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USA 2011
Directed by
Cindy Meehl
88 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars


Synopsis: The cowboy who inspired the novel upon which Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer (1998) is based is alive and well and the subject of this inspiring documentary.

Buck Brannaman is a cowboy, master horseman, rope trick expert, and home-spun philosopher. He was also the main horse advisor when Redford made his memorable film. Born in 1962, Buck learned rope tricks early in life and was already doing shows at the age of 3, along with his brother. But their father was an abusive man who beat both boys savagely and the children were placed in foster care whilst very young. From his loving foster dad Buck learned about horses, and subsequently met Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt, practitioners of what is termed the “natural horsemanship” approach.

Buck took this to heart and is now a leading advocate of this method of training horses, in which the human must work with the horse’s nature and learn a method of communication based upon empathy and trust. For 40 weeks of each year Buck travels the USA, running horse clinics. Buck shows a deep compassion and understanding, not only of horses but also of people, and believes that people and their life issues are often at the root of any horse’s problem. So Buck is a sort of amateur psychologist (human and equine), and one who seems to have a profound effect upon all who come under his spell.

Watching him weave his magic on feisty unruly horses is quite staggering, and the testimonies to Buck’s powers are awe-inspiring. Most amazing however, is how a man who experienced such cruelty himself as a child could develop into such a warm, loving and compassionate adult.

Cindy Meehl’s film is a gentle and non-sensational look into Buck’s life, interweaving the story of his past (including some terrific archival footage of the young Buck) with interviews with today’s Buck and his many passionate clinic participants, as well as with Robert Redford. We meet Buck’s wife and daughters, and see the loving bond he has with all, despite his long absences from home. The cinematography throughout is beautiful and the various horses in close-up and long shots are magnificent beasts that are stars in their own right, just as they were in the recent War Horse.

As Buck demonstrates his techniques such pearls of wisdom fall from his lips that I wanted to note them all down. You don’t have to be a horse person to glean much  from this film. In some of the film’s final shots of Buck riding I am almost reminded of the mythical centaurs – the torso and head of a man with the body of a horse – so much did Buck and his steed look like one creature, in perfect harmony, which is his philosophy in action. And with the lovely song Just Breathe, by Eddie Vedder, over the credits I felt that warm fuzzy humanity that Buck seems to evoke in all he touches.  No surprise then that Buck won the Audience Award at Sundance 2011.




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