There’s no shortage of tear-jerking moments in Buck, Cindy Meehl’s the award-winning 2011 documentary about horse trainer/whisperer Buck Brannaman. But none is more poignant than when Buck recounts his first interaction with his foster father. We find out at the beginning of the film that Buck and his older brother spent their childhoods as trick-roping child prodigies (I had no idea what that meant either until I watched the film), touring the country doing their lasso routine, appearing on television, etc. Then comes the chilling reason for their success, when Buck describes in some detail the terrifying home life they experienced in the wake of their mother’s death. If the boys made a false move in their act, their alcoholic father would beat them within an inch of their lives. Eventually, salvation arrived in the form of a football coach, who immediately reports the bruises and welts that are discovered on Buck’s body once he could no longer hide them in the locker room. The boys were taken to live with a foster family, which is where Buck picks up the story:
When I first got dropped off at my [foster parent’s] ranch, I was so terrified of men. My foster dad-to-be, he pulled up in his truck, and he was tall, 6’4’ – looked like he was made out of rawhide and barbed wire – but he walked right up to me and said “You must be Buck.” I shook his hand, but I couldn’t even speak. You can be so scared that you can’t say anything, no words come out. I just sat there. And my little knees were just about knocking together. I was a little guy. He spun around, walked back to the truck and opened the door. And my heart just stopped. Because it’s almost like a colt that’s had some trouble. You don’t have to do too much to make them suspicious. Just even move in a way that they don’t understand or can’t comprehend and ‘that quick’ they think they need to save themselves. So when he went back to that truck, I didn’t know what to do. So he scared me to death. He came back and he threw me a pair of buckskin gloves. He said, “Here. You’re gonna need them.” And they were just beautiful and they fit me perfect. I was so proud of them. We took off and we built fence all afternoon. But I wouldn’t wear those gloves. They were a token act of kindness, just giving me something like that, I didn’t want to get them tore up. I put them in my pocket, and I worked the barbed wire all day with my bare hands.
What a beautiful episode of Grace. Buck is met at his most vulnerable point with an interceding love that reaches him before any potentially qualifying gesture on his part is even possible. And needless to say, it changes the boy’s life forever, launching him on a trajectory to become what can only be described as “Jesus with Horses.” Indeed, the rest of the film paints a picture of a man pioneering an approach to horse-training that uses compassion, listening, and love to reach animals with whom the traditional techniques of coercion and punishment have failed. He works with them rather than against, in other words, and the results speak for themselves. His gifts extend to his fellow human beings as well: the scene where he tells a woman “everything she’s ever done” (John 4:29) will leave you speechless.
In an interview with The Huffington Post in conjunction with the film’s release, Buck touches on something important that the film didn’t reveal about his relationship with his biological father:
Q: The film mentions your father’s death almost as an afterthought. How did it really affect you at the time?
A: Interestingly enough, the influence of my foster mom was so great that I guess somewhere along the line I learned something about forgiveness. My dad was 52 years old when I was born. When I was a junior in high school, I wrote him a letter that said, ‘I know you’re getting older and I don’t want you to die of old age somewhere feeling like I hate you. I don’t wanna have to live with that all of my life because you’re my dad. I love you because you’re my dad and I forgive you.” We had some contact over the next few years and I saw him a couple of times. All I wanted was him to die with a sense of peace about him and myself. And he did. As far as needing a father at that point, I was indifferent to that. But I wanted to do what I could to let a pitiful old man die with some sense of peace. But my brother never spoke to him again once we were taken away. They never had contact again.
P.S. Can’t pass up the chance to post one of the weirdest bits of Christian kitsch ever produced, Aunt Bertha and Tiny Tot Calvin’s creepy “A Cowboy For Jesus”: