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Kid Whisperers

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In theory, Buck is a documentary about horses and a cinematic profile of the laconic cowboy who has learned to speak their silent animal language.

In fact, Buck is a documentary about how people (and animals) learn -- and a reminder that just because something has always been done a certain way doesn't mean there isn't a better way to do it.

Against a backdrop of horizontal landscapes, azure skies, and shape-shifting clouds, the movie follows Buck Brannaman as he conducts horse clinics across the country. But these clinics aren't solely about helping people learn to ride horses. "A lot of times, rather than helping people with horse problems," he explains in the film's opening minute, "I'm helping horses with people problems."

Buck's own life story bears this out. A professional rodeo entertainer by the age of six, he was beaten mercilessly by his hard-driving father, Ace. By the time a gym teacher spotted the network of thick welts on his back and buttocks, the young boy had grown silent with fear and mistrust. Swift interventions by caring adults and a loving foster family slowly restored Buck's sense of self-worth, but the father's beatings left a permanent wound the son sought to heal through a different understanding of human and animal nature. "I was looking for a peaceful place to be," he explains in a clipped, twangy rhythm. "There's a lot of fear in both the horse and the human. So there has to be trust."

Unfortunately, the historic approach to horse training was about anything but trust. Horses were tied to posts, whipped, prodded, and constrained - the logic being that the only way to get such strong animals to submit to a human's will was by literally "breaking" them down. Brannaman's clinics demonstrate a different approach, one based on a deep sense of empathy, respect, and communication - and filled with valuable lessons for the participants that extend beyond the riding circle.

"You can't be a good guy when you leave the barn, and a bad guy when you enter the barn. Human nature doesn't work that way."

"Your energy moves the horse."

"Everything's a dance."

"Respect isn't fear; it's acceptance."

"It's not the young-un's fault. He just doesn't know what's expected of him."

At one point, Brannaman demonstrates what he means by holding one end of a rope and asking a participant to hold the other. "If I jerk at you, hard and sudden, like this, you're going to flinch every time I approach you. And that's definitely one way to get the horse's attention. But if I just pull gently and steadily until you feel the tightening of the rope, like this, then I'm operating on feel, and I don't even need to grip the rope tightly. It's how you get there, to that point of deep communication, that matters."

What makes Buck such a powerful film is the way he proves what we instinctively know to be true about how people learn -- and struggle to act upon. Too often, instead of providing the parental or pedagogical equivalent of what Buck does with horses -- call it "kid whispering" -- our actions result in whispering kids. Instead of engendering a deep sensitivity to the invisible, orderly dance that occurs between two beings learning to trust one another, our efforts result in visible indicators of control. It's the modern manifestation of the age-old saying: children are to be seen, not heard. And it's just as out of tune with how we learn as horse breaking is with how they learn.

Buck reminds us that when learning is understood as the effort to empathize with another, it transforms both teacher and student. He reminds us that the journey is certain to surface what is submerged, and require us to make sense of what we see. And whether we're parents, teachers or trainers, he demonstrates that the art of the whisper comes in the search for, and discovery of, the delicate balance between reassuring structures and empowering freedoms, something Buck describes as the 'soft feel.'

"Most people think of a feel as when you touch someone," he tells us. "But a feel can have a thousand meanings. Sometimes a feel is a mental thing. Sometimes it's a glance exchanged between horse and human from across the arena. But always it's an invitation from the horse to come closer, and it's a moment of perfect balance."