Terrence Malick’s astounding film Tree of Life opens with Jessica Chastain’s breathy monologue, explaining that there are two ways in this life, the way of nature and the way of grace. No film embodies that dichotomy more practically than Buck.
You know who Buck Brannaman is, even if you don’t realize it. If you’ve seen Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer, or Chris Cooper in Seabiscuit, you’ve seen the gentle cowboy who goes by Buck. It’s short for Buckshot, a stage name from his days as a child trick roper. He lost his mother at an early age and suffered through years with an abusive father until a kindly old, childless couple took in him and his brother, and on their ranch, he discovered his love of horses. It sounds like a plot worthy of a mid-century Disney flick, but it’s the true story of the man “God had in mind when He made the cowboy.”
In the past decade or so, new theories on animal behavior have seeped into the popular consciousness. Where we used to apply choke chains and physical punishment to train our dogs, we now use Gentle Leaders and clickers. Dog training is no longer about bending an animal to our will – it’s about forging a relationship with another being based on our species’ limited grounds of mutual understanding. The same is true in the horseman’s world, but the shift has been far more dramatic. In Buck, director Cindy Meehl’s debut documentary, Buck Brannaman shows us that the shift says much more about the people than it does about the animals.
If I treat animals this way, do I treat people this way, too? We all know the answer to that.
The mythos of the American West is so deeply ingrained in the American psyche, it’s hard not to thrill at the image of the cowboy, all leather, dust, and lasso, forging his way into the hostile wilderness and mastering it. There’s something in watching a cowboy bring a much larger, spirited beast into submission that satisfies our desire for dominance, and the struggle still thrills us so much that even James Cameron couldn’t avoid putting the image into Avatar. And yet, upon further thought, it’s an incredibly disturbing image (though, alas, not one inconsistent with human history). The way we treat animals says more about our own souls than the animals’ worth or behavior. And, using the history of the American West as a test case, it’s not a far leap from brutally beating mustangs into submission to the way we treated the native peoples of the land.
In Buck, Brannaman shows us another way. His motto is “gentle in what you do, firm in how you do it.” Following the footsteps of legends like Tom Dorrance and his mentor Ray Hunt, Brannaman revolutionized how we understand our interaction with horses. Where conventional wisdom tells us that the only way to get obedience from a large animal is to scare it, Buck reminds us that fear isn’t respect. His method isn’t based on forcing obedience, but neither is it based on letting the animal do whatever it pleases. He insists that as a rider, you have to teach the horse what is and is not appropriate behavior, but you can only do that by understanding each other. As horsewoman Gwynn Turnbull-Weaver says, “In this discipline, if you want to be great, you have to be a sensitive person.”
Brannaman comes by the sensitivity honestly. Physically abused by his father to the point that his life was in danger, Buck and his brother were removed from his home and placed with foster parents nearby. The typical pattern of abuse suggests that victims become abusers, but Brannaman brushes that aside. When asked how he escaped that cycle, he shrugs and says he just decided that’s not who he was going to be. He met Hunt, started learning how to train horses, and never turned back except to extend forgiveness to his aging father in later years.
The sequences that show Brannaman in action are breathtaking. As someone who has worked with horses all her life, I couldn’t believe what he could accomplish with a troubled horse in less than five minutes. There are echoes of Eden in the interaction, and it’s truly a wonder to behold. It’s also heartbreaking to see what happens when a horse has been so ruined by circumstance and bad training that he is beyond even Brannaman’s help.
That horse is a mirror—all your horses are a mirror to your soul. You might not like what you see in that mirror.
Buck is a perfect companion film to Tree of Life, worthy of many a long conversation over coffee with good friends. Both end with the same intriguing proposition: what if there is no dichotomy? Rather than the way of nature or the way of grace, is there merely the way of nature’s grace? Buck Brannaman seems a man whose life is determined to embody the paradox. His fury at the woman who so ruined her horse that she turned it into a predator that has to be destroyed is not simply anger over the horse. It’s anger at the entire construct, the way of force, a way that would have destroyed him if his foster parents hadn’t interceded. Brannaman transformed his pain into beauty, something that elevates him to the company of great artists, not merely great horsemen.
As with most great artists, what Brannaman’s doing isn’t itself revolutionary, but it looks like magic. Communicating with our animals like Brannaman suggests isn’t our first instinct. And, again, that says more about us than it does about the difficulty of training animals. Maybe that’s why we favor the old methods after all. Cesar Millan’s popularity in the dog training world is quite telling. It’s much easier to intimidate an animal into submission than take the path of nature’s grace. If we dominate the animal, we set ourselves apart, creatures of a higher order completely unconnected to the dumb beasts who serve us. If we follow Buck Brannaman instead and look into the mirror, we might see who we really are.