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The Horse Whisperer

The Horse Whisperer
Film poster
Directed by Robert Redford
Produced by Patrick Markey
Robert Redford
Written by Nicholas Evans (novel)
Eric Roth
Richard LaGravenese
Starring Robert Redford
Kristin Scott Thomas
Sam Neill
Dianne Wiest
Scarlett Johansson
Music by Thomas Newman
Gwil Owen
Distributed by Touchstone Pictures
Release date(s) May 15, 1998 (USA)
Running time 170 min.
Country United States
Language English
Budget $60,000,000 US (est.)

The Horse Whisperer is a 1998 movie directed by and starring Robert Redford, based on the 1995 novel of the same name by Nicholas Evans. Redford plays the title role, a talented trainer with a remarkable gift for understanding horses, who is hired to help an injured teenager (played by Scarlett Johansson) and her horse back to health following a tragic accident.



Teenager Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson) and her best friend Judith (Kate Bosworth) go out early one winter's morning to ride their horses, Pilgrim and Gulliver. As they ride up an icy slope, Gulliver slips and hits Pilgrim. Both horses fall, dragging the girls onto a road and colliding with a truck. Judith and Gulliver are killed, while Grace and Pilgrim are both severely injured.

Grace, left with a partial amputated right leg, is bitter and withdrawn after the accident. Meanwhile, Pilgrim is traumatized and uncontrollable to the extent that it is suggested he be put down. Grace's mother, Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), a strong-minded and brilliant editor, refuses to make that decision, sensing that somehow Grace's recovery is linked with Pilgrim's.

Desperate for a way to heal both Grace and Pilgrim, Annie tracks down a "horse whisperer" Tom Booker (Redford) in the remote Montana. Tom agrees to help, but only if Grace also takes part in the process. Grace reluctantly agrees, and settles down at the Booker ranch with Annie.

As Pilgrim and Grace slowly overcome their trauma, Annie and Tom begin to have mutual romantic feelings. However they are both reluctant to act on these feelings -- Annie is married and Tom had his heart broken before, when his wife left him because she belonged to the city not to the ranch.

The status quo is broken when Robert MacLean (Sam Neill), Grace's father and Annie's husband unexpectedly shows up in the ranch. Annie is increasingly torn by her feelings for Tom and her love for her family.

Soon, with Tom's help, Grace finally takes the last step to heal herself and Pilgrim -- riding Pilgrim again.

As the MacLeans get ready to leave the Booker's ranch, Robert tells Annie that he knew Annie was in love with Tom, and gently asks Annie to make her decision one way or another before going home.

Although Annie wishes she could stay with Tom on the ranch, she also knows that she belongs to the city, just like Tom's wife. The film ends with Annie driving away from the ranch, while Tom watches her go from the top of a hill.


Although he had already directed several films, this was the first time Robert Redford directed a film that he also starred in.

The main character, according to writer Nicholas Evans' website faq, is modeled after horse whisperer Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt and, in particular, their younger disciple Buck Brannaman. Brannaman also doubled for Robert Redford in the film and served as the consultant. Evans himself said, "Others have claimed to be the inspiration for Tom Booker in The Horse Whisperer. The one who truly inspired me was Buck Brannaman. His skill, understanding and his gentle, loving heart have parted the clouds for countless troubled creatures. Buck is the Zen master of the horse world."[1]

Horse training methods and controversies

The schooling administered to the traumatized horse is faithful to a number of basic natural horsemanship techniques, although the portrayal in the film does not follow the specific methodology of any one practitioner. On his website, Nicholas Evans posted, "I spent many weeks traveling across the West and met three amazing horsemen: Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman." Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt were quite elderly at the time Evans met them (Dorrance and Hunt are since deceased), Brannaman is still a relatively young man.

The horse training methods shown are not entirely without controversy. While Brannaman was the on-site technical consultant, he did not have creative control. Some argue that the training depicted in the film, particularly the methods of hobbling the horse and making it lay on the ground, more closely resemble the more gimmick-laden methods of Australian Clinton Anderson Downunder Horsemanship than of a true natural horsemanship model. The constraints of filmmaking also required a number of sequences to be edited for length, and thus not showing some critical training elements that would normally be used. A few basic safety problems in the film include Redford kneeling in front of a horse known to charge humans in one scene, and wearing a large ring on his finger while training in another, a risky practice in the real world when simultaneously handling a dangerous horse and a rope.

A fundamental literary device used that goes against basic horse psychology was that of having Pilgrim, apparently a well-trained horse, suddenly became a vicious rogue following a single traumatic event. A horse may have a strong reaction after an accident if the elements that preceded the trauma are repeated at a future time (for example, it would be reasonable for Pilgrim to have developed a fear of vehicles, of crossing a road, or of climbing a steep slope), but not generally a complete change in personality, manner and outlook in the way that can occur in traumatized humans. Such behavioral changes in a horse would normally be the result of sustained, long-term animal abuse.

Some practitioners in the field of natural horsemanship have criticized the film. Followers of Pat Parelli, a direct competitor to Brannaman, claims the training methods shown in this movie are of a coercive nature, claiming that Tom Booker acts "predatory" in many scenes.[citation needed]

Another practitioner, John Lyons, provided a balanced critique of the film, noting that while there were many positive messages, there was also the potential for people to get some dangerous messages about horse training from certain sequences. He first noted that the multiple horses that played Pilgrim were all well-trained animals and that the movie did not represent a real-life time frame for training a single real-life animal. He pointed out that the film made the rehabilitation of the horse appear to be a one-session event, when in reality it would take considerable time for such a change to occur. Lyons criticized a number of dangerous practices shown in the movie, and was particularly critical of the scene where Booker hobbles, ropes, and lays the exhausted horse on the ground, then has Grace get on the recumbent horse, which is then allowed to rise, and the horse and girl miraculously are both cured of their fears and once again a horse and rider team. He argued that the actual real-life practical risk of injury to horse and human in such a method is considerable, that a horse pushed to exhaustion is not "trained," and pushing a fearful rider in such a fashion is ill-advised. However, Lyons' critique also recognized the limitations of Hollywood filmmaking, stating, "In order to tell a story, things are often done that would be imprudent for horse owners to attempt."[2]


The film received mixed reviews upon its release. Variety hailed it as "an exquisitively crafted, morally and thematically mature picture" while Newsweek regarded it as "punishingly dull", a criticism not helped by the film's considerable length. Rotten Tomatoes reports that of 51 reviews, 77% of them gave the film a positive review. Additionally, Metacritic - a site that assigns a normalized rating out of 100 - gives the film an average score of 65/100, based on 19 reviews. Regardless of this, the film was a box office hit and grossed $187 million worldwide ($75m in the US).

The song "A Soft Place To Fall" by Allison Moorer and Gwil Owen was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, though it lost out to "When You Believe" from The Prince of Egypt. Moorer performs the song in the movie.

In popular culture

The movie's popularity led to the word "whisperer" being coined as a slang term for anyone with a strong affinity for a particular animal or being. Among the references in popular culture:

  • Dog Whisperer is a TV series on the National Geographic Channel that premiered in 2004. It depicts dog trainer Cesar Milan as he helps clients whose dogs exhibit behavioral problems.
  • Ghost Whisperer is an CBS TV drama that premiered in 2005. It stars Jennifer Love Hewitt as a psychic who communicates with spirits.
  • In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer claims to be a horse whisperer. All he does, however, is literally whisper in the horse's ear, "When the race starts, run really fast."
  • In a scene near the end of the 2005 Vin Diesel action comedy The Pacifier, Diesel's character attempts to communicate with a pet duck to help him escape his captors, for which one of the film's villains sarcastically addresses Diesel as "duck whisperer".
  • In the 2009 comedy film Couples Retreat, four couples attend therapy sessions conducted by a therapist (Jean Reno) described as "couple whisperer".

See also


External links

  • Springhill Pavilion - The dance scene in The Horse Whisperer was all filmed in and around the Pavilion.


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