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A Devastating Fall Couldn't Keep This Rodeo 'Rider' Off Wild Horses

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, I have two guests. Brady Jandreau plays a fictionalized version of himself in the new film "The Rider." He was a rodeo rider and horse trainer who two years ago was in a rodeo riding accident that resulted in a brain injury and a plate having to be placed in his smashed skull. It meant having to rethink his life, which was based around riding and training horses, which is exactly what his doctors told him he should no longer do, at least not for a while. My other guest is Chloe Zhao, who directed the film and conceived of the film. It's the second film she made on the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.

Now, I mean, your doctors told you you couldn't ride again and that you certainly couldn't do rodeo again. I know someone with a relatively minor concussion who had trouble riding the train afterwards 'cause it was such a dizzying experience because of the concussion. Real concussions are so much worse than they're always made to seem in movies, like where the detective gets whacked on the head with a pistol, he's knocked unconscious, he wakes up with a headache and that's the last we hear about the concussion, you know? It's not that way in real life. But it sounds like you started riding, like, long before your doctor said that you should do it. What did the doctors tell you? How soon did you start riding, and did you do it sooner than they said you should like I think you did?

BRADY JANDREAU: OK, so on April Fool's Day of 2016 was the day I was injured. And like I said, I went in there and they did surgery and they induced coma. About three - well, it was over a five-day span because I woke up officially on the 5. But on the 4, I woke up and under the induction of coma and pulled the respirator out of my chest and started to pull my IVs out. And they did a breathing test to see if I could breathe on my own. And I failed the first two tests, and then I passed the third one. And then they figured, OK, it's time to drop the induction, see if you can wake up. You know, they had a pretty good idea I could 'cause I was waking up under the induction. So they dropped it, and I woke up.

I couldn't talk right at first. I had very blurry vision in my left eye. And I couldn't - it sounded like my left ear was filled with water. I'm not sure if that was blood in my ear or what. But after that, they told me that I needed to stay there. I have to stay in the hospital. And I told them that I'm not going to. I'm not going to lay here and rot. And they said, OK, well, we can't legally hold you if you can take your medication orally, go to the bathroom on your own, perform daily tasks such as walking, dressing yourself, other things like that, take your medication in pill form. And I walked to the line like I was 17 walking for the cops, you know, after I had too much drink.


JANDREAU: And I just - I told them my eye was good. And I told them that everything felt great and they needed to let me out of there. And I took the pills, and then they walked out of the room. And I threw them up in the trash can. And I was out of there. So I got down the road a little ways, had a pinch of Copenhagen, ate at a chuck wagon. And I've been pretty well good ever since. But I never returned to the hospital at all. And then I couldn't take it any longer. Two weeks after I got home, I rode Gus again, a very well-trained horse that was like a brother to me growing up, I mean, if you can imagine an animal being like a brother to someone (laughter). So I had a lot of trust in him, you know. I knew I was pretty well safe. And a month and a half after the injury, I actually went flat broke. And unlike in the movie where I work at a grocery store, I went back to doing the only thing I know how to do and what I love to do, which is training wild horses for the public. So...

GROSS: But the thing is, like, you're supposed to - after a head injury like that, you're supposed to, I think, prevent your brain from getting jostled. But the point is you've been ignoring (laughter) what the doctors say. And it's not advice I'd give other people, but I'm really glad that you're OK. Was giving up rodeo hard? 'Cause that you never went back to. Like, that was too risky even for you to (laughter) think of doing again.

JANDREAU: Well, to be completely frank with you, Ma'am, I'd say training horses...

GROSS: Oh, is more dangerous?

JANDREAU: ...Is more dangerous because it's so unpredictable. The only thing that you can predict their actions through is your connection with the animal. And like I say, I mean, even if the horse stumbled and fell down, like, my dad a few months ago broke his leg when a horse slipped and fell down on him. If, like, say a horse were to fall down and I were to hit my head off a rock or a post or anything, you know, typically I'm about 55, 60 miles from any reputable hospital when I'm training horses. And a lot of times, it's just me out there. So...

GROSS: OK. You haven't reassured me, but that was a very interesting answer.


JANDREAU: Yeah, so that's what I'm saying. I think that training horses is probably more dangerous.

GROSS: The scenes in the movie where you're training horses are so just beautiful to watch. And like, are we seeing you train horses for real in those scenes?


GROSS: Wow. It's just beautiful. And, you know, one of the things interesting to me is that the first thing you do in those scenes when you're training a new horse is put out your hand for the horse to sniff. And that's something that a lot of us do when we're meeting a new cat or a new dog. And it's interesting that that's the first thing you would do with a horse.

JANDREAU: A horse, you know, they can't say, hi, how are you? I'm so-and-so, you know? So they communicate through typically smelling or, you know, just body language. And when a horse approaches another horse, the first thing they do is they smell noses. If I were to put my face up close to a horse, he'd probably be a little bit intimidated. So, like, a horse's neck is long, like an extension, just like my arms. I'd put my hand up to their face and let them smell it, just like I'm another horse approaching them to, you know, smell their nose as well.

GROSS: And then, other things that you do, you get closer to them. You kind of pet them. And, slowly, you put a little bit of your weight on the horse without fully mounting it. Can you talk a little bit - can you describe for us, for those of us who have never seen a horse broken, just a few of the steps that you take to do it and what it's like for you to be experiencing this growing relationship between you and the horse?

JANDREAU: It's all through the connection. And the only way that they know how to communicate is through body language, you know, things like that. And I can't just whiny to them, and they come running, you know? So, like, a horse, typically, if they show their rear to you it's because they feel threatened by you. They want to escape from you, and they might even kick you 'cause, like I said, they feel threatened. They're going to protect themselves. When a horse offers their face to you, they're interested in what you are, what you're doing. They're paying attention.

And, typically, like, when I would let a horse smell my hand, then the first thing I would do is, like, pet them on the nose. And then, I would, like, I wouldn't just reach back and grab them on the leg after that, or else they'd kick my head off. But if I slowly pet and slowly work my way back - but as soon as - you know, say I'm getting by a horse's shoulder, and he gets nervous. I have to go back to the nose and restart. And, typically, back to the shoulder will be easy. And then from that point on, you know, you've got to keep that connection and slowly work your way back. Eventually, horses will let me touch their hind legs or tail and slide off their butt and crawl underneath their belly, do whatever because they trust me.

But it takes some time - I wouldn't say some time. You have to do the proper things to communicate with them for them to allow you to do everything because there's no way you could force, you know, a thousand-pound, 1,500-pound, maybe even more, you know, animal to do what you want to do. You have to make what you want look appealing to them. You guys have to make an agreement on the matter.


Brady Jandreau is the Lakota Indian star of "The Rider." The film's writer-director is Chloe Zhao. The movie is now available on different streaming sites. We'll continue Terry's interview with them after a break. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross back with more of Terry's interview from earlier this year with Brady Jandreau, star of the film "The Rider," and Chloe Zhao, who wrote and directed the film. It's now available on different TV streaming sites. Jandreau plays a fictionalized version of himself in the film. He was a rodeo rider and horse trainer who, two years ago, was in a rodeo riding accident that resulted in a brain injury that meant having to rethink his life and career.


GROSS: You know, we use the expression to break a horse. That sounds kind of violent, like you're - you know. So that's not what you're - you're kind of taming a horse...


GROSS: ...Or creating relationship with a horse. But what does that - do you like using that word? And...

JANDREAU: No, I don't. You know, I mean, honestly, like, I grew up and that's what people, you know, around horses they usually say. They call it breaking them. And there are many, many trainers who still break horses, meaning, like, almost break their spirit to the point - and subdue them and submit them, cause them to submit to them.

GROSS: Right, break their will. Yeah.

JANDREAU: Yeah, by tying them certain ways or working them so hard to where they're so tired they cannot - you know, they can't resist. What I choose to do is just - like I'm hanging out with them, and it's just training them through the connection. I wouldn't - yeah, breaking is not the right word for it, but it's just the word - the terminology that I'm used to.

GROSS: Do you think there's something in it for the horse when the horse develops a relationship with a human and learns to accept that the human's going to ride them and also feed them and care for them? Like, I know what's in it for the people. What's in it for the horse?

JANDREAU: Well, you know, when a horse connects with you, there is something in it for them because, like, for their health and I believe also in a relationship with a person. Like, many horses we save off of kill trucks. They take horses - well, there's no legal slaughter of horses in the United States now. But there's still legal slaughter of horses in Canada. So, like, typically when a horse - say there's, like, a horse that has never been trained, and he's much too wild or much too old for your average trainer to have a go at him. They'll typically sell him. And nobody can ride the horse, so he typically goes and becomes glue or dog food or whatever, you know, sent to France or - and, you know, the horse Apollo in the movie was one of the horses that I actually saved off of the kill truck.

GROSS: Oh, you're kidding. This is one of the...


GROSS: ...Horses you tame in the movie, a beautiful horse.

JANDREAU: Apollo, he actually had passed away by the time the shoot began. He was probably 8 or 9 years old. And he was really wild and really big, you know? Most people wouldn't have messed with him. But I seen something in Apollo that you don't see in every horse.

CHLOE ZHAO: Beautiful buckskin.

JANDREAU: Yeah. Even though he was - he was big, yellow. And even though he was wild, I felt as though he had a lot to offer. He had a very, very - like, when I look into a horse's eyes, they say more to me than you have said to me in this entire conversation.

GROSS: Thank you (laughter).

ZHAO: (Laughter) No offense.

JANDREAU: Yeah. No offense to you, but that's...

GROSS: No offense taken.

ZHAO: That's how Brady - he relates to horses more than people.


GROSS: (Laughter) That's OK.

JANDREAU: So, yeah, and Apollo, he would have had to go to a kill truck, but I knew there was good in him. And so I broke him. He was difficult to break. And for the first, you know, about two months we owned him, nobody else could ride him but me. But once he was finished out, he was probably one of the best horses I ever rode. Like, say he were to get...

GROSS: What happened to him?

JANDREAU: Like say he were to get - he got into the wire, just like in the movie.

GROSS: In the barbed wire.

JANDREAU: Yeah, that was not a - that was a recreation. That was a fictional - that was make up on the horse in the movie. But Apollo's injury was much, much worse than the horse in the movie. It was much higher in the thick part, the gaskin of the horse's leg. And it sawed completely to the bone before he came in the next day. And I had rode him the day before that. It's not like he'd been out getting neglected or anything. He just - he went out, and he probably walked by a patch of bushes. And a coyote was sleeping there, and he probably jumped out. And he probably took off running, nervous, you know, and got into the wire in a bad way. And like I said, it was - it caught him in, like, a loop. And it had - and from him trying to free himself over those few hours, it had actually sawed the barbed wire into his, you know, down to his femur basically.

GROSS: Wow. Did you have to put him down?

JANDREAU: No, my dad did it, like in the movie.

GROSS: Yeah.

JANDREAU: But, yeah, I loved Apollo. I really hope to get to see him again up in the sky someday.

GROSS: That must be so hard. I mean, like, with a cat or a dog, at least, you know, where I live, you take the animal to the vet, and the vet puts the animal down. But with horses, it's often, you know, like, the human who shoots the horse. It's an instantaneous death, I guess.

JANDREAU: Well, when you...

GROSS: But that must be so difficult to be part of.

JANDREAU: If you've ever seen, like, a cow or a horse die of natural causes, it's probably the most sickening thing you could ever imagine. Die on their own from natural causes - literally, when a horse become - or a cow gets down, meaning they are to the point where they cannot get up under their own will, they will keep attempting to get up. And when their legs aren't working for them, they will use their head, and they will literally hit their head off of the ground until they die. So that is probably the least humane thing to do, is to just let them die on their own. If I were to load Apollo on the trailer, I mean, could you imagine walking up a flight of stairs with one leg? That's about what it would have been like. He would've had to stand in that moving trailer all the way to the vet for an hour and 10 minutes or so and - where he would have to be unloaded, put in a separate pen, wait until the vet was ready, because obviously, there was no way to predict this injury. And there, he would be euthanized, which is not instantaneous.

GROSS: See, I didn't know all this, so I wasn't able to think that through. And it seems much more humane to just put him down yourself and spare the horse all of that.

JANDREAU: There was only one thing to do.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. So Chloe, what you do in your films - at least, in the first two films that you've made - is cast people to play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves. It's not just Brady who plays a fictionalized version of himself. His father is in the film playing his father. His sister is in the film playing his sister. His friends are in the film playing his friends. Let's start with his family. Did you have to work hard to convince them to be a part of the film? And I'll mention that his father isn't always painted in the most flattering light in this. His father has gambled away the rent money, so, like, the family is totally broke in the movie. I don't know if it happened that way in real life, but, you know, people will confuse real life with the fictionalized version. So how is his father with playing this role?

ZHAO: Well, this is why - Tim Jandreau is his dad's name, and he's - his character's name is completely changed, not just the last name. It's Wayne Blackburn because Tim in real life, I think, is a better father than I've portrayed him in the film, you know? But I think, you know, this is a fiction film. And I - this is how I explain to the - to everyone who's involved. You're free to keep your real name if you want to, and you can be as comfortable to be yourself as possible, but you are playing fictionalized characters. So, you know, Tim would probably feel comfortable with me saying that he's made some mistakes as a parent, like all parents do, but it's not like that in the film.

JANDREAU: Yeah, my dad - I mean, we've had our ups and downs, you know, just like any father and son probably has. But, you know, we get along really good, honestly. You know, I mean, everybody makes mistakes. But, I mean - that's what I mean - you know, everybody, you know? So I don't know. My dad is, for lack of a better term, not as much as of an ass [expletive] as he is in the film.


ZHAO: He's old-school. He's old-school.


GROSS: Chloe, how did you first get the idea of combining real people and real people's lives in a fictionalized version?

ZHAO: You either work with limitation or you let it work you, you know? We, as a women - Chinese women filmmaker with not much connections and to come to America and say, like, I want to make films on a reservation with kids there - back in 2010 to '13, it was a tough time for the country, financially, and for the industry, for everybody. No one was going to just throw me money to do it. So, you know, it was a blessing in disguise because that style come out of - for us to be friends with the limitations that we have, including the way we shoot, the time of day we shoot, you know, and who we cast and all that stuff and how we run the set.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you both. If you're just joining us, my guests are Brady Jandreau, who plays a slightly fictionalized version of himself in the new film "The Rider," and Chloe Zhao, the film's director who also conceived the movie. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, I have two guests. Brady Jandreau plays a fictionalized version of himself in the new film "The Rider." He was a rodeo rider and horse trainer who, two years ago, was in a rodeo riding accident that resulted in a skull and brain injury. It was so severe that he now has a plate in his head. It meant having to rethink his life, which was based around riding and training horses, which is exactly what his doctors told him he should no longer do. But he still trains horses. But he no longer rides on the radio - in the rodeo.

So Brady, what is your life like now? I know you're still working with horses. Like, what exactly are you doing?

JANDREAU: Actually, since the shoot, I've started a breeding program called the Jandreau Performance Horses. We raise American quarter horses, all registered through the AQHA. And we train them to do everything from rodeo events to - not the bucking events, of course, the other events such as the timed events where you ride a very well-trained horse to perform a task. And I also train them to do, like, mounted shooting, hunting horses, just pleasure-riding horses. About anything that you could name, we could train, so...

GROSS: And where do get your horses from now?

JANDREAU: Well, I raise them. You know, I also take in horses...

GROSS: Oh, so it's a breeding - right, it's a breeding program.

JANDREAU: Yep. And I also take in horses from the public to be trained for a set number of days for a specific amount of pay.

GROSS: How many horses do you have now?

JANDREAU: We have around 20 registered broodmares, so that means about 20 babies born each year. You cannot break a horse until they're about 2 years old. You can halter break them, meaning teach them how to lead and stuff, if you choose to, but you can't really break them until they're 2 because there aren't developed enough, you know what I mean? It would be like a 5-year-old playing football or something, you know?

GROSS: So, you know, to sum up, like, your life was profoundly changed by your head injury from the rodeo. And it looked like maybe you'd have to change your identity altogether, that you'd have to give up riding, that you'd have to give up rodeo. And you've taken, like, a curve, but - you know, 'cause you're no longer doing rodeo. But you're still riding. You're raising horses. Horses are still central to your life. And I guess you must be so grateful for that.

JANDREAU: Yeah. I mean, it makes you feel close to God - you know? - just to be in their presence.

GROSS: Did you ever think you'd really have to give it up?

JANDREAU: You know, there was a point when I definitely had to think about whether or not I was going to. You know, there was a lot of thoughts that went through my head after my injury - you know, I mean, a lot of different emotions and, you know, some of which were very nearly impossible to control. But, yeah, like I said, it was something I thought about. And I rode - like I said, I rode Gus again just two weeks after my head injury just to make sure that my balance was OK, that I was able to mount them. And then it started eating at me to the point to where I knew what I had to do, and I knew what I was going to do. And the rest was up to faith and my connection with the animal.

GROSS: Brady, what was your first horse - the first time you had, like, a close relationship with a horse?

JANDREAU: The very first time that I ever could control a horse on my own - like, my daughter, she's already ridden 22 horses - you know, us holding her up there, you know?

GROSS: How old is she?

JANDREAU: She's only 9 months old.

GROSS: Oh, God (laughter).

JANDREAU: She will be 9 months old in two weeks, and she's ridden 22 different horses, ridden about 45 times. And, you know, I grew up the same way. But I could actually control a horse - he was a very well-trained horse. His name was Pardner (ph), and he was a full-size horse. He was probably about 18 years old, which is pretty old. Usually, they've calmed down quite a bit by then. And he would actually - like, I would ride him bareback because there was no saddle that would fit me because I was only a year and a half of age. I still...

GROSS: Wow, you were riding bareback at a year and a half.

JANDREAU: Yeah, because there was no - I, you know - and if - my dad said if I would start to go a little bit off to - you know, this is without any lead rope, nobody on there with me. Like, this was literally me riding alone with nothing - on a horse with nothing but a bridle and reins. And my dad said I would start kind of falling off to one side, and that horse would go right back underneath me, and I'd start falling off the other. He'd go back underneath me the other way and...

ZHAO: To keep you on him.

JANDREAU: To keep me on his back.

GROSS: And here's a question for you, Chloe. You capture, like, the beauty of the landscape in South Dakota. And the outdoors is so - just, it's so open, but the indoors are so cramped. You know, like, the family lives in basically, like, a trailer. Were you looking for that contrast between the indoors and the outdoors?

ZHAO: Yeah, I am. And if you go to the reservation, I think you will find a lot of that. And again, you know, it's that thing that happened historically when you discontinue people's culture and their connection with the land. Even though this beauty happening right, you know, in their backyard, not everybody can see it. And this is why I really want to tell Brady's story because he sees it, and he works with it. And he make it a part of who he is, and that's some healing that these young people could start doing, you know, for their people. So it's so important for me to - and for my whole team to be able to capture the reservation, South Dakota, the Badlands in a way that you understand why he'd choose that lifestyle. And he's not even given the opportunity moving to a big city.

GROSS: Chloe, did Brady teach you how to ride?


ZHAO: Yes. Yes, he did. And I had some really great lessons and then made me really cool when I go back to my friends.


ZHAO: And then there are times where I - you know, it's one thing looking at a horse in the movie or in a picture or have a - like, a teddy bear growing up. But when I'm sitting on the horse, you know, and looking down at his ears and I - it's a powerful animal. You know, it really is. It's a powerful animal, and the only way that they're going to let you on their back is this mutual understanding and respect. And Brady always tell me, don't be scared, Chloe. They can smell your fear. And I was like, yeah, I can smell my fear, too.


ZHAO: Because you feel it, you know, between your legs. It's so powerful. And gosh, and it just - again, you feel so close to nature through these animals. And if I have kids - and when I have kids, I really want them to be around horses and animals.

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much, and I want to congratulate you on the wonderful film. Thank you.

JANDREAU: Well, thank you.

ZHAO: Thank you so much. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Horse trainer Brady Jandreau and writer-director Chloe Zhao speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. Their film "The Rider" is now available on several streaming sites. Coming up, my very favorite television experience of the year. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.