannaman, the star of the documentary "Buck," rides with "Nightline" anchor Bill Weir on Brannaman's ranch in Wyoming. Credit: ABC

"The horses at that time in my life, they saved my life," Brannaman told Weir. "The horses did way for me than I did for them. So they were my friends, and they were sort of my refuge. So it's interesting that I've been given the opportunity to spend the rest of my life making things better for the horses."

"Buck" is a documentary that follows Brannaman, who was also a consultant for actor Robert Redford on the set of the 1998 movie "The Horse Whisperer" as he travels across the United States, running sold-out horse training clinics that not only teache horse owners about their horses but about themselves too.

"I often tell people in the clinics, the human possesses the one thing that means more to the horse than anything in the world, and that is peace and comfort," Brannaman said. "That's all they want."

Brannaman, who is never without his token cowboy hat and scarf, begins every clinic lesson with pointing out that horses have spent tens of thousands of years as prey, so they are hardwired with the fear of being killed and eaten.

"You tell a horse, 'Don't worry, I just want to climb on you,' in a posture to how a lion would kill a horse, 'and then you say, 'Oh, one more thing. I want to strap the hides of dead animals on you,'" Brannaman said. "He's got to believe in you, and amazingly enough, they'll let you do it."

The cowboy understands perpetual fear because he spent most of his childhood terrified of his father.

"I don't remember a time in my life, the entire time I knew him, that I wasn't scared of him," Brannaman said. "The last couple of years after my mom passed away, it got to where it was me and my brother at 11, 12 years old. We talked about dying every day."

When Brannaman was 6 years old, he said his father decided that the he and his brother would be professional trick ropers. After enough rodeo shows, they earned their own Pops cereal commercial and a shot on the popular TV game show "What's My Line."

But if their performances weren't perfect, Brannaman said his father would beat the two boys relentlessly. The abuse went on until one day a school football coach noticed the marks on Buck Brannaman's back when he was changing in the locker room for gym class and called the local sheriff. The boys were taken away and placed in foster care. Their father was livid, Brannaman said.

"He actually sent us birthday cards for the next two or three years, telling us that when we turned 18 he was going to hunt us down and kill us," he said. "He would send us letters and tell us that he was watching us through the scope of his rifle at my foster parents' ranch."

Brannaman said his foster parents provided safety and love. His biological father died in 1992.

Over the years, Brannaman learned that having a kinder, gentler approach works well with horses. He said it's that same understanding, kindness and respect that he extends to his family, his wife, Mary, and daughter, Reata, who share his passion for horses. On their ranch, Brannaman is often out roping cattle with Reata, whose name means "rope" in Spanish, and while he's out on the road 10 months a year, his wife runs the ranch.

"I didn't know that's what it was going to be about when I started doing clinics and working with these horses," Brannaman said. "I thought I was just going to get a chance to help people get along a little better with their horses. It turned out to be something, something totally different."

In his soft-spoken, mild-mannered way, Brannaman explains that the relationship between man and horse is similar to the bond between parent and child.

"[It's] the same with kids, you see some of these people with their kids, instead of being a little more engaged, and seeing when things are going the wrong direction, and redirecting them, they wait till they've done something wrong, and then they want to beat them up, or whip them for something that's already happened and people still do that with horses too. I'll be doing this the rest of my life, trying to convince people that that's not the way to go about things," Brannaman said.

Instead of using leather whips and stress to mold show animals, or paying a vet to drug them into submission, Brannaman's way is to control horses with soothing words and understanding -- what some call "horse whisperering."

"The horses need to respect you," he said. "But sometimes people confuse respect and fear. They're not the same at all."

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