Buck Brannaman heals horses and humans alike in his work as a trainer (Photo courtesy IFC)
Buck Brannaman heals horses and humans alike in his work as a trainer (Photo courtesy IFC)

Buck Brannaman, the Real Horse Whisperer

Buck Brannaman, a therapist in cowboy boots, uses a saddle instead of a psychiatrist’s couch to do his job. Without words, his four-​legged clients tell him tales of pain, abuse and fear at the hands of people, and he works with them – and with the people – to heal their relationships.

Buck Brannaman, the original horse whisperer (Photo courtesy IFC)

Pretty new-​agey for a guy who is about as old-​school cowboy as you can get: raised in Montana and Idaho, learned about horses from working in his foster parents’ ranch, not a guy who easily talks about his own feelings.

But Brannaman, the horse trainer on whom Robert Redford’s Tom Booker was based in the movie The Horse Whisperer (1998), knows quite a bit about what it is to be a wounded creature. A victim of his father’s abuse until about age 12, he credits his work with horses for keeping him centered and sane.

“I think they are an amazing gift to humanity for what they can do for troubled people, adults or kids, but especially kids,” he said in an interview ahead of the Autry’s sold-​out June 13 special preview screening of Buck (2011), the documentary about Brannaman’s life. Brannaman will be on hand for a Q-​and-​A session afterward.

Seen from that perspective, perhaps it’s not that strange that Brannaman should team up with Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of L.A.-based Homeboy Industries, the nonprofit (slogan: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job”) whose various businesses provide job training for former gang members trying to go straight.

In Ojai in May, Homies mix with horses (Photo by Jesse Douglas)

Because Boyle, a priest in shirtsleeves, uses a dough hook instead of a cross to do his job.

From the Homeboy Bakery founded in 1992 to the Homeboy Diner being inaugurated today at City Hall, Boyle patiently works at repairing these fractured youths like Brannaman works at repairing frightened horses. It made sense to get them together.

“They started bringing some of those young men to my clinics,” Brannaman said. “I knew they weren’t going to blend in real well … but it was the coolest thing that I’ve seen happen in a long time.”

At the behest of Jesse Douglas, a Calabasas single mom who for years has studied with Brannaman and volunteered at Homeboy, Brannaman in mid-​May hosted a handful of the “homies,” as Father Boyle’s clients at Homeboy are known.

Homeboy participants in Buck Brannaman’s horse training clinic in Ojai in May (Photo by Jesse Douglas)

Brannaman gets to see, on a daily basis, the magic and healing that happens when the horses and humans connect on the same level. That’s the aim of his work, to help people who have troubled horses understand their point of view and communicate with them

“Most people don’t understand what it’s like when it’s life and death to a horse. It’s just breaking them,” Brannaman said. “I understand from being with a horse what he’s dealing with, and that from his point of view, he is trying to survive.”

But even Brannaman wasn’t prepared for the speed with which it happened when the homies entered the picture. It didn’t matter that most of these youths raised in the inner city had never been near a horse before. They bonded immediately.

“The effect they can have on broken people is just unbelievable,” he said. “I can’t believe what working with these animals does for people. That’s the big picture for me.”

Buck Brannaman heals horses and humans alike in his work as a trainer (Photo courtesy IFC)

The whole encounter challenged some assumptions for Brannaman, too.

“Man, if I didn’t look funny among these guys, these gang members,” Brannaman said. “I told them, ‘If I saw you in the street, you’d scare the hell out of me. But they said to me, ‘We’re good. You don’t have to worry about anything with us.’”

Brannaman said one of the participants compared the experience to so-​called “Scared Straight” programs where at-​risk youths interact with convicts who give them the “straight” story of life behind bars.

“He said to me, ‘I’m not afraid of that, not afraid of anything. The one thing I have no way of defend myself against is, you can love me straight,’” Brannaman said.

Douglas’s son blogged about the May encounter, and you can see more pictures here. The association has also led to a second preview screening of Buck to benefit Homeboy, scheduled for June 14. If you couldn’t find tickets to the Autry’s show, this might be another option.