Buck Brannaman is a horse trainer the way Michael Jordan was a basketball player or the Beatles were a pop group -- he's clearly in the category, but he approaches his art on a level most folks do not. Brannaman is a cowboy from Wyoming who is one of the leading exponents of "natural horsemanship," which in many respects is less about traditional animal-training techniques and more about psychology, developing an understanding of how the animal views the world, and working to create an atmosphere of trust and understanding between horse and rider rather than fear and obedience. While that might sound simple on the surface, watching Brannaman in action inspires genuine awe -- he displays a connection with animals that's almost uncanny, even when they've only just met. Brannaman says that often he's not helping people with horse problems but helping horses with people problems, and when he steps into a pen with a horse, it's clear that he's there to communicate to the horse as much on its own level as possible, with wisdom, compassion, and firmness.
Buck Brannaman was a key inspiration for the character of Tom Booker in Nicholas Evans' novel The Horse Whisperer, and when Robert Redford adapted the book for the movies, Brannaman was hired as a consultant, and the director/star acknowledges that Brannaman's gentle strength and way with animals influenced the way he approached the role. Now filmmaker Cindy Meehl has brought the real Buck Brannaman to the screen in the documentary Buck, and he's a more remarkable character than most screenwriters could ever imagine.
At first glance, Buck Brannaman comes off as a natural-born cowboy with a touch of Zen -- he has the bow-legged stride and unpretentious attitude of a guy who has been riding and roping all his life, but there's an intuitive understanding of human nature (and animal nature) that runs a bit deeper in him than most folks, and he seems keenly aware of the balance of the world around him. Brannaman spends nine months of the year living out of a trailer and giving seminars on starting horses (he doesn't use the phrase "breaking horses," believing it suggests abuse). Brannaman got started in the life of a cowboy as a child; he and his older brother toured with their father doing rope tricks and fancy riding at rodeos and fairs. However, Buck and his brother also learned from their father in the worst way possible -- their dad was an angry and abusive man whose violent temper only got worse after their mother died, and they were beaten so severely that they were eventually taken away from their father and put into foster care. Luckily, Buck and his brother ended up with foster parents who were kind but firm, and who understood what the boys needed to heal their emotional wounds.
One often hears of the cycle of abuse -- how a man who was hurt as a child is more likely to hurt others -- but Brannaman is a very different case, someone who has learned from his own experiences that pain and dominance are poor teachers and has set out to show the world another way, building on the methods he learned from his mentor, Ray Hunt. In Buck, one sees this not just in the way Brannaman works with horses and counsels riders, but in his relationship with his teenage daughter and his wife. Although Brannaman clearly enjoys having company on the road, he's also set in his ways as a solo traveler, and watching him, one sees a man striking a balance between the way he likes to do things and the way he does things when others are around. (We also sense that Buck has a wife as firm in her resolve as he is when she tells the camera she loves traveling, but she loves home more; their marriage looks like a model of loving compromise.)
However, probably the most instructive moment in Buck comes when Brannaman encounters a horse he can't do much to help. A woman comes to one of his clinics with a stud that was oxygen-deprived at birth and was never properly started and hasn't socialized much with other animals; the horse has since developed violent tendencies, attacking people and chasing cars. Though Brannaman and one of his helpers work hard to pacify the horse, their efforts prove futile when the stud bites a man on the chin, and Brannaman has an emotional conversation with the owner. While Brannaman is fully in control, he leaves no room to misunderstand his message -- the woman's decisions were terribly wrong for the animal, and with 18 other studs at home, she's given herself far more than she can handle. Brannaman speaks more than once in the film about being firm but not hard with a horse, and in this moment we see him doing just that with an owner, who takes the message with understanding but not much joy.
Like the man it chronicles, Buck doesn't shy away from darkness, but also shows that one can learn from the bad stuff of life and move on to better things, and the film is a fascinating portrait of a man who has taken this message to heart and shared it with the world. Brannaman is also a witty and compelling person, and director Cindy Meehl has done a splendid job in allowing him to subtly reveal himself before the camera. Cinematographers Guy Mossman and Luke Geissbuhler capture the sun-dappled beauty of the West as well as many staged feature films, and the movie has an easy, deliberate pace that suits its subject. Buck Brannaman is a fascinating individual, but not every documentary captures what's special about someone onto film; with Buck, Meehl has done that and more, and this movie is well worth seeing even if, like this writer, you know a nickel's worth of nothing about horse training.
Buck on AllMovie