The cowboy and his horse are not easily parted – be it in Western films and in the working experience of real cowboys on cattle ranches past and present. Yet what happens to bring the cowboy – or cowgirl – into a close relationship with his or her horse? What bonds of trust and respect are needed and what happens when those bonds are not there?
The 2011 documentary Buck, a Sundance Film Festival winner, looks at one man’s approach to the building of a relationship between human and horse. The film follows Buck Brannaman, a man greatly respected for the clinics he provides on working with horses. Those clinics incorporate an approach that has been termed “natural horsemanship” or more popularly “horse whispering”. Symbolic of a state of mind as any mechanical technique, “horse whispering” seeks to build an understanding and relationship with a horse and rejects the violent mindset and practices of “breaking” an animal.
The documentary also shares the personal journey that Brannaman has travelled. Along with a brother, he was a child performer of rope tricks and achieved some measure of celebrity in the US. However, both he and his brother suffered physical abuse at the hands of their father and Brannaman would eventually be moved to a foster family.
What struck this viewer is the sensitivity and humor that Brannaman brings to his relationships with both horses and humans. That he has developed a special skill is evident but there is no propriety air to his interactions. One particular segment – when working with a horse that had been born oxygen-deprived and proves dangerously difficult to engage – highlights his sensitivity. There appears to be a form of resigned sadness to Brannaman as he and the horse’s owner come to the realization that the horse could remain unmanageable. Brannaman gently but firmly points out to the owner that human decisions made since the animal’s birth have led the horse to its current state.
Buck (2011) Trailer:
Viewers of Western films can risk reducing horses to being components of a film perhaps even to the level of a prop. That perspective does not recognize that horses are living beings of great intelligence and emotional capacity. The documentary Buck and the work of Brannaman remind us of that fact.
Brannaman served as lead horse consultant for the Robert Redford film, The Horse Whisperer (1998). Buck, directed and produced by Cindy Meehl, won the US Documentary Competition Audience Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. It is now available on DVD.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)