origins of Horse Whispering
Throughout the first, and a good deal of the
second, millennium, the Horse was regarded by many as a mystical animal.
The names of certain horses, like Alexander’s
or Caligula’s Equine Roman senator
have achieved lasting historical fame, while others, such as
Morzillo - mount to Hernando Cortes during his 1525 campaign to conquer
It is not difficult to imagine the impact of
mounted troops on peoples who had never before seen a horse, let alone a man
seated on top!
Clearly, such was the power of the horse that
a man able to harness it to his will rose above the level of the ordinary man in
pre-industrial times. And to those who lacked the skills, and were in awe
of the ability to control such power, the horseman 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. In fact it was
not only the trainer who was at risk. In the case of a horse called
who performed in the French town of
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. Just to be seen talking to an animal
was quite enough to attract a charge of devil-worship! The early Christian
church did not take to such ideas at all well - along with the earth revolving
around the sun and suchlike!
It is no wonder then that those who were
skilful also became somewhat tight-lipped about their work, and often chose to
do it in a place that was safe from prying eyes.
So, we have mysticism, secrecy and silence - all the required ingredients
for the creation of a myth!
Once the practice of burning witches had
finished, showman practitioners began to flourish. The aura of mystery
remained, but this could now be turned towards attracting a crowd and, along
with the crowd - their money!
One such man was Dan Sullivan from Mallow in
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
As the heyday of horse power waned with the
introduction of modern machinery the whisperers passed into the twilight -a
myth, born out of ignorance, and shrouded in secrecy and superstition, whose day
had passed. But has it? Just try an internet search for 'horse+whisperer' and
you will be amazed at the number of hits. Whisperers, it seems, now come
in both genders and all shapes and sizes, and variously offer 'horse whisperer
training techniques', 'secret techniques' and even whisperers with 'clairvoyant
understanding'. There are ‘whispering’ challenges and time trials, courses
offering to teach the horseman’s word, in fact a whole little industry whose
various journeyman gurus circle the globe performing brief but expensive clinics
and seminars for the ‘enlightenment’ of the horse owner, so perhaps nothing
has really changed!
And – as has, no doubt, always been the
case – there are those who quietly go about the business of altering the way
in which we view and manage the horse, and exposing the typical master-servant
relationship to the light of twenty first century ethics. Finally perhaps the
true mystique of the horse is that, through our relationships with them, we are
able to rediscover that precious connection between us and the rest of creation
– a truly mystical oneness that is not bought and sold, and requires neither
show nor whisper!
© AD Beck, WHEEP 2003.