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June 25, 2011

In 1998, Robert Redford produced, directed, and starred in The Horse Whisperer, based on Nicholas Evans’ novel about a gifted “natural horseman” who helps rehabilitate a traumatized horse and teenaged girl after a tragic accident. Redford’s character was largely based on the actual horse trainer Buck Brannaman, who also served as a major technical consultant on the film. So when Cindy Meehl comes out of the gate with a documentary about Brannamen at Redford’s own Sundance Film Festival, Buck was sure to get picked up.

Buck’s style of training isn’t completely unique, and he’s not really blessed with any mystical abilities. So-called “natural horsemanship” is basically rooted in the same spirit that turns Piaget into books of advice for new parents: it’s better to understand the psychology of the animal and work with that towards a goal rather than to apply brute force. And Buck indeed manages to achieve some spectacular results. He’s well enough known that he travels forty weeks out of the year giving four-day training clinics to horse owners all over the country.

Much of Buck’s advice wouldn’t sound out of place in a midwestern discussion on child-rearing — tough, but fair; reassurance and encouragement; avoiding cruel treatment — and he himself draws the analogy between problematic horses and juvenile delinquents who haven’t been raised right. He knows a little bit about bad parenting, as his father had been a violent alcoholic. Luckily, he was moved to a good foster home where he was cared for and shown the respect he needed. His experiences, though, lead him to empathize with scared young horses who can be rehabilitated and saved if they can only be shown a similar modicum of respect and care.

Not every horse can be saved, though. We see one in particular that is “as close to a predator as you’re going to find”. Buck’s interactions with the animal lead him to infer the less-than-optimal care and attention his owner has been able to give him. After a particularly violent episode, she decides that the only option is to have him put down, as another owner would be likely to double-down on the punishment. I’m left wondering, though, if a more patient owner with a skilled trainer might have been able to effect some change; one day of interaction with an expert at a four-day clinic may just not have been enough.

Still, when it comes right down to it I had a hard time engaging with the film. I understand the message, and even the extrapolation to human interactions in general, and yet I’m just not a “horse person” at heart. Yes, The Horse Whisperer was popular enough, but if you think that film was about training horses then you’re wildly missing the point. If you already love horses — if you work with them professionally or as a hobby, or if you just love watching them — then I’m sure there’s plenty in here to love as well. But if you don’t, it never really reaches outside the equine world very effectively.

Worth It: I’d say not unless you’re into horses already.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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