The real horse whisperer
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The real horse whisperer

A new documentary tells the transformative story of a man who helps horses with people problems, Philip O'Brien writes

'Often instead of helping people with horse problems, I'm helping horses with people problems.'' Dan ''Buck'' Brannaman is a 50-year-old American horse trainer from Sheridan, Wyoming. He spends nine months of the year on the road, conducting clinics which teach people to communicate with their horses through empathy rather than intimidation. He was one of several people who inspired the book and film The Horse Whisperer.

But what is most significant about his story is how he overcame a traumatic childhood, moving on from those experiences - even learning from them - so that, today, he is able to transform the lives of horses and their owners. That story is told in the documentary film Buck which opened nationally on Thursday.

Buck is the debut film for director Cindy Meehl. A horse owner herself, she approached Brannaman with the idea for a film one day during the lunch break at one of his clinics.

''I'd been to two earlier clinics and they made a profound impression on me,'' she says. ''I told him that I wanted to introduce his unique style to a wider audience than just 'horse people'. He also seemed such a fascinating person, especially the way he would slip life lessons into his clinics. Amazingly, it took only two minutes to convince him. I don't know if he was aware that I had never made a film before.''

She later discovered that Brannaman had been approached previously with film suggestions for his story but had declined these. It was not that his earlier experiences of Hollywood had burned him. He had acted as an adviser on the 1998 film The Horse Whisperer and had doubled for actor Robert Redford in some riding sequences. Rather, he was - perhaps because of his background - not easily impressed. At the end of filming, he cheekily complimented Redford on his equine skills, saying: ''There is some potential there for you, Bob, if this movie thing doesn't work out for you.''

Meehl says that although Buck is a documentary she was determined that it be made for cinematic distribution rather than television. ''I wanted it to be a feature film because I knew that if it was done like a 60 Minutes piece then it would be seen and soon forgotten. Buck's life is so interesting and his work so important that I wanted it to be seen by as many people as possible.''

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Buck follows Brannaman as he drives his horse trailer across vast expanses of the United States. Even on paper, his itinerary is an exhausting one: including a stretch from North Carolina to Alabama then Maine to Michigan before heading for Iowa and Colorado, Wyoming and Oregon and finally Montana. His wife Mary and youngest daughter Reata travel with him for part of the way. Mostly, though, he's on his own. It's a lonely life at times but he has lots of friends on the road who, he says, ''look after me well''.

''We followed him as he conducted his clinics,'' Meehl says, ''and he would sit in the saddle for eight hours at a time, day after day, without saying the same thing to each group. His confidence is all the more amazing when you realise how shy he used to be.''

And in Buck, we see archival footage of Buck and his brother Smokie as child prodigies: performing trick rope routines on a television commercial for breakfast cereal and as contestants on the television game show What's My Line. They look wary. In fact, the film reveals that they were terrified of their father ''Ace'' Brannaman's bad temper and brutality.

When their father's beatings intensified after the death of their mother, the boys were removed from his care and placed with foster parents Forrest and Betsy Shirley who lived on a ranch nearby in Montana.

What kept him going through his darkest days as a child? Even after getting to know Brannaman, Meehl is still uncertain. But there are clues in the film. Foster-mother Betsy observes: ''Blessed are the flexible for they shall not get bent out of shape.''

And Brannaman recalls how his foster father, Forrest, taught him some all-important skills: how to shoe a horse and ride a colt. ''I didn't need pity, I needed a job.''

We learn how he found safety and companionship in horses and became inspired by the subtler training methods of celebrated American horsemen Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance. He says that he owes his empathy with horses to his childhood experiences. ''When something is scared for its life, I understand it.'' But he dislikes the term ''natural horsemanship'', noting that ''there's nothing natural about what we try to do to horses''.

At just under 90 minutes, Buck is a beautifully structured film. With the narrative seemingly resolved at the hour mark, there might have been a tendency for the audience's attention to drift. Yet a new element of dramatic tension is introduced which - without giving the story away - confronts Buck with a major challenge as a horse trainer.

Meehl acknowledges the skill of her editor Toby Shimin in creating a compelling narrative out of 300 hours of film footage. ''In a documentary, the editor is really the writer.''

Buck, which has already won a swag of awards, is part of an increasing trend in contemporary cinema towards serious documentaries. Meehl feels that, in spite of the popularity of computer-generated special effects blockbusters, audiences are hungry for substance. ''At a time when the world is looking for direction, I think that Buck has a unique way of encouraging people to do and see things that they thought were impossible.''

The film's settings reinforce this. Buck presents a very different view of America from that of most film and television today. There are no cities, no high-rise and no impersonal crowds; instead there are endless green paddocks, rolling hills and warm friendships.

''With the vast open spaces and genuine characters in the film, there's a real nostalgic feeling for a time that we've lost in our ever-hurrying world,'' Meehl says. ''As Buck Brannaman reminds us, if you try to hurry a horse it will certainly let you know.''

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