He gets naysaying horses to say aye
By John DeFore
Friday, June 24, 2011
You don’t have to be a horse nut to fall for “Buck,” one of those rare documentaries whose subject is so inherently fascinating that a fictional character could hardly compete.
As it happens, horse trainer Buck Brannaman has already been a fictional character, having inspired the Nicholas Evans novel “The Horse Whisperer.” When Robert Redford adapted the book in 1998, he hired Brannaman as a consultant; as Redford recalls here, the horseman’s off-screen presence was felt throughout the film.
Seen now on his own in a doc by first-time filmmaker Cindy Meehl, Brannaman is arguably more compelling than Redford’s romantic fictionalization. Though his plain features and mildly dandified Western wear wouldn’t cut it in Hollywood, he projects unmistakable authority on horseback, mind-melding with powerful animals in a way human onlookers will find magnetic.
Brannaman spends nine months of each year on the road, visiting such Western locales as Libby, Mont., and Thermopolis, Wyo., to conduct four-day seminars in horse-human communication. Students often bring him skittish colts who recoil at being guided, much less saddled, and we watch as he calmly establishes a rapport within the corral. Wielding nothing but a lightly gripped rope and a flag he rarely waves, he coaxes animals until they will follow alongside him unbidden or trot in a zigzag with no visible steering. His quiet control is impressive enough for viewers who have never tried to guide an unruly horse — to the owners, watching from outside the corral, it’s jaw-dropping.
Brannaman’s philosophy relies on empathetic encouragement instead of the scolding and painful restraints often used in modern horse training. Everything he says sounds like common sense, but the longtime ranchers interviewed here, who marvel at his insights, suggest it’s anything but.
We learn early on that Brannaman acquired this empathy at a price. Physically abused as a child, he and his brother were shoved into cowboy showbiz by a fearsome father. (He started trick-roping at age 3.) Meehl returns to this subject throughout the film, but her persistence is illuminating rather than manipulative. At first, she’s offering insight into a man we might otherwise find opaque; then she’s underlining how his past makes him particularly well suited for this career.
By the dramatic section near the film’s end, in which a violent “problem child” wounds a trainer, and its owner must decide whether to put it down, Buck’s personal history provides a deeply poignant point of comparison. His caring but firm scolding — not of the horse, but of its owner, whose mistakes reveal unacknowledged personality flaws — offers the film’s only hint of the kind of anger abused kids often harbor. The day after the horse is taken away, Brannaman insists to his remaining students that, if handled properly from birth, the colt could have had something to offer the world. It’s obvious he’s not talking only about the horse.
Childhood trauma may inform the film, but “Buck” steers clear of soapy therapeutic cliches, largely thanks to Brannaman’s dry, often self-deprecating humor.
Brannaman didn’t invent this training approach, nor is he its sole practitioner, but viewers might leave the theater believing he’s a lone voice of reason in the equestrian world. The term “natural horsemanship,” commonly used to describe techniques like these, is never heard in the film, and while Meehl briefly discusses Brannaman’s now-dead mentors, she makes no mention of his living peers.
The omission may rankle viewers who come to “Buck” with outside knowledge of horse-world philosophy. But outsiders will forgive Meehl for focusing exclusively on a man whose winning blend of Western charm and New Age vulnerability transcends the specifics of his career.
Contains themes of domestic abuse, mild language and one on-screen injury.