Wednesday, July 6, 2011


"From the Horse's Mouth"
"Can't We All Just Get Along (Li'l Dogie)?"

Is it possible, at moments we can't imagine,
a horse can add its sufferings together—the non-stop jerks and jabs that are its daily life—and turn them into grief?

What use is grief to a horse?
Equus by Peter Shaffer
©1973 by Peter Shaffer

Dan "Buck" Brannaman is a laconic talker, a cowboy who looks like he was born on a horse.  As a kid, he was a popular prodigy doing rope tricks, while at home his dad was employing rope tricks of his own, getting drunk and whipping scars into the backs of his kids.  When his mother died, and with no one to defend the kids from his abusive father, Brannaman, at the age of 6, thought his life was over...or soon would be.  With the intervention of a school coach—Buck wouldn't take his shirt off to shower to hide the whip-marks on his back—the boy and his older brother were delivered into the care of a foster-family and a loving, nurturing environment that emphasized work and value and brought the boy out of the shell the scars had created.

Eventually, through study of a mentor's methods (and because he found some insights on his own from his own damaged childhood) he began employing a method of dealing with "problem" horses, and an alternative to "breaking them" in to saddle riding.  Because of his advisory work with novelist Nicholas Evans (and subsequently Robert Redford) on the book and film The Horse Whisperer, he became pegged with that name (and all the false "woo-woo" associations with it), despite the fact that what he does is use animal psychology to build a trust with the horses, rather than having to fight against their fears.  It makes the training easier and subsequent behavior less problematic. 

 Buck is a documentary that follows the man around while he conducts clinics on "dealing" with horses...but more importantly, their owners.  His philosophy is along the same lines as good dog obedience classes..."there are no bad animals, just bad owners."*  And usually, he has to show folks what they're doing wrong that freaks their animal out.  A lot of it involves restraint—not of the horse, but of the owners and their emotions and fears, which a horse can "read."  That's not telling any horse-person anything new.  But, it may be new that beating a horse into submission doesn't make it trust you.  And Buck Brannaman learned that lesson from his father, and painfully.  Subsequently, what he teaches about trust could literally come from the horse's mouth.

It is an inspiring story, not so much that Brannaman can teach these lessons so well—and it took years for him to get over the shyness that his father's abuse had hammered into him—but that his message (and his life) points out that no one is unredeemable, not even an animal—that is, an animal with the right instincts (and...properly fed).

Well, almost.  One painful sequence has Brannaman trying to deal with a horse so ornery and uncontrollable that it has been turned into "a predator."  As its owner tries to convince the horse into its trailer on its way to be shot, Brannaman finally takes control of the situation.  "Don't do anything," he finally says shortly.  Then, for a long time, he sternly works with the horse, keeping a distance, his jaw set, until it finally makes its way inside.  The camera then follows him, as he wordlessly walks off to his trailer, the set of his shoulders and his silence the only betrayals of his frustration and feeling of hopelessness.  It is a powerful scene, made only more so by its quiet and lack of comment.

The End Titles are Pearl Jam's "Just Breathe," a song I've fallen in love with.

Buck is a Full-Price Ticket.  It'd make a great double-bill with The Tree of Life.

* Okay, we're not including Great White Sharks in this, but you don't have to spend too much time in nature to know that the way things work in the big Circle of Life is there are eaters and there is meat, and that "life is red in tooth and claw."  Horses are traditionally on the receiving end of fangs, so they tend to be a little skittish when something tries to jump on its back.  Instinctually, they don't like it much, no matter who's bailing the hay.  Brannaman doesn't "baby" the horses and tuck them in at night, so much as gain their trust, and get 'em used to the idea that "Hey, pal, you got a job to do, so let's make this easy and safe for each other."

No comments: