More than 150 people filled the Virginia City Elks Club Saturday night to watch “Buck,” a documentary film chronicling the life of local legend and world-renowned horseman Buck Brannaman.
The film’s star was in town for a horse-training clinic at the Staley Ranch in the Ruby Valley, where he spent four days teaching people about the connection between horse and rider. As class participants spent morning and afternoon sessions with Brannaman they discovered that connection is as much about respect as it is about finding a feel for the animal. As Brannaman explains in the film, “sometimes feel is a mental thing.”
Brannaman grew up in Madison County and gained early notoriety as a trick roper with his older brother Smokie. But the boys suffered through a rough childhood at the hands of an abusive father, whose anger was fueled by alcohol and often left his children fearing for their lives. Buck and Smokie were eventually adopted by Forrest and Betsy Shirley where they lived near Norris.
More than 30 people watched Saturday’s clinic from the amphitheater around the horse arena at Betty Staley’s ranch nestled in the sagebrush foothills of the Tobacco Root Mountains.
Jayre Leech of Cameron was one of the clinic participants. She’s been riding with Brannaman for more than a decade, and she took note of the subtle suggestions and advice Brannaman offered riders as they circled around him. Leech described him as an incredibly thoughtful and careful teacher who “sets up his answers for all of us to get at least something out of that answer. And I really appreciate that.”
“Not many people take the time to find new ways to express something,” Leech said.
“He’s been doing this for decades, and every year I hear him say something about the same subject but in a new way that just puts enough of a different slant on it that you think ‘Oh, well, of course.‘”
Staley has been hosting Brannaman’s clinics for the last 15 year’s, and rode her Tennessee walking horse/thoroughbred cross Desi during Saturday morning’s session. Staley explains that Brannaman’s clinics are unique because “he focuses more on rider self discipline and less on little gimmicks that will get the horse to respond in a certain way.”
“He is as much interested in where the rider is coming from toward the horse,” Staley said.
Among the clinic spectators were film director Cindy Meehl and editor Toby Shimin, who wanted to see the clinic for themselves after recently completing the two and a half year project that won the 2011 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award.
Meehl originally met Brannaman at one of his horsemanship clinics and admits the difficulty of forming that bond between man and animal.
“You really have to concentrate on what it is that he’s doing,” Meehl said. “People that really care to get better with their horses are here to learn, and he is really dedicated to doing that. I wanted to do a film on him, because I just thought he was a great character that everyone would relate to.”
“The way he teaches he makes you think about a lot of things in your life as well,” she continued. “Even if you didn’t have a horse, I realized the things he was saying were pretty profound.”
Toby Shimin spent 10 months editing more than 300 hours of footage for the film. She came to the clinic because she wanted to experience the sounds and smells first hand. She explains that much of Brannaman’s charisma comes from his background.
“In a very rare way he took this very painful, difficult, violent childhood and instead of perpetuating it he has turned it around, and I think through the horse and his connection with the horse has shared his story,” Shimin said. “Its this really deep understanding of these animals that are powerful but so often abused. Psychologically, I think it’s this constant process of healing for him.”
As she enjoyed lunch in the shade between sessions, Jayre Leech reflected on the lessons she’s learned from Buck over the years.
“Its so hard to see ourselves through the horses eyes,” she said.
“It’s taken me a long time to learn that you can set it up for a horse and you to get along,” Leech continued. “And he’s trying to set it up so people will see that they don’t have to do it the hard way for themselves or their horse.”
Following Saturday night’s film in Virginia City, Buck Brannaman took the stage at the Elks Club with a handful of his friends and family to thank the people who helped him along the way. The humble cowboy who goes by the motto “be gentle in what you do, but firm in how you do it,” paused momentarily to reflect on his past and the people he grew up with.
“So many of you have followed me all through these years,” Brannaman said. “I really love you guys.”