Try a little tenderness
A freshman filmmaker, an expert horseman, and a life-changing lesson for all of us
Filmmaker Cindy Meehl and her horse Red with Buck Brannaman
photograph by chris bartlett
There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,” wrote Winston Churchill.
But the inside of a man is not always good for the outside of a horse.
From the Old West to the recent past, many cowboys “broke” horses by brute force. They roped them around the neck and threw them to the dirt; they choked, dragged, whipped and blindfolded them; they hobbled their feet and jammed severe metal bits into their mouths, bloodying their tongues; then they leapt aboard, lashing and spurring the frantic creatures until more blood ran down their flanks and they collapsed in frigh t and exhaustion. This was simply the way things were done—and it worked, after a fashion.
Some humans are broken in much the same way. As a boy in the late 1960s, Dan “Buck” Brannaman was a performer of cowboy rope tricks at fairs and rodeos out West. At the peak of his celebrity, Buck and his older brother, Smokie, billed as the Idaho Cowboys, appeared in a TV commercial for Kellogg’s Sugar Pops: Buck is seen blindfolded, standing on horseback, tossing a lariat into the air. As with broken horses, his performances were motivated by fear. “All I remember about that commercial—should have been a big thrill—but all I really remember was my dad beat us unmercifully for not putting on a perfect performance,” Buck said many years later.
Ace Brannaman’s cruelty worsened after his wife—Buck and Smokie’s mother—succumbed to diabetes. Ace used not only his own balled fists on his young sons, but also devices intended for thick animal hides: stock whips and riding crops. It was a stock whip that was cutting through Buck’s shirt when the Sugar Pops people called, interrupting a flogging the boy imagined might have a fatal outcome. Some months later a gym teacher discovered welts on Buck’s back and legs, and authorities removed the boys to the care of loving foster parents—though Ace still sent birthday cards threatening to kill his sons with a long-range rifle.
What became of Buck, with the odds so stacked against him? As a young man, shy and withdrawn, he took refuge among horses. In adulthood he emerged as a horse trainer so humane, so wise and so effective that he is now a legend in horsemanship circles. Indeed, the term horse trainer falls well short of the earthy mystique that horse aficionados say he possesses. One of those aficionados, artist Cindy Meehl, had heard about Buck the cowboy-philosopher, Buck the magician, Buck the horse whisperer. She knew that Brannaman was the model for both Nicholas Evans’s 1995 novel The Horse Whisperer and for Robert Redford’s screen portrayal of the ruggedly benevolent title character, Tom Booker, who heals a troubled and dangerous horse. So when Meehl was struggling with a fractious horse of her own, she decided to haul it from just over the Wilton border in Redding down to a farm in Pennsylvania, the easternmost point on Brannaman’s annual circuit of horsemanship clinics.
Photograph by cindy meehl
Brannaman, who is tall and sinewy with graying blond hair and a firm but kindly gaze, uses the term horse gentler to describe what he does—educate young horses to be ridden by humans and educate humans to be better, more sensitive riders. One beneficiary of Buck’s clinics, ranch owner Gary Meyers, told Meehl, “When I first [saw] him, I thought, ‘What kind of voodoo stuff is this? How are you getting this done?’ He walks into the pen and in five minutes he’s got a horse following him around like a dog.”
Meehl was no less amazed. “He’s just the most miraculous teacher,” she says. “To watch him and his horse, they really do look like dance partners.” The horse carries out Brannaman’s wishes at the slightest touch or suggestion, almost as if reading his thoughts. As for Meehl’s horse: “It was really me,” she admits. Buck taught her that the high-strung mare’s keen ability to read her owner’s fears made things worse. Meehl began to break the cycle of shared anxiety by mustering a sense of relaxation—a bit of an acting job at first.
Detecting life lessons in this “new” style of horsemanship, Meehl attended more Brannaman clinics around the country.
Brannaman himself makes clear that his gentling methods are not new. In the fourth century B.C. the Greek cavalry officer Xenophon advised kindness and patience: “Riders who force their horses by the use of the whip only increase their fear.” But until recently these methods were quite rare. Many American cowboys, steeped in machismo, still disdain both the methods and their teachers.
Then, in 2008, an idea struck Meehl pretty much out of the blue: Someone should make a film about Brannaman. She herself had zero filmmaking experience, but she kept seeing the film in her artist’s eye—a portrait of a Zen master among horsemen.
The skeleton crew trying to capture moments that are natural and unrehearsed
Cut to January 2011. At the Sundance Film Festival in Utah—the country’s premier independent film showcase—a documentary titled Buck, conceived and directed by Cindy Meehl, was drawing standing ovations, often moving viewers to tears. The film’s resonance derives from its metaphoric power. Meehl allows us to draw the parallel between old-style horse breaking and child abuse, and we recognize in both the darkest aspect of human nature: the urge to subjugate by force. By showing Buck patiently at work, she also allows us to draw the reverse parallel, between excellent horses and evolved human beings, their “dance” an expression of profound symbiosis. The effect is nearly religious.
The plain-talking Brannaman explains in the film, “When something is scared for their life, I understand that. A lot of times, rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems.”
By festival’s end, Buck had won the coveted U.S. Documentary Audience Award. It was the audience’s favorite American documentary film.
Cindy Meehl was born in Jackson, Mississippi; went to college in Mississippi and New York; and flourished as a designer of couture eveningwear. Her go-go New York fashion days are past, but her childhood passion for horses and art are stronger than ever. She keeps two horses at her hilltop farm, and her paintings, chiefly bold and colorful portraits of horses and dogs, adorn the walls of her house, a tranquil place with grand beamed ceilings and pastoral views that take in pristine stables and an art studio once owned by Mark Twain. She lives there with her husband, Brian; their almost-grown daughters, Holly and Kendal; and four dogs.
Brian Meehl, a writer of comic novels and a golf fanatic, used to listen in bemusement as Cindy’s dinnertime horse talk grew ever more arcane. One day he interrupted, “Let me tell you about that nine-iron I hit three years ago”—a line that became the Meehls’ code for over-sharing. But watching Buck develop swept Brian unexpectedly into the horse world. “So in the last two and half years,” he says, “I haven’t pulled that golf line out of my arsenal.”
Cindy Meehl is slim and youthful, with short, fashionably tousled blonde hair. She speaks with the gracious reserve one associates with southern gentlewomen, which has the effect of obscuring her tenacity. “What possessed me to make a film? Sometimes I do wonder about that,” she says with a quick laugh. “The idea was just burning a hole in my heart. I felt I just had to do it—and nobody else was coming around to do it.” After a clinic at a guest ranch in Montana, she spied Brannaman sitting alone—a rare occurrence—and seized her chance.
“I walked up and asked, ‘Have you ever thought about doing a documentary?’
‘What would you think about doing it?’
‘Well, that’d be great.’
Meehl got his number and left.
“He likes to keep it simple,” she remarks.
Interviewed at a clinic in California, Brannaman said, “Well, by then I knew her a little bit, and I trusted she wouldn’t misrepresent me and what I do. Sometimes you get a gut feeling for people, and I had a good gut feeling for her.”
Meanwhile, Meehl had to pitch movie producers, often without success. “There were times when it was exhausting trying to explain why this would be such a good movie,” she admits. “I mean, a movie about a cowboy? What’s so unique about him?” But Meehl persevered. She educated herself about documentary filmmaking, finally won top-flight producers, and hired a film crew to follow Buck to clinics around the country. Brannaman didn’t make Meehl’s job particularly easy. He had no interest in talking about her motive or angle, and he rarely picked up his phone or answered e-mail. “If he does answer his phone, he has about two minutes to talk,” Meehl says. “It was sort of like he was testing me. Sink or swim. So I just showed up and dove right in.”
During the filming Brannaman proved elusive in a different way: It’s hard to capture a cowboy in motion. “I wasn’t gonna set up like some actor,” he says. “I’m not going to neglect my clinic just because you have a camera. So I told her, ‘You know, it’s like this. You’re going to have to anticipate where I’m gonna be.’ And she did a hell of a job. She framed it up just right.”
A Life Journey
Meehl’s original concept was modest. Having grown to feel that she failed certain horses for lack of knowledge, she wanted other riders to learn Buck’s way of horsemanship, believing it improved both one’s horse and oneself. Then the deeper idea cracked open—Buck’s life journey as a message for us all.
“It’s incredibly inspiring to watch somebody who came from a tough background, figures out how to change—and then figures out how to get other people to change,” says Julie Goldman, the film’s producer and a veteran of the documentary form. “Buck has a way of creeping up on you. He doesn’t hit you over the head. He doesn’t preach. And he’s not out there trying to be a personality or a brand. It’s so refreshing that he’s not doing what everybody else is told to do, and is doing.”
In one wrenching sequence, we meet a “problem child” colt; oxygen-deprived at birth and raised as an orphan, he had become extremely aggressive. Once again Buck looks to the person and not the horse as the problem. He gives the woman who owns the horse both a dressing-down and then a hug.
“The human failed that horse,” Buck tells his clinic audience later. Had the colt not been sorely neglected, he added, it might have been trained to be useful and content. “That horse is a mirror—all your horses are mirrors—to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see in the mirror. Sometimes you will.”
Buck means that horses are exquisitely responsive animals. One’s own nature colors theirs. “It’s true what Buck says,” Meehl says, recalling her own horse. “This was humbling and very difficult to accept. You bring your baggage to that horse. If you’re anxious or tense or angry, horses are going to react against those traits.”
Meehl and her team shot 300 hours of film and whittled that down to 88 minutes. Test audiences proved cool to the more technical aspects of horsemanship, “so we kept cutting horse stuff out,” Meehl says. “It was a little hard for me at first, but they were right.”
She gives enormous credit to her team, some of them stars in the documentary world, for midwifing her vision—especially producer Goldman, creative consultant Andrea Meditch, editor Toby Shimin, line producer Alice Henty, and associate producer Sofia Santana. “The whole production felt charmed,” Goldman says. “And when it was over, it was like breaking up the band. We didn’t want to leave each other—and that’s rare.”
What they created is often poetic: horses and dust, big Western sky, a grassy, sunlit palette of greens and golds. At the center of it all is Buck, who holds the screen with a quiet charisma that it’s hard to imagine any Hollywood actor playing his part could match.
Brannaman seems pleased and amused that Buck draws standing ovations at film festivals. But he also sees the film as a personal document, something like an elegant home movie. He is thinking especially of his foster mother, Betsy Shirley, a grandmotherly presence in the film who was Buck’s salvation as a child. “You know,” says Brannaman, “I’ve watched the documentary about twelve times now, and every time I see my foster mom, I just cry. She turned eighty-eight the other day. The reality is, time is short, but even long after she’s gone, I’ll still be able to have her here.”
“It’s miraculous to people that he could endure what he did as a child,” Meehl says. “Buck’s lesson is that you don’t have to live in the past. You can move on. So many people are held back by their past, pulled back into it. We all have terrible things we cope with. But I thought it was important to show people, yes, you can rise above.” Perhaps this is what resonates most about Meehl’s film: It’s about us as much as it is about horses—how we live our lives, how we treat people, how we raise our children.
As a young man, Brannaman thought that getting horses off to a good start would simply teach him how to be a better cowboy. “That’s what I thought it was about,” he says with a note of wonder. “Come to find out that wasn’t what it was about at all.”
At Sundance, Buck’s uplifting message struck a chord with rights buyers as well as viewers. Sundance Selects bought distribution rights for North America and premiered the film in New York and Los Angeles on June 17. Buyers in other countries also snapped it up. “We’re really looking at a worldwide theatrical release,” says Meehl, whose film will hit area theaters this summer. “You know, there’s so much stuff happening in the world that’s just hard to watch. I wanted everyone to see this film because I really do think it’s inspiring and gives people hope.” She thinks a moment. “So I guess my whole dream for Buck came true.”