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Arts & Entertainment Presented by Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts

Cinema in Focus

Cinema in Focus: ‘Buck’ the Inspiring Story of a Real-Life Horse Whisperer

A man with an amazing gift uses the difficulties he endured in life to help others — both horses and humans

By Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman |

4 Stars — Inspiring

In the low-budget documentary Buck, about a modest man with an amazing gift of insight and empathy for horses and humans, producer and director Cindy Meehl creates an award-winning film that allows us to experience firsthand the healing touch of this special man.

Dan “Buck” Brannaman is the second child of an abusive man. Forcing him and his brother to perform as children in a western act, Buck was regularly beaten by his drunken father, an abuse that only intensified when his mother died while he was still a child. But as is often the case, this experience so sensitized Buck that he is able to identify similar pain wherever he sees it, whether in horses or humans.

Intuitively recognizing that he could help lessen both the pain and the abuse, Buck began a lifelong mission of healing horse and rider in special clinics where he teaches both to respect and honor one another. He says, “Abused horses are like abused children. They trust no one and expect the worst. But patience, leadership, compassion and firmness can help them overcome their pasts.”

Buck continues to speak in simple, straightforward language about why people and horses behave as they do: “A lot of the time, rather than helping people with horse problems, I help horses with people problems.” Having seen the brutality of “breaking a horse” to be submissive to its rider, Buck teaches that it is far more humane and even more effective to win the heart of the horse and become respectful partners. Describing such a relationship as a dance, Buck shows how communication with simple hand and body movements can be understood and acted upon in the equestrian relationship.

What makes the film inspiring is the obvious wisdom it portrays. Having been rescued from his father by an observant coach and a committed sheriff, Buck then benefited from the wisdom and love of a foster care family whose ranch was filled with boys. Knowing he needed life skills more than sympathy to overcome his painful past, Buck’s foster father taught him to build fences, shoe horses and work with his cattle. This building of self-esteem through respectful interactive teamwork became a foundation that Buck took into his next season when he watched the renowned horse trainer Ray Hunt demonstrate “natural horsemanship.” Buck then took Hunt’s skills to a whole new level of healing.

Buck worked as the equine expert on Robert Redford’s film “The Horse Whisperer”, and Redford appears in this film. Since Buck is the inspiration for the novel by Nicholas Evans upon which Redford’s film is based, Redford affirms that Buck is one of those rare persons of deep integrity who have not just overcome their past, but have also used their pain for good. This is seen in Buck’s relationship with his own daughter as he gently and firmly encourages her in her development both as a person and as a rider.

For all who love horses and humans, and especially for parents, teachers and mentors, Buck is a film about patient understanding and compassionate expectation that can develop both a great human and a great horse. It is a film we recommend to all.


» Living with his wife, Mary, in Sheridan, Wyo., Buck’s mission to provide clinics takes him on the road 40 weeks each year. Is there a similar purpose for which you would make such a sacrifice?

» It is difficult to understand how a person, even when drunk, would beat his or her own child. Why do you think humans are capable of such evil?

» One of the joys that Buck shares with his daughter is participating in rodeos where calves are roped and herded for sport. Do you think it’s inconsistent with his attitude toward horsemanship? Why?

» Has there been an influential person in your development who encouraged you to achieve your best and intuitively guided you with wisdom and patience as Buck does his horses? Who is that person, and how did he or she impact your life?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit

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