Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

Buck: Transforming Abuse Into Respect and Compassion for Horses

This video will, or should, rock your soul

Each week when I teach my course on animal behavior, conservation, and human-animal relationships at the Boulder County Jail as part of Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots program I show a video and have discussions about the topics at hand. The course is very popular and often we get into discussions about what we can learn from the behavior of nonhuman animals that can help us understand human behavior. Among the topics that often arise are how scientific research is showing us that nonhumans are much more peaceful, cooperative, and compassionate than we often realize (see also) and the importance of the inmate's companion and other animal friends (including horses, sheep, hamsters, guinea pigs, rats, birds, and snakes) when they grew up in difficult households (their own and in foster homes). When the guys realize that it's our true nature to be kind and compassionate it really makes an impression so that when someone yells "Oh, you're acting like an animal" some of them say "Thanks."

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A few weeks ago one of the officers at the jail suggested that I show the award-winning documentary called "Buck" in my class. I hadn't heard of it and when I looked it on on the web I was moved by its description: "BUCK, a richly textured and visually stunning film, follows Buck Brannaman from his abusive childhood to his phenomenally successful approach to horses. A real-life horse-whisperer , he eschews the violence of his upbringing and teaches people to communicate with their horses through leadership and sensitivity, not punishment. Buck possesses near magical abilities as he dramatically transforms horses - and people - with his understanding, compassion and respect."

Throughout this wonderful film Buck travels in and out of his abusive childhood as he travels around the country, and uses his own experiences as he works with the individual horses and people with whom he has contact. Each horse is unique and Buck shows deep respect and compassion for them and tailors his gentle taming techniques to deal with their unique personality. Each horse is treated with dignity. 

I was deeply moved by Buck, the man, and how he so easily related to many different horses and other people showing remarkable patience and "people" skills. So were most, if not all, of the guys in the class. Some just sat there clearly in deep thought, whereas others spoke openly about their own experiences and how they could easily relate to Buck's story. They also saw the importance of patience, understanding, and compassion in healing old wounds, Buck's, the horses, and their own.

Horses are amazing beings. I haven't worked closely with horses but when I'm around them I can feel their energy and their deep emotions. Their eyes and demeanor say so much. I have seen horses used in animal-assisted therapy to heal troubled youngsters at Green Chimneys in Brewster, New York and at the Medicine Horse Program in Boulder, Colorado. A story I've heard time and time again is how youngsters are attracted to the horses (and other animals) who have experienced the same type of abuse. While I don't know of any empirical studies of this phenomenon, when I mention it to people who are involved in animal-assisted therapy they agree. 

I can't imagine that anyone watching this video wouldn't be moved and find something "personal" in it. Betsy Sharkey, who writes for the Los Angeles Times, says it beautifully: "'Buck' transports us to  better world ..." I couldn't agree more. Take a mere 90 minutes to watch a film that might just change your life. 

The teaser image can be found here

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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