"Horse whisperer" subject of award-winning film

He's been called "The Zen Master of the Horse World," but Buck Brannaman is better-known as the real-life "horse whisperer."

And now, Brannaman is the subject of an award-winning documentary film called "Buck." The film, "Early Show" Contributor Katrina Szish reported, is the work of first-time filmmaker Cindy Meehl. The movie takes viewers into the world of Brannaman and his methods with horses - and people.

At one point in the film, Brannaman says, "I don't know if I would have made it without horses. I don't know. I hate to think of it."

Brannaman, Szish noted, has been called a sage on horseback, sharing his wisdom at horse training clinics across the country. His methods provided real-life inspiration for the novel and Robert Redford film, "The Horse Whisperer."

Brannaman says of his practices, "It's not like I take hold of a horse's ear like it's an old-fashioned telephone and speak into it. The communication with the horse really is your body language, and your presence. That's why a lot of people don't get along too good with horses, because they underestimate how much he really is taking in, how much he is aware of."

Instead of using traditional means to break a horse with whips, ropes, and fear, Brannaman believes in creating a relationship through respect and instinct - a philosophy forged from a violent childhood at the hands of his abusive father.

"Just to glance at (my father) across the room might provoke him into coming and beating you up," Brannaman said. "The horses, when I first went to live with my foster parents, were my refuge. That's where I went to hide."

Brannaman recalled, "One thing I started off with was empathy for the horse, and then, as my understanding grew with the horses, then I started to learn how to help them. A lot of times, rather than helping people with horse problems, I'm helping horses with people problems."

That desire to help led him to train other horse owners. It was at one of his clinics that artist Cindy Meehl, became a Buck convert.

"I had been riding horses all my life, and I had never seen it done this way," Meehl said. "It looks like mental telepathy of riding - like the horse is reading his thoughts, because he's established this language that's so beautiful, and yet simplistic. And we can all do it."

Meehl was so inspired, she wanted to make a documentary about Buck and his methods, despite having no film experience.

Meehl said, "I went up to him and I asked him. And I thought, 'Well, if he says no, I'm off the hook."'

Brannaman said, "I'd said no many times over the years about people that wanted to document what I do, and she must have just caught me at the right time and I said, 'Well, go ahead."'

What Meehl captured in her directorial debut, "Buck,"earned the audience award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, winning over many who have never even had a horse encounter - with lessons more often about humans than horses.

Meehl said of Brannaman's methods, "He sneaks in all these life lessons when he's talking about horses. It's really a metaphor for people. "

Meehl said, "I would hope that (audiences) would look at Buck's life and his transformation, and it doesn't matter what's happened in your past, that you, too, can leave that baggage behind and start today and do whatever you want."

Szish asked, "What you learned from Buck, did that completely change your relationship with your horses?"

Meehl replied, "Totally, totally. There is a new respect we both have. They're just so with you. It's such a different feeling. There's no pulling, yanking, it's a dance partner. It's a glide."

Szish said this is the legacy Brannaman hopes to leave to the equestrian community.

Brannaman said, "There's been a lot of horses over the years where people would say, 'Just so you know, this is our last stop. All I know is, if it doesn't work we're done.' And thousands and thousands of horses over the years have ended up living a long life with the person once they understood each other. Everybody wins."

Szish added on "The Early Show" Brannaman is on the road nine months out of the year conducting his clinics.

"This is his life," she said. "This isn't something he does just for the cameras. He's a true horseman."

However, though horses are his life, Szish said, he's also a family man with his wife and daughters and foster mother playing a big part in his life.