How the Horse Whisperer helped Horsewomen

“The alliance with man would forever be fragile – for the fear he’d struck into their hearts was too deep to be dislodged… Since that Neolithic moment when a horse was first haltered, there were those among men who understood this… … They could see into the creature’s soul and soothe the wounds they found there…” 

From Nicholas Evans’ book ‘The Horse Whisperer’ 

To this day I rate as my favourite compliment that given by an old man after an evening demonstration of horsemanship I gave in Norfolk. He said to one of my colleagues ‘If that lass had been born 200 years ago she’d have been burned at the stake!’  In actual fact he may not have been so far from the truth.  200 years ago, in pre-industrial times, such was the power of the horse that a person perceived to have higher than average skill around them was held in great esteem.   However, to those who lacked the skills, and were in awe of this ability, the horseman (because it generally was men)   could all too easily be believed to have mystical knowledge.  For many, ‘mystical knowledge’ suggested use of the arts of sorcery and witchcraft, and it is not surprising that some particularly skilful trainers were burned as witches 

As long as it remained possible that a charge of witchcraft might bring about a terminally abrupt end to a horse-trainer’s career there was a need for secrecy.  It is said that just to be seen talking to an animal was quite enough to attract a charge of devil-worship. So it’s no wonder that those who were skilful in the specialised handling of ‘difficult’ horses also became very secretive about their work. They often chose to work in solitude giving even more credence to the claim that something ‘mystical’ was going on. 

Once the practice of burning witches had finished, some practitioners began to come out in the open. One such man was Dan Sullivan from Mallow in County Cork , Ireland .  The story goes that Dan would take a previously unmanageable horse and, by whispering a few words into its ear, make it docile and well-behaved.  Apparently Dan had learned this secret from a penniless soldier in a public house, who had been taught it himself by a mystic in India where he had served. The soldier gave Dan the secret for the price of a meal, and the ‘Whisperer’ was on his way.  But there was obviously more to it than just whispering a few words.  Dan’s method involved taking the horse into the secrecy of a barn or shed from which the horse would emerge, completely subdued and in a state of terror.  On what took place in the barn Dan’s lips remained sealed.  

It makes a good story, but it would have been even better if the horses Dan treated had stayed well-behaved.  Alas no.  They returned to their old ways once away from Dan’s influence. Some said that Sullivan’s method, whatever it was, was cruel, and that he damaged the reputation of those ‘whisperers’ who, by some innate gift, were able to quiet the most unruly horse. Whatever the truth was, the term ‘horse whisperer’ had arrived.  

The whisperers were sometimes also said to have the ‘horseman’s word’.  Secret societies such as the Horseman’s Word and the Toadmen sprang up throughout Britain and were in existence for many generations. Initiates would, as is common in Masonic ritual, first be bound to secrecy, be made to undergo an ‘ordeal’, and then be given the secret of ‘the word’. One supposed version of this was ‘Both in One’.  

There were indeed some strange rituals associated with some of these societies. One such was called the ‘Water of the Moon’, and was commonly practised in East Anglia and Cambridgeshire regions of England . The ritual required that the horseman kill a frog or toad and hang the body on a thorn tree until only the skeleton remained.  At full moon the man then had to take the skeleton to a running stream and throw it into the water.  One small forked bone would detach itself from rest and float upstream, and it was this bone from which the horseman would then derive devil-given power over horses. Such were the Toadmen; whisperers with a demonic covenant!  

Of course many of the old horsemen were extremely good – their whole livelihood and safety depended on their ability to achieve a good working relationship with the equines in their care. And it is also true that there are people who do seem to have a natural flair for working with horses. But this has nothing to do with ‘whispering’ or pacts with the devil, and an awful lot to do with body language,  personal temperament and, perhaps most important of all, patience, kindness and a real affection for horses.   

For every gifted horseperson there are, and always have been, untold numbers of charlatans whose primary interest is lightening the purses of the unwary and gullible.  

Take for example the classic case of ‘Professor’ Sample and his ”Marvellous Horse Taming Machine”.  Sample arrived in London in 1885 bringing with him his machine, with which he declared he could tame three or four wild horses an hour. The machine consisted of a platform onto which a horse would be loaded and secured, and which would then be spun by a steam engine until the horse was made quite dizzy. Unfortunately for the self-styled professor the machine failed to work during several public displays in theatres of the time. Such was the design that the mechanism would only function when sited on a level surface, and theatre stages are commonly angled down toward the audience – otherwise, and heaven forbid, people might be spinning horses to this day!  

Even though the flamboyant Sample failed to prove that his ‘system’ worked, and was finally discovered to have rigged a horse-taming challenge with ‘Leon the Celebrated Mexican Horse-Tamer’ (an ex pupil of Sample’s who was in fact an Australian printer’s clerk called Franklin) another of his pupils was to add a significant element to our knowledge of horses. Sydney Osborne, another Australian – better known as ‘Professor’ Galvayne’, was to invent a system of telling a horse’s age by its teeth.  

Horsemanship in the 1800s was still an unscientific practice, perhaps due, in part, to the mysticism of the past.  The following bizarre suggestion is taken from a collection called The Horsekeeper’s Handbook of Tips and Wrinkles and titled “How to Handle a Savage, Vicious Horse”  

Approach the horse firmly, fixing your gaze upon his eye. Have in your hand a six-chambered revolver, loaded with blank cartridges. The moment he attempts to savage you, fire, not point blank at him, but directly in front of his face. This will give the horse a sudden shock and take his attention. If he is in a stall this is your opportunity. Before he has time to recover himself, rush in and seize him by the headstall, and again discharge the revolver close alongside his face, saying: ‘What do you mean?’ ‘How dare you!’ (presumably in a stern voice!)  

The Original Horse Whisperer 

John Solomon Rarey (1827 – 1866) 

There was a man from Groveport, Ohio called John Solomon Rarey, who tamed his first horse at the age of twelve. Word of his gift spread and in 1858 he was summoned to Windsor Castle in England to calm a horse of Queen Victoria. The queen and her entourage watched astonished as Rarey put his hands on the animal and laid it down on the ground before them. Then he lay down beside it and rested his head on its hooves. The queen chuckled with delight and gave Rarey a hundred dollars. He was a modest, quiet man, but now he was famous and the press wanted more. The call went out to find the most ferocious horse in all England.  

It was duly found.  

He was a stallion by the name of Cruiser, once the fastest racehorse in the land. Now though, according to the account Annie read, he was a “fiend incarnate” and wore an eight-pound iron muzzle to stop him killing too many stableboys. His owners only kept him alive because they wanted to breed from him and to make him safe enough to do this, they planned to blind him.  

Against all advice, Rarey let himself into the stable where no one else dared venture and shut the door. He emerged three hours later leading Cruiser, without his muzzle and gentle as a lamb. The owners were so impressed they gave him the horse. Rarey brought him back to Ohio, where Cruiser died on July 6, 1875, outliving his new master by a full nine years.  

(Excerpt from “The Horse Whisperer” by Nicholas Evans, Delacorte Press, 1995)

Briefly, the technique consists of hobbling one of the horse’s legs with a strap. This enabled the trainer to completely control the horse and quickly tire him out. The trainer can then make the horse lie down, then stroke and gentle the subdued animal, even laying down on it, until the horse is thoroughly convinced, in the most peaceful way possible, that the trainer is master.  

Further, Rarey demonstrated that skillful use of his method could enable the trainer, regardless of physical strength, to quickly tame the most violent horse. And that the tamed horse could then be easily handled by anyone; that is, the horse’s taming was not personal to the trainer. This is all the more remarkable in view of the general acceptance of the day that violence and extreme force was the only to “break” a horse.  

Rarey became a rich man after he demonstrated his method for Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. He traveled the world teaching the Rarey method, to France, Sweden, Germany, Russia, Norway, Egypt, Turkey, and the Arab countries. In one demonstration he took four hours taming a wild zebra to be ridden like the most docile horse. Newspaper articles were written about him and poems were composed extolling his virtues. In dictionaries of the time the verb “rarefy” appeared, meaning “to win by love, to mollify with oil of kindness, to reclaim a badly broken horse, to tame a horse by kindness.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said of Rarey that he “turned a new leaf in civilization.” His method was adopted as the official training procedure of the U. S. Army from 1862 until the advent of the Jeep. The English magazine Punch suggested that the Rarey method be practiced on obnoxious politicians, and Harper’s Weekly recommended it as a cure for wayward husbands.  

Click here for the text and illustrations of John Solomon Rarey’s book, “The Complete Horse Tamer,” in which he details his famous method. This edition, an inexpensive reprint of his book in cardboard cover, was probably published in the 1870’s after his death, though it carries no date. He wrote the original manuscript in 1862, but I have not been able to locate an earlier edition. In this edition the first half of the book is Rarey’s writing, and the second half, “The Complete Farrier, or Horse Doctor,” is written by John C. Knowlson. Only Rarey’s half is presented here.  

On their personal webpage, Rich Rarey, of National Public Radio, and his wife, Kerry Thompson, have published the fine biography of John Solomon Rarey written in 1916 by his niece, Sara Lowe Brown.  

In Britain, the prejudice against women debarred them from membership of the Horsemen’s Societies, and most tamers and showmen, including Telfer, banned women from their demonstrations.  Rarey was an exception, and noted, ‘It is a general remark how quiet some high-spirited horses will become when ridden by ladies.  The cause of this is that they are more quietly handled, patted and caressed by them, and they soon become sensible of this difference from the rough whip and spur system generally adopted by men’.  This comment coupled with his belief that horses were intelligent and capable of love and affection, led critics to denounce him and his system as effeminate.  As one magazine reporter pointed out, not only could horses not love, but English horses could not love an American.   

However, by proving that brute strength way not necessary to break a horse, Rarey helped break the prejudice against women in horse training.  He was not entirely alone in his beliefs about gentle handling but like Calthorp, another famous breaker described as having a most patient and delicate manner, he contributed significantly towards the emancipation of horsewomen. 

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