Monday, February 27, 2012


The horse glides through the pasture, its rider calm in posture and a firm grip on the reins. The horse walks left, then right, then back left, then suddenly turns full circle and heads in a new direction. The rider appears to barely stir; his motions are so subtle that one wonders if he has some sort of psychic connection with the creature, a sort of extension of himself that moves with the horse. It is a marvel to watch.

Buck Brannaman is the rider, and he has a gift. He is the real-life "horse whisperer" (the one that inspired the Robert Redford film) and travels nine months out of the year doing 4-day clinics on horse training. As one character muses, "God had him in mind when He made the cowboy." He has a deep empathy for the animals and a strong desire to guide others into better horsemanship. You don't spend the majority of your life doing this sort of thing unless you love it. It's a calling, a vocation, and Buck is in his sweet spot.

Cindy Meehl's documentary follows Buck on the road as he travels from clinic to clinic, sharing both his unique approach to horse training and a bunch of life wisdom. Sometimes his family joins him--his daughter, Reata, seems to be his greatest delight in this world. He is still happily married and has a daughter who loves him, which is a rarity in our culture, and even more so for a man who travels this frequently. Yet they appear genuine enough; they really seem to be a happy, loving family.

This happiness is a far cry from Buck's upbringing. He and his older brother suffered severe abuse at the hands of his father. In a deeply affecting scene, Buck shares about having to reveal the evidence of the abuse to a school football coach. A local sheriff said, "we'll have no more of that," and promptly placed the boys in the hands of a foster family. The system didn't fail Buck; he was lovingly raised, and considers this family his home.

The wounds of abuse are still present, but they don't define Buck. He has overcome being a victim and chosen a better path. Rather than repeat the abusive tendencies of his father, Buck pursued emotional self-control and empathy. These two characteristics are vital to his way of horse training. Many other forms of training have some frightening parallels to abuse; a world of whips, metal bits, and severe behavior modification. Buck's approach is radically different. Rather than lead from a posture of power, he views it as a dance, showing respect to the horse he leads and graciously-yet-firmly guiding it along.

As a pastor and parent, I found Buck to be an inspiring look at a man who understands how to lead as a servant. He is pastoral in his approach, never yanking the reigns out of anger or impatience, yet also holding with a firm grip and a strong look in his eyes. He is quick to love the horse, patting it and speaking softly, always peering into the eyes and responding to what he finds there. I found his ways of leadership to be a perfect correlation with Edwin Friedman's "A Failure of Nerve." Buck leads with presence; his emotional wherewithal and confident-yet-humble posture allow him to mount (and ride) unmountable horses. He never allows himself to forget who is the horse and who is the rider, but he rides with a respect and care for the animal that it seems to understand. Buck knows himself--he knows the system of dysfunction from his past, has overcome it, and now thrives as a self-differentiated guide in the horse world.

I'm not a horse guy. Movies like War Horse and Secretariat simply have no draw for me. I respect and understand the folks who love horses, but I don't join them in their affection. Yet Buck is more than a film about horses; it is a film about humanity, about our past wounds, about our need for redemption. It is about reclaiming the call of creation care given in Genesis 1, yet striving to lead without becoming ensnared by sin. Any parent or pastor would be blessed to experience it.

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