When documentary filmmaker Cindy Meehl was 7, she fell in love with a pony at a birthday party. “I just wanted to get up close and touch the animal. I was in awe of it,” she says. Fifty-six-year-old Meehl smiles as she tells this anecdote, her tanned face brightening at the memory. As she talks, one of her four dogs snores audibly in the living room. Meehl and her husband live on a farm with a veritable menagerie—those dogs, a bunny, and two horses—in Redding, Conn.
She started riding at the age of 10 in her hometown of Jackson, Miss., and she still has a trace of a soft Southern accent. Meehl would ride as much as she could and sketch horses in her spare time—art was her other main interest growing up. But she never thought she’d combine the two, as she did with her first feature-length documentary film Buck, about horse trainer Buck Brannaman.
Way before she became an award-winning movie director, Meehl was a successful fashion designer. She started her college education at Mississippi State and then moved to New York to finish her degree at Marymount Manhattan College, after which she studied art at the National Academy. When she graduated, she sold ties at Bloomingdale’s and wore a lot of shoulder pads. (It was the ‘80s.) She started designing dresses with two other artists using hand-painted silks.
The way she tells it, she stormed into Bergdorf Goodman and presented her line, which at that point was called “Sasha, Cindy and Phil.” Even though she wasn’t a fashion insider by any means, she had spunk. Not only did Bergdorf’s buy the clothes; they put the frocks in their heralded window display at 58th Street and Fifth Avenue. The business kept building and building, but Meehl realized that she didn’t enjoy the creative pressure of fashion’s unrelenting grind. “It sounds so glamorous, but it didn’t ultimately appeal,” Meehl says. “You work that hard, and you’re still always behind.”
Her final designs were for a friend’s wedding party. She got married, and several years later she and her husband, writer Brian Meehl, moved to the horse farm in Connecticut where she lives today. Over the next several years, “I had children and an art studio,” Meehl says. And of course, she had the horses. Then, about 10 years ago, she took a clinic in Montana from Buck Brannaman, and it altered her entire outlook on riding.
Brannaman’s way of dealing with horses is staggeringly sensitive. The way Meehl describes his methods while demonstrating with Red, one of her two horses, is that Brannaman teaches you how to speak their language. Instead of yanking on its reins to tell it what to do, you use your body to signal how you want the horse to move. Meehl seems totally relaxed when communicating with Red. She has that same easy repartee with Red when she’s riding him, showing how Brannaman’s body-language-based methods work on horseback.
“I wanted to tell other people about Buck,” Meehl says, but her fellow horsemen and women, especially on the East Coast, weren’t particularly receptive. She didn’t feel capable of teaching Brannaman’s methods, until she realized that a film would be a good way to get his style of horsemanship out into the world. Her two daughters were almost grown at this point—the oldest was in college, and the youngest was in high school—and Meehl was looking for a new project. Though it doesn’t, at first glance, seem related, her fashion background was helpful when she first started thinking about making Buck. “I’ve had a lot of art training,” Meehl explains “and I’m very visual and interested in composition and structure. I knew how I wanted it to look.”
But she was also humble, and she had very little experience with a camera. So she went about hiring the best producers and editors she could find. She tried two filmmaking teams before she started working with producers Julie Goldman and Andrea Meditch. She flew down to Washington, D.C., to have lunch with them, “At that point I had some footage to show them. I was, of course, biting my nails to see if they’d actually help me,” Meehl says.
They signed on, and they shaped Brannaman’s moving life story for the screen. In addition to being a so-called “horse whisperer” who can tame the wildest of stallions, Brannaman also survived a brutal childhood in rural Wyoming. His mother died when he was a child, and he ended up in a foster home. He went on to have a wonderful relationship with his wife and three daughters, and established a thriving business.
Meehl also credits Buck’s editor, Toby Shimin, for helping her tell an inspiring story about Brannaman—so inspiring that the film won the audience award when it played the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. Meehl has also created 7 Clinics, an instructional DVD series using Brannaman’s methods; she directed a music video for the independent country artist Templeton Thompson for the song “When I Get That Pony Rode”; and she is currently helping to produce another documentary called Unbranded, about four young men riding horses from Mexico to Canada.
But that’s not to say that Meehl is a one-trick documentary-making pony. She is interested in making films about non-equine topics and is in the early stages of planning a documentary about alternative veterinary medicine.
Her message to anyone who is thinking of changing careers is to be receptive to what the world is telling you. Ten years ago, “I had no desire to make a film or be in the film business,” Meehl says. “I think the message here is you always have to be open. Maybe you’re not on the right path. Just somehow you hear that call, and you go.”
Correction, June 6, 2013: This article misstated the number of characters in Cindy Meeh’s forthcoming documentary Unbranded, when Meehl decided to make a movie, and when she moved to Connecticut.