'Buck's' special touch

Documentary follows revered horse trainer

As Buck Brannaman says, he doesn't work with people with horse problems. He works with horses with people problems.

The documentary "Buck," directed by Cindy Meehl, follows the horse trainer as he travels across the country and teaches people how to work with their equine mates in ways that are both effective and far-reaching.

Several interviewees who attended Brannaman's clinics proselytize about his methods, claiming that they not only learn to train their horses correctly, but his teachings bleed over into their real lives as well, in how they go about their jobs and treat their kids and spouses. "It's made me a more balanced and resourceful person," one of the clinic attendees said. "And less likely to get killed on a horse."

For those not in the world of horses, Brannaman's methods are in no way the norm. Interviewees, who have lived and worked with horses their entire lives, talk about how Brannaman's training tactics are not only vastly different from their own conventional wisdom, but also illuminate how unjust the way they were taught to work with horses really is.

Brannaman himself is a serene, easygoing guy whose mission is to break the cycle of animal abuse when it comes to "breaking" horses. If the horse doesn't trust you, why should he follow your lead?

Brannaman has firsthand experience with the cycle of abuse and his backstory elevates "Buck" from simple profile to something deeper and more heartfelt.

Growing up in Montana, Brannaman was brutally abused by his violent, alcoholic father. At 3 years old, he started to learn the ins and outs of trick riding, such as standing atop a galloping horse. When he was 6, he and his older brother, Smokey, turned pro.

While Brannaman and Smokey became minor celebrities, even appearing on the odd commercial or game show, his home life was a disaster. His father beat his boys at the littlest provocation, a condition that only worsened after his mother died. It wasn't until a gym teacher saw the welt marks on Brannaman's back that anyone figured out something was wrong. He and Smokey were saved by foster care.

Meehl breaks up Brannaman's painful backstory with her subject's impressive work with the animal that he so dearly loves, so it's not a complete sob job. Brannaman wants no one's pity. All he wants to do is train horses.


Directed by Cindy Meehl. With Buck Brannaman. Distributed by IFC Films.

Running time: 1 hours, 29 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG (for thematic elements, mild language and an injury).