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The History of the Horse Whisper

Just how new is it? By Brad Harter

The notion that horses could be gentled and trained using some form of almost magical “horse whispering” has been the buzzing topic in the horse world for more than 30 years. Any of us that subscribe to one or more of the many popular horse publications probably first became aware of this whole, seemingly new training method through the work and writings of the Dorance Brothers. Ray Hunt was a student of these two brothers and Ray may have been the first to really bring the horse gentling methods that he had learned from the Dorance Brothers to the forefront in recent years. Many others were quick to follow with their own twist on these basic, kinder, safer horse training methods. Those individuals that quickly come to mind are John Lyons, Pat Parelli, and Monty Roberts. A complete list of all the modern-day “horse whispers” would probably far exceed 50 individuals. Add to that list all the other individuals that have paid to become certified, and the list would no doubt go into the thousands. What seems to have been lost to the modern-day horse person is that these “kinder, gentler” methods have been around for much longer than most of us can appreciate. Since man first became convinced that he could tame and gentle horses for his benefit, there were probably individuals that studied the equine social relationships and experimented with gentler methods of taming a beast that was four to five times the size of a man. Early recorded history gives us some sense that some form of “horse whispering” probably existed for years.

One of the more interesting and successful men to gain international recognition as an early “horse whisperer” was a man named John Solomon Rarey, who hailed from Groveport, Ohio. Born in 1827, John found that he had a special gift for dealing with unruly horses by the time he was in his early teens. John was born in an era when horses were a needed part of everyday existence. John was able to find plenty of opportunities to experiment with different methods of training, methods that he felt were safer and more productive than what many of the older and larger men in the area were using. By the time John reached the age of 25, he had written his first book on the art of training horses using gentler and kinder methods that were popular at the time. John’s unique style of training had evolved from combining some of his own methods with the more traditional Arab methods that he had observed from Denton Offut, a renowned trainer from the neighboring state of Kentucky. By the time John was 28 years of age, he had moved to Texas, where he began to practice his methods on the wild horses of that region. Public appearances and the money John had raised from a horse training manual financed his first trip to England in 1857. The first to notice John’s skills with horses were the officers in the British Army. That led to an appearance before Queen Victoria, and as they say, the rest is history. Touring Europe and performing before large crowds with his unique methods that combined kindness, firmness, and patience created a fair share of skeptics. Some observers felt that John was using drugs or, even worse, forms of witchcraft or voodoo. The worst of the worst horses were brought to John, and time after time, he would leave the crowds spellbound when his methods would produce gentle, manageable mounts, often in less than an hour.

John’s best-known test came when the Earl of Dorchester presented him with a rogue stallion named Cruiser. Said to be the fastest horse in England, Cruiser was too unruly to race and had even killed two grooms charged with his daily care. Cruiser had not been ridden in three years, and he had to be kept chained and muzzled just to enter his stall. With a combination of kindness, firmness, and the one-legged hobble John was able to bring Cruiser to his knees and onto his side. In less than three hours, John was riding Cruiser, having acquired both the trust and the respect that no one else had been able to manage. The Earl was so impressed with Rarey’s skill that he made a gift of Cruiser to John. Cruiser and John then returned to John’s hometown of Groveport, Ohio. Today the sports teams in Groveport, Ohio, are called the Groveport Cruisers. International fame and wealth followed, which allowed John to live comfortably and pursue perfecting his talents as one of the country’s earliest “horse whisperers.” Despite his great success with horses, John suffered from his own personal health issues. He suffered a stroke in 1865 and died at the age of 39 just one year later. Had John lived longer and been able to share his talents for another 30 years, we can only guess what impact John would have had on the world of horse training. John Rarey’s contribution to modern-day horse gentling was significant despite his short life span. The principles that were the foundation of the “Rarey Method” are the same principles that are being promoted by the majority of modern “horse whisperers.” Winning the horse’s confidence, gaining his respect and trust, and placing yourself above him on the pecking order are the primary reasons that everything John Rarey was able to accomplish with horses was so successful.

I have no doubt that John was not the first human to take one of the horse’s front legs away using a strap as a one-legged hobble, nor was John the first to ever lay a horse down to begin the gentling process. Exactly how John learned to perfect these techniques will be lost to history. What we do know is that John Rarey tried to share and teach these simple yet effective methods that he had used so successfully throughout his life.

Why taking one leg away from the horse, giving it back, and repeating that process is so effective can be a little difficult to understand until you fully appreciate how the equine mind works. Gently laying the horse down can also make very little sense when we try to rationalize the process in our own minds. Both situations put the horse in a vulnerable state where fleeing becomes difficult, if not totally impossible. It is in this vulnerable moment that we have the perfect timing to convince the horse that we are not the predator but instead someone on two legs that can be trusted. That trust is the necessary foundation for everything that we will ever try to accomplish with our horses.

Eroding that trust is just as simple as gaining it. If we tie a horse up, confine him to a stall, or worse yet, lay him on the ground and beat him for an act that he has previously committed, we will accomplish the exact opposite of what we hope for. Any trust that we may have had or hoped to have will come into serious question for the horse. Anytime our horse does something we are unhappy with, such as kicking out at us, striking, biting, or even something just as simple as not being easy to catch, we can not later get control of that horse, take away his option to flee and then punish him for his earlier behavior.

John’s methods were simple. They worked because they conformed to the horse’s mental process. John had no special gimmicks that you needed to purchase, no carrot sticks or special halters, no videos or DVDs that came in massive sets, only his simple book that gave the reader all of his secrets and why they worked so well. The tools needed to accomplish the same results John achieved are just as simple, a leather strap with a ring sewn in 12 inches from the end for the one-legged hobble and a soft rope to aid in laying your horse down. All of this and the hand at the end of your arm to reward the horse when his actions deserve your praise are all that is really needed. John neither peddled nor sold anything but his books, yet he earned more than a100,000 a year traveling throughout the world and astonishing everyone who witnessed his magical methods of gentling horses. John Rarey not only tamed the most vicious of horses, but he also demonstrated these same techniques could work on any animal. History claims that John once trained a brace of elk to harness and gentled a zebra to the saddle. His methods became so famous that anytime an animal was successfully gentled, it became referred to as “Rareyfying” that animal.

Nancy Bowker has written a book entitled John Rarey: Horse Tamer that makes for some interesting reading. In this book, Nancy relates that John Rarey challenged his generation like no man before him to use the higher qualities of their minds and hearts in training horses rather than their anger, fist, and whips. Nancy also shared her thoughts on a question that I have long thought about: “Do we have to accept the violence and abuse done to horses in the name of training, economics, or sport as just the way it is – or can we do something about it?” In our horses, our dogs, and everything living that we come into contact with, do we not have the power within us to speak up for what is right and “Rareyfy” everything we wish to have an impact on? I believe we do! Authors note: To learn more about John Rarey, go to the internet and Google his name. His book is still available through, and there are some interesting articles like the one in “American Heritage” magazine, AP. 1969, vol. 20 issue 3, which is still accessible online.


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