Story by David Carr ~ printed in multiple versions, New York Times edition
LAST Sunday evening Buck Brannaman strolled the High Line, two stories above the streets of Manhattan and hundreds of miles from his native habitat, the ranch country where he runs clinics in enlightened horsemanship. The documentary “Buck,” which won a Sundance audience award this year and will open on Friday in New York and Los Angeles, details his shamanlike skills around horses and the people who ride them.
The sun was falling toward the skyline across the Hudson River and Mr. Brannaman was enjoying a stroll after dinner at the Standard Grill. He walked like a cowboy, traversing the High Line with a gait in which a horse can be inferred between his wide-set legs. He looked like one too, with an expensive custom-made straight brim from the Rocky Mountain Hat Company and a salmon-colored cowboy shirt. A woman shooting photos began firing off frames at the sight of a real live cowboy on the High Line, and Mr. Brannaman, humble in all aspects, promptly stepped aside so the woman can get a shot of whatever it is she is so interested in. It was him of course.
People tend to stare at Mr. Brannaman wherever he goes, not because of his get-up. He dresses like a working cowboy most days, give or take some ostentatiously fringed chaps; it’s more because of what he knows. Mr. Brannaman, who has been riding since before he could reach the stirrups, uses a mystical empathy to calm horses, forgoing the casual violence that is so much a part of horse breaking.
For three decades in clinics all over the country Mr. Brannaman, 49, has taught that riding a horse is like dancing, a combination of wooing, leading and mutual respect. A cult figure among both the horsey set and working cowboys, he is about to reach a much wider audience courtesy of the 88-minute documentary distributed by Sundance Selects from a first-time director, Cindy Meehl. The movie may gallop along on four legs, but it is not about horses so much as the two-legged creatures who saddle them.
A minute into the film he states it plainly: “A lot of times, rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems.”
Over dinner, working his way through a New York steak, he said: “If you are only trying to appeal to horse people, why bother? When you get to the point where a horse accepts you, trusts you, it can change you as a person and change the way you relate to other people, not just horses.”
While all that sounds sort of cowboy crunchy, New Age for the Old West, with horses and humans just in need of a little understanding, Mr. Brannaman is in fact tough and unforgiving in the ways that matter. A doting father, he is never confused about who is in charge: “On a bad day parenting is a dictatorship, and on a good day it is an enlightened monarchy. Children — and horses — want to be led.”
Mr. Brannaman, who lives on a ranch in Sheridan, Wyo., is an advocate of so-called natural horsemanship, a Zen figure in boots who is interested less in breaking horses than in enabling them to find a place amid the expectations and requirements of humans.
“Like a lot of people I was very skeptical at first,” Ms. Meehl said in a phone call about how she came to make her first film. “For most horse people what he was talking about was such a foreign concept, and then you saw what he could do with the horses that people brought him. Nobody talks to you like Buck, nobody rides like Buck, and nobody teaches like Buck.”
She added, “He empowers people to do things that they never thought they could do, like make a film, for instance.”
A pretty well-received one at that.
“Cindy came out of nowhere,” said Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment and Sundance Selects. At the film festival “all of us who were there were really surprised that such a remarkable film came from a first-time director,” he said. “We do a lot of art cinema, but ‘Buck’ sort of transcends that. You can’t see this film and not be affected, in part because it is about so much more than horses.”
Ms. Meehl felt it was important that Mr. Brannaman’s approach to life both on and off the horse end up in front of an audience and decided, despite the challenges, that she would be the one to make it happen. A designer of couture evening wear and an accomplished horsewoman, she took care in conversation to describe her filmmaking as full of learning and talented collaborators, but she is pretty certain that she was the right person to direct “Buck.”
“I didn’t doubt myself,” she said. “I know there are a lot more people with more skill and technical knowledge about making films. But I understood from the beginning why he was important, that if you stick around and listen closely, you will hear one ‘aha’ moment after another.”
Mr. Brannaman, a student of Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt, early advocates for laying down the crop, spent much of his early life being whipped in the manner of a horse by an abusive, alcoholic father. He escaped that tyranny on the back of a horse, learning to ride at a level that few achieve. Even those who know little of horse culture will recognize the poetics of his riding. Mr. Brannaman can do anything on a horse — “God had him in mind when he made a cowboy,” said Gary Myers, a ranch owner who appears in the film — and the camera revels in his ability, with jaw-dropping slow-motion interludes.
“Watching Buck ride is like watching a cloud float through the sky,” Robert Redford said in a phone interview. He modeled his character in “The Horse Whisperer” after Mr. Brannaman and used him as a consultant on the set. “He taught me so much, but he also let me use his horse, and it responded to such subtle movements that you just had to say, ‘Wow.’ ”
Mr. Brannaman doesn’t get what all the fuss is about: “I’ve seen the movie maybe 15 times, and I never notice myself. I’m always looking at my horse and what he’s doing.”
Comparisons to Cesar Millan, the so-called dog whisperer, will no doubt be made, partly because both men seem to have superpowers when it comes to animals, but it’s not quite right. As Ms. Meehl points out, dogs are predators and horses are prey. Training dogs is often about channeling their aggression, while horses have fear baked into their nature.
Mr. Brannaman’s willingness to see things from the horse’s point of view has served as a taunt to the more traditionally minded.
“There are people, people who have their ego involved, who will bring me a horse that could hurt me, just to prove that they are right,” he said, shaking his head as he ate. “I am embarrassed for them. How can it be that they are willing to put someone else’s life on the line, someone who has a wife, kids, people who depend on them, just to make a point. I see them coming a mile away.”
Mr. Brannaman still spends much of the year driving a truck and trailer to put on four-day clinics, priced low so that he gets all kinds of people and horses to work with. And once the movie splash dies down, he will happily get back in that saddle.
“In a few months the excitement of all this will be done, and I will go back to being me,” he said over coffee after dinner. “I am not one bit delusional about that.”
The first time Mr. Brannaman saw Manhattan, he was a young rodeo performer doing rope tricks on “What’s My Line?” But what looked cute on television turned dark and scary behind the curtain. After Mr. Brannaman’s mother died, his father expressed dominion over his children in brutal ways. The boy eventually was put into foster care with a family that understood that the quiet young man had come through a lot. Mr. Brannaman’s ability to embrace and surpass his own woundedness serves as a fulcrum for both his clinics and the film.
At a clinic in the film a woman shows up with a buck-wild stud horse that had been deprived of oxygen during a troubled birth and through lack of training has morphed into a menace to everyone who comes near him. An experienced cowboy trying to get a blanket on him is even bitten on the head. Mr. Brannaman reminds people at the clinic that it is not the horse’s fault that he can’t seem to live in this world.
“All your horses are a mirror to your soul,” he said. “And sometimes you might not like what you see in the mirror.”
It becomes clear that the horse is beyond salvation, beyond the reach of Mr. Brannaman, and will have to be put down. But first the horse has to be put in a trailer. Rather than corner the doomed animal and shove him in by force, Mr. Brannaman waits him out until the horse steps onto the trailer of its own accord. It is an elegiac, endlessly sad scene, one that lingers. A woman at the clinic asks why he took so much time and patience on a horse with no future.
He answers, “To have contempt for the horse never would even occur to me.”