Film review: Buck

The film Buck, winner of the Audience Award for Documentary at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and now making its way to Australian cinemas, is the story of a real ‘horse whisperer’ – Buck Brannaman.

Brannaman was a key inspiration for the character of Tom Booker in Nicholas Evans’s 1995 novel, The Horse Whisperer. He is part of a lineage of natural horsemanship practitioners in the United States, including Tom and Bill Dorrance and Ray Hunt.

But while the film adaptation of The Horse Whisperer might have brought the concept of natural horsemanship to a wide audience, the notion of a whisperer is not quite the right metaphor. Horsemanship, for the likes of Brannaman and other practitioners (such as Sascha and Sam Watson, who taught my horse and I in Western Australia, and figures such as Monty Roberts), is indeed about communicating softly with a horse. But it isn’t usually about verbal communication, and most importantly it requires careful groundwork on behalf of both rider and horse in order to open the channels of communication in the first place.

Buck follows Brannaman as he criss-crosses the United States, running four-day clinics and teaching riders and handlers how to establish communication with their horses. He is driven by his empathy with the animals he works with – and here the story comes back, as it so often does in this film, to the relationships between people.

Brannaman and his older brother grew up as a child trick-roping stars, on a ranch with a father who regularly drank and beat them. The figure of his father looms large over the film, for Brannaman says that his ability to empathise with frightened horses developed out of the abuse he suffered as a child – out of knowing what it’s like to fear for your life.

Brannaman has chosen a path very different to that of his father – a conscious decision that he talks about in the film. His path is one that eschews violence, force, negativity or even blame. He reminds his students regularly not to feel contempt or anger towards the horse, because the way the horse behaves is a reflection of its handler.

For a horse person, one of the most moving parts of the film is Brannaman’s insistence that your horse is a mirror to your soul. This is brought home most strongly by an intractable palomino that comes to one of Brannaman’s clinics towards the end of the film.

At first spoilt and then neglected by his owner, the horse is now aggressive and dangerous to all who come near him. I could not help but think of my own horse, remembering the graceful curve of his ears and the bob of his head from the hours and hours spent on his back, and wondering what his behaviour (hard to catch, sometimes naughty, usually full of beans) says about me.

There’s little doubt that this film will resonate with people who ride horses, and who understand what it feels like to achieve – or even to long for – synchronicity with your horse. At times like this, you need only to think and feel your intention, and the horse will pick it up instantly. As Brannaman reminds us in Buck, horses are sensitive enough to feel a mosquito on their rump in the middle of a windstorm, and so only the subtlest of signals are required from a rider once the channels of communication are open between horse and human.

Brannaman talks about how the horse’s body and the rider’s should be one – so that as a rider, the horse’s feet are your feet. This indeed is how he and his horses function together – there is no need for a visible sign from him for his horse to change direction or speed, or even to sidepass gracefully across a pasture: horse and rider seem to move and think as one body.

In spite of the specific subject of this film, it has much to appreciate even for those who aren’t ‘horsey’. Buck is beautifully shot, and Brannaman as a subject is both funny and humble. The lessons about respect and communication apply not only to horses, but to relationships between humans too.

Brannaman’s journey is pieced together in a manner that makes sense of the man and his motivations, brought together smoothly by director Cindy Meehl. It’s also a window into America that we rarely see – into a subculture held together by love for horses, and by a desire to build relationships between horses and humans that are based on respect, not fear.

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