Early in the documentary Buck, Dan “Buck” Brannaman tells a crowd of attentive, aspiring horse trainers that there are rarely “people with horse problems” but most often “horses with people problems.” Yes, Buck is interesting because he’s a primary inspiration for Robert Redford’s 1998 drama The Horse Whisperer, but his story becomes especially fascinating as we learn of what this real-life horse whisperer has endured to become a magical horseman.
Buck possesses an uncanny ability to train horses. His approach both chastises traditionally brutal means of training, and inspires a traveling circuit that attracts people from all around the country who desire to learn his ways. Rather than “breaking” the will of untrained horses with blunt punishment, Buck has learned to communicate with them. An advocate of building trust with a horse, Buck uses a model of discipline that is characterized by restraint, humility, and gentility. Rather than beat a horse into submission, he loves the horse in such a way that it is responsive to him in ways that have to be seen to be believed.
Yet, what makes Buck’s “natural horsemanship” particularly remarkable is how it exhibits humane qualities that were utterly foreign to him as the child of an abusive father. People close to Buck are driven to tears when they recall the drunken beatings that Buck and his brother regularly received from their father. The abuse was so bad that the boys would eventually have to be rescued, and spend considerable time in foster care. In one sense, the documentary is a tribute to loving foster homes. Any turnaround or healing that has occurred in Buck’s life is largely attributable to his foster mother.
But even more influential on Buck was Ray Hunt — a founder of the natural horsemanship movement. Ray took Buck under his wing and, instead of coddling the abused boy, he molded him: he gave him an activity to which he could devote himself in a truly disciplined way. Natural horsemanship became a safe haven for Buck, a calling that helped assuage the burdens of his childhood. Nowadays, Buck spends 9 months a year on the road, helping other people become more humane horsemen and horsewomen.
An interesting angle in the documentary is Buck’s slowly growing social skills. As a product of child abuse, he could barely speak publicly in a way that befits a teacher. Yet, while Buck has slowly become more transparent, approachable, and communicative, there’s a lingering undertone to portions of the film that hints of loneliness and significant time spent away from his family. While Buck seems psychologically healthy given his childhood, he also evinces scarring that I’m not sure a humane unity with horses can ultimately heal.
Nonetheless, Buck’s story is powerful in three primary ways. First, as a teacher of both horses and humans, he understands one of the most imperative elements of relationships: trust is the foundation of learning, discipline, and character-formation. Second, Buck’s overcoming his child abuse without coming to perpetuate what his father instilled in him is a tribute to the human capacity to be free. Buck cannot help but be shaped by his childhood, but the abuse he’s received does not lead to abuse of others.
Finally, Buck embodies the truth that how we treat animals reveals much about how humane we are—or aren’t. If true, then Buck’s incredible life is a beacon of hope. Even the most inhumane circumstances can be redeemed and recreated into something beautiful, creative, and compassionate. For these reasons, Buck is not only a compelling documentary: it’s one of the better films I’ve seen this year.