Buck: Horseman, Don’t Pass By

Real-life horse whisperer Buck Brannaman is the star of an affecting new documentary

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Ezra D. Olsen / Sundance Selects / Everett Collection

Buck Brannaman in the documentary 'Buck'

“Equine therapist” just doesn’t sound as good as “horse whisperer,” although that’s the term to describe Buck Brannaman’s specialty as a trainer of troubled horses. In fact, the subject of the lovely documentary Buck doesn’t even whisper: he talks into a microphone so that the rapt horse owners can watch and hear him magically fixing whatever ails their seemingly impossible horses.

Not having an impossible horse, or any horse, I assumed there would be a limit to how much I’d want to see him at work. How often do you need to watch a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat, unless you’ve got a hat and want a rabbit? But this renowned horse expert — one of three who informed and inspired Nicholas Evans’s 1995 bestseller The Horse Whisperer— is worth the 89 minutes that first-time director Cindy Meehl devotes to him.

“Lavishes” might be the more appropriate word. Brannaman is like a classic Jeff Bridges character, warm and wise, but played by a younger, hotter Chris Cooper. When he squints at the sun, or strides bowlegged through the corral, it’s swooning time. Even Robert Redford, who talks about Brannaman’s consulting role for his 1998 movie adaptation of The Horse Whisperer, doesn’t overshadow Brannaman’s mystique.

As Meehl tails him on his annual nine-month treks through stunning American landscapes to conduct seminars for horse owners, another, more dramatic story emerges. In childhood Brannaman was a veritable show pony, trained to perform rope tricks at rodeos with his brother. As the “Idaho Cowboys,” they starred in a television commercial for Sugar Pops in the early 1970s; when they weren’t performing, they were being beaten, whipped and psychologically abused by their father. Brannaman’s protective mother died when he was a child, leaving both brothers so vulnerable it seems a shock they survived.

“I’ve seen some kind of dark things in my life,” Brannaman says, in his compellingly quiet way. “But everybody has a bit of a burden to bear, of some sort, so it’s all relative.” He escaped thanks only to the attentiveness of educators and, at 12, landed in a nurturing foster home. While looking for work out of high school, he saw horse trainer Ray Hunt in action (“It was like a beautiful dance,” he recalls) and knew he’d found his calling.

Instead of dwelling on a past that would have broken the spirit of most, Brannaman went forward with grace and sensitivity. Buck has the air of a beautiful little mystery; even knowing the uplifting outcome, you wonder at the strength that brought him to this place.