- Buck Brannaman
It's all a matter of perspective for Buck Brannaman, known as the real-life horse whisperer. "A lot of times, rather than helping people with horse problems, I'm helping horses with people problems." You don't need to be a horse buff to enjoy the documentary Buck. My sole contact with horses came when I petted one as a child and thought, "Dusty carpet. No thank you," but I found the production engaging, moving and inspiring.
First-time filmmaker Cindy Meehl decided to make a movie about Brannaman after attending one of his clinics in 2003. It's easy to see why she was drawn to the man. Brannaman is a soft-spoken fellow who carries himself with modesty, good humor and quiet authority. A practitioner of natural horsemanship, he is an expert at putting himself in the horse's shoes - pun acknowledged, but not intended - and training them with a gentle, empathic approach.
Can't tell you much more about his training techniques because the movie doesn't detail them. We hear references to trust and making the animals feel useful, but the movie is more about relating than training. Mostly it's about an abused boy who refused to turn mean.
Buck and his brother Smokie (born Dan and Bill, later dubbed with Western-style nicknames) toured the country doing rope tricks as boys - they even appeared in a Sugar Smacks TV commercial. They were also abused routinely by their father, bearing marks on their backs, butts and legs from being whipped. The beatings stopped when a coach at school saw the welts on Buck and contacted the sheriff. Buck was taken away and placed with a kind foster family.
What about his brother? We don't know because the film doesn't tell us and it should have. A simple "Smokie Brannaman chose not to be involved in this project" would have sufficed. An Internet check shows that Smokie grew up to become a horse trainer as well, utilizing methods similar to those employed by his brother. There are no references to his childhood on his website.
And what about Dad? Nothing further is said about him in the movie. Luckily, David Letterman asked Buck about him on his show last week and I can tell you that Buck sought him out as an adult and forgave him - primarily so he wouldn't have to carry the burden of anger throughout his life.
I loved spending time with Buck, who was so shy that he had to practice making eye contact with other people before starting to travel the country doing horse clinics. A great many people abused as children grow up to be abusers. Buck's determination to be kind is remarkable.
Buck is a powerful, rewarding film, but it would have been better with a little less hero-worship and a little more reporting. Nice to see Robert Redford talk about Brannaman working wonders on the set of The Horse Whisperer, but how about showing us where Buck fits in the world of natural horsemanship? Respectful mention is made of Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance, pioneers in the training method, but what does Buck do differently that makes him stand out? Is it simply because of his low-key charisma and the obstacles he has overcome? Reason enough, certainly, but at times it seems like Cindy Meehl made Buck while wearing blinders.