In ‘Buck,’ a horse is not just a horse 

“Buck” profiles Dan “Buck” Brannaman, the influential horseman who overcame the wounds of a hellish childhood and found his calling as a voice for horse-training, using general principles based on kindness and understanding.

Possessing both cowboy charisma and inner character, Buck makes an ideal documentary subject. Director Cindy Meehl turns his story into a welcomely straightforward, movingly humane look at the finer qualities of equines and humans.

Helping people with horse problems, and “helping horses with people problems,” is the terrain of Buck, who conducts clinics nationwide to demonstrate his philosophy’s effectiveness. The behavior of a horse reflects that of its owner, he says. Treat the animal gently and it will become a trusting friend.

Meehl combines old clips, clinic footage and interviews with people ranging from trainers to Buck’s wife and daughter to Robert Redford (whose “The Horse Whisperer” was based on a Buck-inspired novel).

Buck’s journey begins in Idaho and Montana, where, as a child celebrity, he performed rope tricks with brother Smokie. Behind the smiling countenances on the glossies, however, was an alcoholic father, who brutalized the boys.

For Buck, hope was provided by caring foster parents and a career path incorporating his love for horses. Inspired by horseman Ray Hunt’s clinics and drawing on personal experience, Buck rejected the tradition of “breaking” horses and adopted nonpunitive methods.

Buck is impressive as he explains how a horse might process a human presence, and as he turns a misbehaving horse into a mensch. Yet sometimes Meehl seems enamored to the point where she begins attributing mythic qualities to Buck, and she can’t quite pull it off.

Another frustration is the near absence of any mention of what happened to Smokie after the boys entered foster care.

Still, “Buck” is a well-made, uniquely uplifting and consistently entertaining portrait of a cool cowboy, and a homespun blend of horseman, teacher, philosopher, entertainer, family man and Oprah fan.

Conventional yet solid in her directorial debut, Meehl captures terrific stuff. Most powerful is an encounter with a dangerously uncontrollable colt, and most poetic is an image of man and horse dancing.

In between, there are more graceful equines and lots of graceful thinking. Viewers don’t need to like horses to appreciate “Buck.”




With Buck Brannaman
Directed by Cindy Meehl
Rated PG
Running time 1 hour 28 minutes

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Anita Katz

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