“Buck” is a documentary about Buck Brannaman, the real “Horse Whisperer,” endorsed by Robert Redford himself. Buck is a sixty-something cowboy who has been hanging around corrals and barns all his life, who does indeed have a remarkable way with horses. Now, he travels throughout the United States to various ranches and county fairs, demonstrating his horse training prowess.
His method is not exactly “whispering.” He makes use of ropes and flags on metal sticks and his own well-trained mount (whom he’s taught to do a nifty little cross-step dance routine on command). If he’s working with a particularly docile horse, he can get it to respond to quiet voice command, or even a hand gesture or a shoulder turn. Sometimes, with a very spirited animal, he’ll lasso a hind leg and “hobble” it until it learns it’s not going to gets its way with him. Buck shows ‘em who’s boss. He’s just determined not to be violent about it.
It seems that Buck Brannaman, the child roping star, was abused as a child, by a perfectionist “stage Dad” whose idea of discipline was corporal punishment. When Buck’s mother died, it left no one to ameliorate his Dad’s severe strictness. (Never mind that his sainted Mom was apparently complicit in his Dad’s early abuse; that part is pointedly ignored.) The whole sad situation, including the later involvement of social services and the experience of foster homes, left Buck Brannaman emotionally scarred. And determined that he’s not going to whip or beat anybody or any creature, including horses.
Well, one way you can manage your own emotions is to always be your own boss. Buck Brannaman works for no man except himself. And, over a period of years, Buck Brannaman has so perfected his horse-training techniques that there isn’t a horse anywhere that he doesn’t know how to handle. So, from his point of view, there’s no reason to get violent, or severe, with any horse. In fact, he’s come to the point in his life where he genuinely believes there is no such thing as a horse with a behavioral problem. The problem is with the people who bring the horses to him.
Now here’s where it gets a little tricky. Sure, for Buck Brannaman, who can handle any horse anywhere, there’s no reason to get rough with them. But for the poor untrained amateurs, the ones who don’t have his skills, and who are operating out of fear because some wild-eyed stallion has already hurt them or someone close to them, they find themselves berated by Buck, one even reduced to tears. Buck implies that they must have some problem within them that causes their horses to be neurotic. Because it can’t possibly be the horse’s fault. You wonder if Buck is really wanting to reprimand his long-deceased father, but can’t, so he castigates these hapless amateur horse trainers instead. Buck tells the camera that he believes how a person handles a horse is like a window into that person’s soul. But isn’t that a little bit like judging everyone on the basis of how well they do a skill which you’re already good at? Wouldn’t that be like a car mechanic judging everyone according to how well they can overhaul an engine? And implying that the ones who can’t somehow have something wrong with them?
Later, we get to meet Buck’s wife, who’s supportive of his constant travels, but usually doesn’t go with him, and his youngest daughter, who sometimes does travel with him, and wants to be just like him. But we’re told nothing about any other family members, or why it is that Buck usually travels alone. Occasionally, he still competes in rodeos, but mostly, he lives by himself in his travel trailer, where seldom is heard a discouraging word. Maybe he’s still, at heart, just an old cowboy who feels most comfortable up in the saddle, commanding animals, and the skies are not cloudy all day.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor, United Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas