Everyone with an interest belongs to some type of subculture. I’m sure that most horse enthusiasts, ranchers, modern-day cowboys, fox hunters, etc. wouldn’t consider themselves to be part of a strange, underground group of like-minded folks, but from the outside, they don’t look much different than a Comic-Con fan boy. Horse people just have more functional costumes.
I can attest to the relative strangeness of this particular subculture. I remember watching in bemused disgust and morbid fascination as my high-school girlfriend, who owned several horses, allowed a random horse to bathe the entirety of her neck and face with its tongue for what seemed like an eternity. Most of my conversations involved her weird obsession with these giant, bizarre-looking animals. In the fall and spring, I was roped several times into helping her family haul hay; I get the impression now that boyfriends were a great source of free labor for her father, since she managed to keep me around just long enough to get through the season.
I never wanted to ride one of their horses. I was already at a disadvantage with her parents by being a teenaged boy. My aversion to their favorite pastime only solidified my position as a dangerous interloper. There was nothing to be done about it; however. I feel that big animals are best viewed from afar. Horses belong in cowboy movies, not my backyard. So when I see a documentary like Buck, which is based on the man who inspired the Robert Redford film The Horse Whisperer, it has to be especially well made to hold my attention. Buck is well made. It succeeds because it paints an engaging picture of a good man, one who gently tries to understand animals as they are.
Buck Brannaman is a man who understands fear. He and his brother were raised to perform rope tricks for rodeo audiences by an abusive, alcoholic father. Footage of their performances and interviews suggest the boys are carefully trying to avoid punishment. Much the same way, young horses were traditionally “broken” for riders, often in abusive, brutal ways. Trainers imbued young horses with human characteristics, labeling them ornery or defiant, taking any misstep as a personal affront. The animals are forced into painful, awkward positions for the purpose of obedience and aesthetics. This may be changing, slowly, as many horse owners have begun attending clinics put on by Buck to learn a better way.
Buck was drawn to horse training because of his past, which informed his ability to connect to a fearful creature on primal level. What occurs on screen may look like magic to those that understand what they are seeing. Many of the attendees of the clinics look stunned by what transpires in the ring. I was, however, more affected by watching Buck ride a horse alone, leading it through a series of elegant, dance-like movements in a wide green field against a distinctly American sky. To call it effortless would be an understatement; the horse moves intuitively to its master’s direction; all instruction so slight, the naked eye can scarcely register any at all. His lessons appear distinctly Tao, focusing on the natural rather than the forced, flowing like a river to an outcome predetermined by universal truth.
Buck, at times, is guilty of personifying the horses himself, albeit in a more positive manner than through disappointment and anger. He sees the behavior of a horse as the window to the soul of the rider. Many times, the audience is told that horses are mirrors, reflecting the troubles and insecurities of the trainer. Buck’s own insecurities are what make him so capable. These horses allow him to care for a creature in the way he was never cared for. At times, it appears Buck’s clinics are as much therapy for the humans as they are training for the horses. Many people are brought to tears through Buck’s gentle chiding. The people in the film have a deep and abiding love for these animals. The horses are their children and their children need proper guidance. Yet I found them slightly off putting, much like dog breeders and pageant moms. Maybe it just seems a bit disingenuous to profess powerful, enduring love for a living creature that you use for transportation.