“A lot of times rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems,” states Buck Brannaman in Buck, a new documentary about the life of a prominent horse trainer. As someone who has only ridden one or two horses in my entire life (and when I say “ridden,” I mean “walked in a circle in a corral for children”), I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Buck. That’s probably because it’s not just a niche film about horses and a horse trainer; it’s about a man’s life and how he not only overcame an abusive household, but used his experiences to reach the humanity in people.
The documentary follows Brannaman as he travels the Midwest giving horse clinics. Brannaman is what one would call a horse whisperer — he was even a consultant on the Robert Redford film of the same name. Going against the common practice of “breaking” horses with force and what are essentially torture devices, Brannaman instead treats horses with compassion and uses “feels” to train them. A “feel” is basically a projection of a trainer’s energy that can calm a horse as well as garner its trust and compliance. A horse is not just a dumb animal; according to Brannaman a horse is a mirror to one’s soul. Whatever baggage a person carries will be reflected in the behavior of the horse. Thus, Brannaman isn’t really a horse trainer, he’s a horse trainer trainer, retraining animal handlers to use different, more humane techniques.
Brannaman relates easily to the creatures because at one point in his life he was just like them. Much like a show horse, Brannaman grew up as a trick roper and went professional at the ripe young age of six. Brannaman and his brother actually became pretty famous, starring in a national cereal commercial and making television appearances. It wasn’t all fun and games however. If either of the boys made the tiniest of errors, their father would beat them mercilessly.
With the help of teachers at their school, the boys were removed from their father’s care. Under the care of his foster parents Brannaman left his violent past behind and grew into a sensitive, hard working young man. When he was 18 years old, Brannaman went to a horse clinic held by Ray Hunt, and was awed by the trainer’s unconventionally gentle techniques. He then spent the next several years learning them, eventually following in his mentors footsteps.
Buck features interviews with friends and family, all of whom contribute to the Brannaman mythology. Ultimately his background gives him the presence of a quasi-superhero, a man whose reputation precedes him. Instead of continuing the pattern of violence he grew up around, Brannaman transcended his background for the greater good of horses and horse-owners everywhere. That sounds cheesy, but it’s true. And the truth is Buck can move anyone who sees it. With stunning images of the vast countryside and a score of soothing folk melodies, the film immerses the viewer in a world most of us city-dwellers are unfamiliar with. And yet the tale of a man who not only survived abuse, but in his own way works to end the perpetuation of violence, is universally poignant and inspirational.