Cindy Meehl’s poignant portrait of horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, the subject of author Nicholas Evans’ bestselling novel and the 1998 Robert Redford Hollywood movie, wowed audiences at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2011 and is rereleased on DVD this week by Dogwoof after the collapse of Revolver. At the start of Buck (2011), Brannaman comments, “Often instead of helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems.” It’s a philosophy that has held him in good stead on his travels across America and beyond and defines his particular style of natural-horsemanship.
“Your horse is a mirror to your soul”, Brannaman tells one group, before demonstrating how treating them with compassion can tame the wildest of beasts. Buck had to learn patience and respect the hard way. As children, Buck and his elder brother, Smokie, were celebrity rope-trick performers, but after their mother died the brothers were relentlessly beaten and abused by their father, until they were taken into care by a foster family. They helped to rebuild Buck’s confidence in humans and nurtured his love of all things equine. His foster father taught him to shoe a horse at just twelve and he went on to train under celebrity horseman Ray Hunt, before overcoming his shyness in order to setup and run his own clinics.
Now middle-aged, Brannaman exudes an air of cool, calm confidence as director Meehl follows him on the road. Interspersed with shots of him working his magic are interviews with friends and fellow horsemen and women. Redford is full of admiration and reveals that Buck was a major force in the production and subsequent success of The Horse Whisperer and even served as his horse-riding double. Brannaman’s horse philosophy could just as easily be applied to humans – he can’t always perform miracles as demonstrated by a moving sequence involving a colt that was brain-damaged at birth.
Sometimes, as Brannaman himself points out during the documentary, a horse’s trauma is not caught early enough or runs too deep to be reversed. Regardless, Buck remains as gentle with the owners as he is with their four-legged steeds, even when they are clearly to blame for their animals’ distress. Once he has calmed a troubled horse, his aim is to make both the animal and its rider work as one, and his success rate is certainly extraordinary. Resurrected by Dogwoof, Meehl’s Buck provides a truly fascinating glimpse into the life of an undeniably remarkable individual.