The inspiration behind The Horse Whisperer treats animals as more than mere actors or pets
by t.t. stern-enzi
In the preface to the 1975 edition of Animal Liberation, ethics philosopher Peter Singer shared the story of an evening dinner party where the hostess was a keen lover of animals and quite interested in discussing his take on the treatment of animals. The hostess was surprised to hear that Singer had no pets. Singer explained that he “was interested in the prevention of suffering and misery.”
The philosopher went further, when describing Animal Liberation. The book was not about pets. It was a call for the ethical treatment of animals; an argument equating, within well-defined limits, animal rights with human civil rights.
From the relatively isolated standpoint of the treatment of animals, possibly the most fully realized expression of Singer’s approach can be found in Buck Brannaman, the subject of Cindy Meehl’s debut documentary Buck. Brannaman has been branded a horse whisperer, based on his ability to work with horses without resorting to the traditional means of “breaking” the animals. He calls his technique “starting” and for lack of a better, more marketable term, that indeed sums up what he teaches. Brannaman helps owners “start” to develop a mutually beneficial working relationship with their horses that is rooted in trust and respect and the awareness of the largely unspoken bond between the two living beings that must exist.
Meehl’s documentary captures Brannaman as he travels across the U.S. conducting his in-demand training sessions (which keep him on the road 40 weeks per year). He is more of a counselor or psychologist rather than a “whisperer” and his real subjects are the people paying for these sessions, not the horses.
During separate interviews, Robert Redford, director and star of The Horse Whisperer, and Brannaman discuss their relationship and the process of working with animals on-set. Redford recalls being uncertain about this costumed cowboy who walked into the first meeting, but by the end of the day, they were sharing stories like old friends. Yet, even then, it was difficult to imagine Brannaman’s technique working while on location because the conventional means of wrangling animal actors was all he knew.
After a day of missed shots with one of the “trained” pet horses, Brannaman volunteered his horse for the sequence. Redford and the crew scoffed because the horse wasn’t an “actor,” but they took a chance and got the required shot in a single take, which, thanks to rewrites, landed Brannaman’s horse a starring role.
Watching Brannaman guiding horses and riders through his sessions leads to questions about the use of animals in film and television, especially in this age of CGI and stories that seemingly treat animals as human substitutes. In movies like Zookeeper and the Dr. Doolittle series, we expect to see animals as reflections of ourselves and will do whatever it takes to make that happen. In the coming weeks, Rise of the Planet of the Apes will present actors who, either through makeup or technological chicanery, are morphed or blended versions of simians and humans. The new television series Wilfred lampoons the relationship between a couple and their dog using a person in a dog costume, which the woman somehow still relates to as a dog, while the man sees and engages with the human in the suit. Gone are the days of Lassie and Benji, when animals became stars because they were ideal representatives of their species.
Buck illustrates how we need to liberate animals from these modern conceptions of them as pet avatars and Brannaman is the perfect guide to start us on the ethical path.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi