For Cindy Meehl, a horse owner from Connecticut, one encounter with Buck Brannaman, the famed “horse whisperer,” changed her life. She had gone to a horse training clinic in Pennsylvania in 2008 with one of her troubled horses to watch Brannaman at work, and she was mesmerized by the man.
“When I went to his clinic, I thought everyone should see this and learn from him and think about the way he does it, and it might change the way people think about the way they look at things, not just with horses, but beyond that,” she says.
Meehl, a former fashion designer, artist, suburban mom, and lover of horses, has always thought of herself as someone who could accomplish anything she wanted to. So when she decided to make a documentary film about Brannaman, she knew nothing about filmmaking, but she knew how she was going to go about learning.
“I did it the hard way, the old-fashioned way, by the seat of my pants,” she says. “I really didn’t have any experience, but I was very much driven by the passion of telling this story. It was such a powerful story to me, and I really thought there was so much in it that would be valuable to people. I thought I couldn’t not do it.”
So Meehl went to Montana in 2008 to meet Brannaman at another seminar. She introduced herself and pitched the film to the horse whisperer. Three years later, the product of Meehl’s passion is “Buck,” the acclaimed 2011 documentary about Buck Brannaman, the real-life cowboy who inspired Robert Redford to make and star in the film “The Horse Whisperer.” Indeed, two prominent filmmakers — Redford himself, who appears in Meehl’s documentary, and Barry Levinson (“Good Morning Vietnam,” “Rain Man”), who is Meehl’s neighbor in Redding, Connecticut — lent some expertise and advice to the novice filmmaker.
“Buck” will be shown Friday, February 3, at 7 p.m., at the 2012 Princeton Environmental Film Festival, which will run over three four-day weekends in January and February, beginning Thursday, January 26 and running through Sunday, February 12, at Princeton Public Library.
At the beginning of this year “Buck” won a Golden Eye Award at the Gotham Film Festival and the U.S. Documentary Competition Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. In fact, when Meehl spoke by phone last week, she was on her way to yet another awards ceremony, this time the Critics’ Choice Awards in Los Angeles, for which her film was among six to be nominated but lost out to the documentary “George Harrison: Living in the Material World.”
“It’s been quite a ride,” says Meehl, who admits that she has heard that pun many times in the past year or so. She never expected the accolades, but she is overjoyed with the critical and audience reception the film has received. “When we were at Sundance and the audiences were on their feet at every showing and going crazy, I thought, ‘Hey, they get it. They get what we’re trying to say.’ That was important because the point in making this film was to show this person who I found so inspiring, such a wonderful horse rider whom anyone could benefit from knowing.”
She is hoping that on Tuesday, January 24, “Buck” will find its way onto the Academy Awards nomination list in the documentary category. “That would be wonderful, but I don’t want to jinx anything (by talking too extensively about it),” Meehl says.
Following the screening of “Buck,” Peter Boglioli, a Hunterdon County horseman who specializes in training colts and troubled horses, will speak and take questions. Boglioli first met Brannaman almost two decades ago and has ridden with him about a dozen times, and some of his horse training techniques have been influenced by the work of the famous horse whisperer.
Boglioli also grew up with horses. Both sides of his family, the Bogliolis and the Richmonds, were well known for their work with horses. His family owned a farm in Stanton, between Readington and Flemington, and worked the land with horses, cows, pigs, and chickens. On the other hand, Boglioli says, his maternal family rode horses as a hobby; the family was prominent in equestrian sports in New Jersey and regionally.
So, Boglioli says, he has always had a strong affinity for horses. He started riding at four years of age, prompted by his grandfather. “We took it for granted. It was something that was always there. It was like growing up across the street from a basketball court and getting good in basketball. It’s just something you did. I had horses around and others near us had horses. It became the other part of my life. I had my sports activities, and I had my horses.”
After graduating from Rutgers’ Cook College in 1985 with a degree in psychology (both human and animal), Boglioli worked for a consulting firm and later went into construction. But the call of the horses always drew him back. “I never thought I would be doing this today as a career, but the bottom line was, I could never get away from it,” says Boglioli.
Boglioli, as Brannaman does, comes from the vaquero tradition of horse riding — the word “buckaroo” is derived from the Spanish word. The tradition was introduced to the western United States by Spanish conquistadores and their descendants who eventually moved from Mexico to what is now the American southwest. Brannaman, says Boglioli, is a practitioner of natural horsemanship, which was developed by Tom and Bill Dorrance of Oregon, who were also raised in the vaquero tradition. The style promotes a holistic, humane approach to managing horses, an approach that encourages the human rider to connect on a deeper level with the horse.
From his encounters with Brannaman, Boglioli says he has gleaned much wisdom about horses. “He’s a very intelligent individual. It’s not just horses. It’s his way of life. That’s what people don’t understand. Horses may be what you do, may be how you’re defined, but it’s not all you are. There is a lot more going on. It’s not just a philosophy of working with horses — it’s a philosophy of life. And that’s what separates the good horsemen from the great ones.”
He hasn’t seen Brannaman much since the movie has come out, says Boglioli, but he thinks that the horse whisperer has grown to adapt to his fame. “(Brannaman) is a reluctant celebrity,” he says, “but I think he enjoys the attention.”
Princeton Environmental Film Festival, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Fireplace on second floor. Friday, February 3, 4 p.m. Screening of “Call of Life” at 4 p.m.; “Buck” at 7 p.m. The festival runs over three four-day weekends, Thursday, January 26, to Sunday, February 12. 609-924-9529 or www.princetonlibrary.org.