Being labeled a horse whisperer has not always been good for the person or the horse. In the 17th century there was a possibility that a person caught speaking to animals would be accused of witch craft, something that did not usually end well.
The Following is an excerpt from J.S. Rarey’s Art of Taming Horses, copyright 1859.
“In a work printed in 1664, quoted by Nolan, we have a melancholy account of the fate of an ingenious horse-tamer. “A Neapolitan, called Pietro, had a little horse named Mauroco, doubtless a Barb or Arab, which he had taught to perform many tricks. He would, at a sign from his master, lie down, kneel, and make as many corvettes (springs on his hind-legs forward, like rearing), as his master told him. He jumped over a stick, and through hoops, carried a glove to the person Pietro pointed out, and performed a thousand pretty antics. He traveled through the greater part of the Continent, but unfortunately passing through Arles, the people in that ‘age of faith,’ took him for a sorcerer, and burned him and poor Maurice in the market-place.””
Communicating with horses probably began with Xenophon (430-354 BC) who taught that horses should be handled with kindness and not with force. Would you agree with me that Xenophon probably spoke to his horses?
Gypsies and Ireland
16th century Gypsies can be credited with horse whispering. Already accused of being strange and sorcerers it wasn’t hard to accuse them of wickedness speaking incantations into the ears of their horses. Gypsies had unusual talent with horses and they kept their training methods secret. A Bohemian Gypsy family in Ireland passed the secret for training the most wild or vicious horses as a generational gift. The father would pass his secrets to the son as a legacy when the father neared death.
According to Rarey, the 19th century Irish man, Dan Sullivan, had a gift with vicious horses. He guarded his secret so carefully that even the priest of Ballyclough couldn’t wrangle it from him during confession. Later the priest referred to Sullivan as a whisperer and charged him with being in league with the wicked one. He accused Sullivan of having put the priest’s horses under a spell.
The definition of a horse whisperer at that time was “a secret method by which certain persons are able to acquire power over the refractory horse.” The definition of refractory is stubborn or unmanageable.
J. Frank Dobie
The term whisperer was used by the novelist J. Frank Dobie in 1932 in his book, The Mustangs, pg.240. “There are men whom bees will not sting. There are men whom a fierce yard dog will not bark at, much less bite. What is it inside some individuals that makes horses untamable by others submit to them gently? I am not talking about fake horse-whisperers, though I think there have been some who were not fakes. “ One of the ‘not fakes’ he refers to is mustanger Bob Lemmons. Lemmons (born about 1847) was an ex-slave who lived “alone on the brush.” Lemmons got entire herds of mustangs to follow him by acting like a mustang, becoming part of the herd, and then becoming their leader.
The relationship between horse and horse whisperer was not especially beneficial to the horse. Usually the horse was cruelly forced to submit by bizarre methods. Lemmons was the exception because he didn’t even touch the horses, yet the horses that trusted him met a cruel fate. They were trapped in pens, run around until they were exhausted and then subdued by cowboys.
As the machine age (approximately 1880-1945) developed and the horse lost many of it’s jobs, he also became devalued. Mustangs were captured and turned into pet food and fertilizer, and unwanted domestic horses were sent to slaughter. Horses were still used by the cavalry and on ranches but most breaking was harsh. Horses were forced into submission and training was fast and rough. The theory that reward is a lack of punishment prevailed.
Two brothers, Tom and Bill Dorrance, who were born on a cattle ranch in Oregon (1910 and 1906 respectively) were instrumental in changing the attitude in horsemanship in the 20th century. They used gentle methods of training horses through feel and understanding. Although Tom and Bill probably wouldn’t have loved the term horse whisperer, they were pivotal in bringing a new definition to the label.
A New Definition
In a nutshell a horse whisperer is person who uses gentle training methods and tries to understand how the horse thinks. He uses his body language to communicate his wishes to the horse and reads the horse’s body language to understand the animal. The idea is not actually that he whispers to the horse, but that it no longer takes violent movement or force to get a response from the horse. He uses only as much pressure as it takes to get the horse to respond. The instant the horse responds, the pressure ceases.
The 1998 movie, The Horse Whisperer, glamorized the phrase. After all who wouldn’t want Robert Redford to solve all of their problems? Multiple people claimed the movie, which was based on Nicholas Evans book of the same title, was about them. Buck Brannaman was the man behind the scenes for all of the horse training for the movie. There’s a documentary about him called “Buck” that’s well worth viewing. I’ve included the trailer for the movie “Buck” at the end of this post. I hope you’ll watch it.
J.Frank Dobie might be pleased to see this new kind of horse whisperer, and I don’t think he’d be surprised to find out there are still a lot of fakes. This approach to the horses has many names, including round pen training and natural horsemanship. The industry is fraught with marketers, trainers, and all sorts of opportunities to pay to learn the horse whispering skills. And there are the few true horse whisperers. Most of them don’t want the label.