The “real-life horse whisperer” tag doesn’t fully fit Buck Brannaman—for one thing, whispering isn’t part of his technique—but he does seem uncannily adept at speaking the equine language. Raised by a father who beat his sons until their trick-roping skills reached Guinness-book levels, Brannaman teaches owners and riders to treat their horses like responsible parents would, laying down rules and sticking to them, reinforcing good behavior as well as discouraging bad, being firm but fair. Whipping them won’t get the job done, but neither will a diet of carrots and love.
In Cindy Meehl’s documentary Buck, Brannaman says he often finds he’s dealing not with problem horses, but problem people. Meehl, not surprisingly, focuses on the latter, although limiting her interactions with them to spare moments snagged at one of Brannaman’s clinics leaves their profiles only half-sketched. When he tells the owner of a stallion she’s crazy to own one stud horse, let alone 16, and that she should try enjoying her life rather than complicating it unduly, the woman breaks down in tears, but we never find out why. We know more about her horse than we do about her.
To an extent, Brannaman’s method, part of the tradition of natural horsemanship, echoes the advice of “dog whisperer” Cesar Milan, only without the macho “pack leader” trappings. Horses, he says, don’t need to be coddled so much as made to feel useful. One show rider says she trains her horse in dressage by herding cattle; when it comes time to perform, the horse just thinks it’s practicing for the real deal. Brannaman, as he often does, draws a parallel with his own life, recalling his first encounter with his foster father, who promptly gave the abused young boy a new pair of gloves and set him to work putting up fence-posts. The gloves, he recalls, were so beautiful that he stuffed them in a pocket and worked his hands bloody to avoiding soiling the gift.
Perhaps Brannaman’s art is too subtle and instinctive to be captured on camera, but it’s a shame Meehl doesn’t do a better job of capturing exactly what makes him, by all accounts, a miraculously successful trainer. There are plenty of assertions of his skill, from awestruck ranchers and a grateful Robert Redford, who used Brannaman’s horse to execute a particularly tricky sequence in The Horse Whisperer, but when we do see him at work, it’s hard to discern the intricacies of his technique. Brannaman’s magic is most starkly on display in a harrowing sequence where he tries to tame an orphaned horse whose wild behavior is practically predatory. It’s one damaged child looking after another, trying to salve a wound that runs clear through.