‘Buck’ advocates empathy in animal-training and life
How is training horses like life? In just about every way possible, according to the Tao of Buck Brannaman, the self-effacing hero and subject of Buck, an engaging and evocative documentary from filmmaker Cindy Meehl. A modern-day cowboy on the road nine months out of every year conducting four-day horse-training clinics all across the American west, Buck doesn’t dispense folksy wisdom, nor indulge in any New Agey, touchy-feely palaver, so much as he talks plain common sense to troublesome horses and their owners. “I don’t help people with horse problems,” Buck reflects. “I help horses with people problems.”
Meehl’s unobtrusive camera eye follows Buck around for months on his appointed rounds, at guest ranches and fairgrounds from North Carolina to Montana, from Wyoming to Chico, California. He sets up his clinics in any place with a corral big enough to hold himself and a horse, with enough outlying grounds to accommodate spectators and their horse trailers. He travels with two of his own horses to demonstrate the finer points of his methods, but mostly he invites participants to bring their own horses into the corral and give Buck a chance to work with them.
But whatever you do, don’t call him a “breaker.” Buck advocates a firm hand that is in no way “hard” or hurtful to the horse. His equipment consists of a soft flag on a long, flexible pole, and a rope, with which he instructs clinic attendees in his “soft feel” method of gently guiding an animal into more temperate behavior that makes sense to the horse, as well as the owner. “Everything you do with a horse is a dance,” Buck explains.
Spectators come away fervid converts, especially those who grew up in the opposite worlds of cattle ranching and formal equestrian dressage (horse people from both disciplines attend Buck’s clinics), where cruel horse-breaking methods were “just the way it was always done.” Robert Redford, who invited Buck on set as a consultant, stunt double, and role model during the filming of The Horse Whisperer, praises Buck’s “humanity and gentleness of spirit.”
Only a “tortured soul,” like Buck, can achieve this deep rapport with animals, opines one longtime friend. And while implacable calm and patience are Buck’s most obvious character traits, Meehl discreetly delves beneath the surface aplomb to get the story. A trick roper from the age of three, little Buck and his older brother performed at rodeos all over the country, under the iron hand of an abusive father. Things got worse after their mother died, until a gym teacher intervened and the local sheriff removed the boys to foster care.
Fortunately for Buck, he was taken into a loving home with a surrogate mom (they’re still extremely close) who raised 23 foster kids over the years—all boys. Grown-up Buck still recalls with a kind of awed gratitude the foster dad who took him so gently in hand, earning the wary child’s confidence, teaching him to shoe horses and build barbed-wire fences. He was smart enough to know “I just needed a job to do,” says Buck—and someone he could trust. And although neither filmmaker Meehl nor anyone else in the film says so in so many words, we can see how Buck now treats skittish horses the same way he needed to be treated as a scared, abused kid.
In lighter scenes, we see the mutual pride and affection between Buck and his own teenage daughter, Riata; she and a girlfriend join him on the road during the summer months to help out with training sessions for kids. But their methods are not foolproof. One obstreperous colt shown in the film is too wild and possibly brain-damaged to fully respond even to Buck’s patient intervention, for which Buck blames the owner, in a quiet, reasonable, and private conversation that leaves the woman in tears—not because she thinks he’s been mean to her, but because she agrees with him. “You can’t hold it against (the horse) for how his life has been,” sighs Buck.
This all-pervasive empathy—for horses and people alike—is the essence of Buck’s training method; it’s a pretty effective mantra for life, as well.
★★★ (out of four)
With Buck Brannaman. A film by Cindy Meehl. A Magnolia release. Rated PG. 88 minutes.