Straight from the school of hard-knocks, comes Buck Brannaman. As the youngest son of “Ace” and Carol Brannaman, he first came to national attention as a shy boy, who, with his older brother, had a talent for rope tricks. They were on national cereal commercials, but you might know Buck best as the horse whisperer–the man who inspired a book and later worked with Robert Redford on the movie by the same name, “The Horse Whisperer.” Director Cindy Meehl’s “Buck” is a picturesque documentary that tells a hopeful story about redemption through hard work and humility.

Novelist Nicholas Evans’ 1995 novel was a romance about how the horse whisperer, Tom Booker, helps a young rider and her horse recover psychologically after a tragic accident. Booker was based on Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt as well as Brannaman. Brannaman had studied under both Dorrance and Hunt although initially being skeptical of their methods.

Brannaman not only was the lead consultant for the 1998 movie version that Robert Redford starred and directed, he also was Redford’s double.  The movie introduced the term “whisperer” into popular usage to mean someone with special communication skills and this movie, “Buck,” Meehl shows exactly what Buck Brannaman is, how he does it, what people think of him (only in the positive sense) and the limitations of his work.

Born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Daniel M. “Buck” Brannaman grew up in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Later the family moved to Whitehall. His father had a saddle and repair shop and his mother was a waitress. It was those hours that his mother was away, that Brannaman found unbearable as his father often resorted to whips and belts to keep his boys in line. And when his mother died of diabetes, things only got worse.

What saved the boys was a concerned football coach who saw Buck’s bruised and welted back in the showers and the local lawman, Madison County Deputy Sheriff Johnny France. France took the boys to the foster parents who had raised him: Forrest and Betsy Shirley. Betsy appears in the documentary Forrest died in 1984. Brannaman’s own father, Ace, died in 1992.

Through his clinics, Buck Brannaman did meet former Ford model Mary Bower and married her. They have children, but we only see his youngest, Reata. Reata travels with her father, bringing along a friend for a summer vacation of traveling.

We learn that in the beginning when Brannaman gave clinics, he was painfully shy and had problems looking people in the eyes. Now he’s painfully frank. When a woman brings in a horse that is mean and possibly brain-damaged, he doesn’t try to work miracles for the camera. The three-year-old chestnut probably should have been gelded, but the owner, a woman with 18 studs, didn’t have the heart to do it.

This is where kindness and well-meant intentions won’t substitute for common sense. The horse bites the experienced trainer–hard and to the bone. While Buck feels that an earlier intervention could have made this horse into a useful, behaved creature, now he sees no easy answer. The owner, showing the scar from where the horse bit her previously declares she’ll have to put the animal down.

As Buck says earlier in the movie, “A lot of times, rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems.”

Buck Brannaman spends nine months out of the year, on the road, giving long-weekend clinics across the nation and even in foreign countries. Earlier this year, he was in Riverside.  Yet he’s not the only disciple of Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt. There are many other practitioners of what is called the Natural Horsemanship, including Monty Roberts who has a ranch and training center outside of Santa Barbara. Watching that troubled animal, one can’t help but recall something that Roberts wrote about in his 2008 “The Man Who Listens to Horses: The Story of a Real-Life Horse Whisperer.” (Brannaman also wrote a book, the 2001 “The Faraway Horses”). One wonders what Roberts might have said.

Meehl is telling Buck’s tale and it’s his side of the story we mostly hear. One wonders what other horse trainers who were mentored by Dorrance or Hunt might think, particularly in the case of the dangerous young 3-year-old.

On the personal side, perhaps digging up his first wife might have rounded things out as well.

Buck’s brother, nicknamed Smokie, is alive and well. Perhaps he could have added some objectivity and balance to the documentary.  Smokie is based in Wisconsin (Green Leaf). He also offers a book and DVD. Since 2004, he’s been in the horse business offering training. Contacted via email, Smokie wrote:

Cindy has done a nice job in putting together a film that will no doubt play well to a wide range of audiences. Filming is outstanding, and it follows a good storyline of Buck’s life as he remembers it and tells it. As in all films, especially stories re-told from memory after 35 years, there are parts I remember differently and perhaps some poetic license was used to make it play better to the audience but that’s Hollywood and just business. Over all… A pretty good flick!

So I hope folks enjoy it and take away from it what I think are the good messages about life and overcoming the hardships that sometime come along in your lives. And do the best you can do to help yourself and others in whatever you choose do.

Although Smokie ended up on the same train as his younger brother, he took a different path:

I wasn’t ask to be part of the movie. It’s about Buck and his accomplishments. And I’m ok with that, and I am very proud of him for what he’s done in his life.  I joined the military after high school and made a career of it for 23 years. I still had horses through it all when duties allowed and got back into horses full time in my own way to help folks that perhaps are not on the level of the folks that ride with Buck. I’m happy working in the shadows, got over the rough spots years ago, and  I have tried to do some good in the world just like a lot of other folks, not only in the horse world, but rest of society as well…  There’s no corner on the market, or reason for not getting out there and making things better. Not only for yourself, and your horses, but the rest of us bi-peds in the world too

According to his website, Smokie joined the U.S. Coast Guard and retired in 2000. He uses training methods of his brother Buck Brannaman, Jeff Griffith and Clint Anderson. His hobby is Civil War reenactments.  Looks like he might be the more gregarious of the two brothers.

His brother, Buck, seems more single-minded in his work with horses. Despite the lack of critical objectivity in “Buck,” Meehl’s documentary doesn’t fall into adulation. It does paint such a lovely portrait of hope that life gets better and patterns of violence do not have to be repeated. It shows  the rewards of following your passion, of good, hard work and of gentleness and respect for others–even if they aren’t human. All these things make this documentary well-worth seeing. This isn’t just a movie for horse lovers, but for animal lovers everywhere. I suspect you don’t have to be either to learn important life lessons from this movie.

“Buck” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is currently playing in Pasadena at the Laemmle Playhouse 7.  This weekend, it opened at the Sunset 5 and Monica 4-Plex. It will open on 15 July 2011 at the Fallbrook 7 and the Claremont 5.

P.S. According to various Internet chat groups, the woman with the vicious horse is Julie Heuftle and she did indeed put down the horse.