A human tale from the horseman’s mouth
Following a summer filled with an endless stream of mind-numbing cinematic superheroes and sequels, it is somewhat surprising to see an American box office hit in the form of a documentary from a fledgling director about a horse trainer. Mind you, despite this unlikely congruence, it is not as if American audiences have strayed too drastically from their thematic comfort zone. This is a film about a cowboy after all, and there is little that is more iconic and familiar to the American psyche than that. Also, the subject matter will be familiar to audiences due to Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer, a 1998 fictionalised adaptation of Nicholas Evans’s novel of the same name, although this documentary has mercifully little in common with Redford’s film other than the theme and horse trainer Buck Brannaman himself, who served as inspiration for both the book and feature film, and who was hired by Redford as an on-set consultant.
Brannaman the man is far more compelling than Redford’s redundantly romantic characterisation could ever afford, and while his non-chiselled features, mild manner, and dry, often self-deprecating humour wouldn’t suffice for Hollywood, he does undoubtedly project unmistakable magnetism and authority when interacting with horses. Buck spends most of the year on the road, conducting seminars in horse-human communication, and owners often bring him nervous and temperamental horses that recoil at being led, much less saddled. We watch as he calmly establishes a rapport with them, wielding nothing but a rope and a flag as he coaxes the horses until they follow alongside him obediently and unbidden. His technique and quiet control are not only impressive to novices and experts alike, but make for inexplicably engaging cinema, and audiences may well find themselves as mesmerised as the horses appear to be.
Novice director Cindy Meehl, a former fashion designer, met Brannaman in 2002 when she took one of her horses to a travelling clinic in Pennsylvania. “It was the first time I had seen him and he showed me that everything I had been doing with horses was wrong. I was very humbled. I realised he was telling me how to speak the horse’s language. They were not meant to be slaves.” Buck’s philosophy, which stems from the “natural horsemanship” movement, relies on empathetic encouragement rather than the heavy-handed “breaking in” that is often employed in modern horse training, and while this may seem obvious, he is still regarded as something of an enigma.
The film also reveals a man whose talent with horses is rooted in a deeply traumatic childhood at the hands of a physically abusive alcoholic father who forced Buck and his brother into cowboy showbiz (he started trick-roping aged three). It was a school teacher that noticed the signs of abuse, and Brannaman was subsequently fostered by a Christian couple who initiated him in the world of horse training. Meehl returns to the subject of his abusive childhood throughout the film, but her persistence comes across as revelatory rather than manipulative, and while she initially may seem to be offering insights into a man we might otherwise find opaque, we are really seeing how his past makes him particularly well suited to his career.
Meehl deftly reveals how the film is as much about human psychology as it is about horses, and Buck’s traumatic past provides a genuine point of comparison. His firm but honest approach to bad behaviour − not by the horse, but by its owner, reveals unacknowledged human personality flaws, and as Brannaman points out, if handled properly from birth, a troublesome horse can still have much to offer. It may well be that he isn’t just talking about horses.
Dir: Cindy Meehl; US doc, 2011, 88 mins
Premieres September 27
Playing at Gentofte Kino and Vester Vov Vov