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History of Horse Whisperers


Origination of Horse Whisperers

The Horse Whisperer 1998 Motion Picture

A horse whisperer is a horse trainer who adopts a sympathetic view of the motives, needs, and desires of the horse, based on natural horsemanship and modern equine psychology. The term goes back to the early nineteenth century when an Irish horseman, Daniel Sullivan, made a name for himself in England by rehabilitating horses that had become vicious and intractable due to abuse or accidental trauma.

Sullivan kept his methods secret, but people who managed to observe him noticed that he would stand face to face with the troubled horse. They seemed to think that he must be saying something to the horse in a way the horse could understand and accept because the horses were quickly gentled by his mysterious techniques.


Sullivan’s techniques were passed over to Willis J. Powell, who learned them well and traveled widely in the Americas to help the most seriously traumatized horses. His fame spread, and more and more people sought his help. He wrote his own book and later cooperated with John Solomon Rarey. Rarey was very protective of the techniques he had learned, and in early versions of his book did not reveal how the most severely traumatized horses could be salvaged by the methods Sullivan originated. He did, however, always give Powell full credit for his methods of gentling horses. Finally, Rarey became convinced that it was better to reveal the secret method to the world than to risk its loss. That method is fairly faithfully represented in the novel and motion picture called The Horse Whisperer. This motion picture was first aired in 1998 and was directed by and starred Robert Redford. It’s based on the 1995 novel of the same name by Nicholas Evans. In this movie Robert Redford plays the title role, a talented trainer with a remarkable gift for understanding horses, who is hired to help an injured teenager (played by Scarlett Johansson) and her horse back to health following a tragic accident.

Today, numerous trainers and clinicians call themselves horse whisperers, often building on the work of Daniel Sullivan, Willis J. Powell, and John Solomon Rarey in the 1850s. The early twentieth-century's exponents of securing a horse's cooperation by kindness include Tom and Bill Dorrance, and Ray Hunt. In subsequent books authored by the Dorrance brothers (e.g. True Unity) and Ray Hunt (e.g. Think Harmony With Horses), they both advocate a "true understanding" of the horse both as a species and as an individual. The tradition of Horse Whispering is carried on today by trainers such as Dan “Buck” Brannaman who was a student of Ray Hunt. All the Horse Whisperers mentioned above are described in more detail in the following paragraphs respectively.

Horse Whisperer Daniel Sullivan

Daniel Sullivan (died 1810) from Mallow, Co. Cork, Ireland, was the original founder of the most important method of horse training and remediation of abuse that falls outside of the old traditions based upon European schools of dressage. Sullivan was an Irish horse trainer and rehabilitator of horses that had been made intractable or even vicious because of an unusual trauma or extreme abuse. Not very much is known about Sullivan as he was secretive about his actual methods. To the people who were able to watch him at work, he appeared to frequently stand so close to the horse that they assumed he was whispering to the animal. For that reason he became known as the "Horse Whisperer."


Sullivan's secret methods were later practiced by Willis J. Powell, and then by John Solomon Rarey both of whom had significant influence on horse training methodologies during the nineteenth century.


Sullivan's method grew out of obscurity. Some accounts say that he learned his basic method from "a gypsy," but beyond that the trail grows cold. After Rarey's time, several decades go by without there being other notable exponents of Sullivan’s methods. However, his teachings were not forgotten among riders and trainers of horses, and he was occasionally mentioned in the late 1950s. During the next half century, echoes of the Sullivan methodology appeared in the work of more and more trainers who eventually became known as "Horse Whisperers."


Although Daniel Sullivan was born in Ireland, he was also quite active in England and his fame spread beyond those borders. Willis J. Powell came from the United States, but he worked with horses in many countries, including England. Similarly, John Solomon Rarey's work began in the United States, but his fame spread abroad and he was called to England to demonstrate his methods for the royal family. As English-speaking people spread over the globe, the traditions of these trainers were spread by their writings and by trainers who learned directly or indirectly from them.

Horse Whisperer Willis J. Powell

Hope of rediscovering Sullivan's secret methods inspired the American, Willis J. Powell, to learn and adopt Sullivan’s techniques and to write about his own actual practices. In his books, Powell mentions how he had heard of the Irish "horse whisperer," Daniel Sullivan, who had lived a century earlier and says that Sullivan may have practiced the same method(s) of taming horses. He says that he then resolved to re-discover and practice these methods for himself.


Powell traveled from Louisiana to Mexico where he lived for about 12 years, and then to Cuba, Guatemala and California, taming horses. He apparently made a good living doing so. He also was a polyglot, speaking five languages: English, French, Greek, Latin and Spanish.


Powell’s therapeutic methodology was, in turn, transmitted to John Solomon Rarey whose influence on horse training was great during the mid nineteenth century. Powell wrote a book, Tachyhippodamia; on The New Secret of Taming Horses to which John Solomon Rarey's work, Taming of Wild Horses, was appended for publication. This book was issued before Powell died in 1848, but no publishing date was stated in the book itself. A later reprint of this book was published in 1872 in Philadelphia by the W.R. Charter publishing house.

Powell’s Method

Powell says that the way became clear before him when he first realized that horses only offer resistance to humans because of fear. In order to tame a horse one must first quell these fears. To communicate calm and safety to the horse, nothing is more powerful than soothing touch. Once the horse is feeling safe it can become accustomed to things that might otherwise cause it alarm.


Powell outlines steps by which an untamed horse may be approached without arousing alarm, how it may next be touched on larger and larger portions of its body. The same procedure of desensitization is to be followed in regard to all things in the horse-human environment that might cause unneeded fear. Finally, any fear of a saddle is handled in the same way.

Horse Whisperer John Solomon Rarey

John S. Rarey with his horse Cruiser, painted by M. Kellogg, 1860

John Solomon Rarey (1827-1866) was another nineteenth century horse whisperer who became an important figure in the rehabilitation of abused and vicious horses during the 1850s. Originally from Groveport, Ohio, Rarey trained his first horse at the age of twelve. Rarey’s famous techniques for training horses are depicted in the book and movie The Horse Whisperer, whose main character is modeled after Rarey.


John Solomon Rarey’s abilities to tame wild, abused, or vicious horses became legendary and can best be summarized by the below excerpt from the novel The Horse Whisperer written by Nicholas Evans:


“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. The horse they found was Cruiser, a horse kept for breeding but said to be the fiercest horse ever seen. 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. Rarey left instructions for the care of Cruiser in his will. Upon Rarey's death, Cruiser's temper returned.”


Rarey’s method for training horses eventually became known as the "Rarey Technique" and is briefly described below.

The Rarey Technique

John Rarey and Cruiser, illustration from The Complete Horse Tamer by John Rarey, (1860)

The Rarey technique is a method of calming horses that have become vicious and fearful of humans due to abusive handling or other traumatic events. It is named for its inventor, John Solomon Rarey, who became famous for taming violent horses with it, and later for teaching it in various countries around the world. The word rareyfy, meaning "to win by love" or "to tame a horse by kindness" was entered into the English language because of this technique although it is no longer in common usage in this sense today.


Rarey began by tying one of the traumatized horse's legs with a strap so that the horse could not stand on it. This gave him control over the horse and quickly tired the animal out. Then, Rarey would gently but firmly cause the horse to lie down on a comfortable surface. Once the horse was lying on its side, Rarey could use his weight, concentrated at a strategic point, to keep the horse from rising. While the horse was thus unable to protect itself, Rarey showed it that it was still entirely safe with him by touching and stroking it on all parts of its body. The result was that the horse learned that it could be entirely safe in Rarey's company, and from that beginning it became possible to demonstrate to the horse that it did not need to protect itself from other humans.


The Rarey technique was remarkable because:


  • It could be used even by trainers who lacked physical strength.
  • It was a peaceful method of taming, which contrasted with the common opinion at the time that a vicious horse must be "broken" by force and/or violence.
  • Horses so tamed could be handled by anyone, not only the trainer.

Horse Whisperers Tom & Bill Dorrance

Brothers Tom Dorrance (May 11, 1910 - June 11, 2003) and Bill Dorrance (January 19, 1906-July 20, 1999) are considered among the founders of the modern Natural Horsemanship movement. With a background in the Great Basin "Buckaroo" tradition, they promoted natural and gentle methods of horse training emphasizing the "feel" of the horse and close observation of its responses to the handler.


They had a particularly strong influence on Ray Hunt and Hunt's disciple, Buck Brannaman. Many other natural horsemanship practitioners also claim influence from the Dorrance brothers, including Pat Parelli and others.


The Dorrance brother’s methodology on horse training can best be summarized by the following two quotes:


  • "The thing you are trying to help the horse do is to use his own mind. You are trying to present something and then let him figure out how to get there." - Tom Dorrance
  • "When people think of natural horsemanship that could mean a lot of things. It isn't natural for a horse to be around people, and it's not natural for a person to be sitting on him either. When we use these words we speak about what's natural for the horse to do within his own boundaries" - Bill Dorrance

Horse Whisperer Ray Hunt

Ray Hunt (August 31, 1929 – March 12, 2009) was an American horse trainer and clinician of significant influence in the field of natural horsemanship. Hunt was widely regarded as a horse whisperer, and like other horse whisperers, his views about horse-human relations were embraced by inspirational writers about human relations. Mr. Hunt died due to complications stemming from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.


Ray Hunt is often rated as Tom Dorrance's most important student. They met around 1960, at a fair in Elko, Nevada. While Dorrance avoided media attention and clinics, by the mid 1970's Hunt was giving clinics far and wide. Ray Hunt is famous for starting each clinic with the statement "I'm here for the horse, to help him get a better deal." He also liked to say "make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy." His philosophy has been interpreted as "If you get bucked off or kicked or bitten, you obviously did something wrong, and that's just too bad. The horse, on the other hand, is never, ever wrong".


Ray Hunt has published many books and videos on Horse training including:


  • 1978 Think Harmony with Horses: An In-depth Study of Horse/man Relationship
  • 1992 Turning loose with Ray Hunt (video)
  • 1996 Colt starting with Ray Hunt (video)
  • 2001 The Fort Worth Benefit with Ray Hunt (video)
  • Back To The Beginning (video)
  • Ray Hunt Appreciation Clinic: 2005 Western Horseman of the Year (video)
  • Ray Hunt: Cowboy Logic

Ray Hunt was a mentor and teacher of Buck Brannaman.

Horse Whisperer Dan “Buck” Brannaman

Dan M. "Buck" Brannaman is a horse trainer and a leading practitioner within the field of Natural horsemanship, which is a philosophy of working with horses based on the idea of working with the horse's nature. Brannaman advocates using an understanding of how horses think and communicate to train the horse to accept humans and work confidently and responsively with them. One of Brannaman's stated goals is to make the animal feel safe and secure around humans so that the horse and rider can achieve a true union.


Raised in Montana and Idaho, for many years a disciple of Ray Hunt, one of the founders of the Natural Horsemanship movement, and also inspired by Tom and Bill Dorrance, Brannaman now teaches clinics worldwide. Brannaman claims "the goal for clinics really is to just try to get the human being to understand as much about their horse as I can help them to understand."


Though many aspects of the book are fictional, Brannaman was one of several primary individuals who inspired the character of Tom Booker in the Nicholas Evans novel, The Horse Whisperer and was the lead equine consultant for the film of the same name. Evans himself said, "Others have falsely claimed to be the inspiration for Tom Booker in The Horse Whisperer. The one who truly inspired me was Buck Brannaman. His skill, understanding and his gentle, loving heart have parted the clouds for countless troubled creatures. Buck is the Zen master of the horse world." The publicity from the book and movie, along with Brannaman's approach to treating troubled horses and troubled humans with equal doses of compassion has helped promote other fields such as therapeutic horseback riding. In that context, Brannaman has noted, "Horses are incredibly forgiving. They fill in places we're not capable of filling ourselves. They've given people a new hope, a new lease on life. A horse really wants to please you, to get along."


Brannaman had a difficult childhood, characterized by considerable child abuse at the hands of his father, to the extent that he and his brother spent a number of years in foster care placement. He took solace in horses, and learned from his own experiences to look at a situation from the point of view of the horse. He has written, "I've started horses since I was 12 years old and have been bit, kicked, bucked off, and run over. I've tried every physical means to contain my horse in an effort to keep from getting myself killed. I started to realize that things would come much easier for me once I learned why a horse does what he does."


He later used these experiences in his career as a horse trainer, recognizing in difficult animals the same fear and hostile reactions he remembered from his own childhood: "Abused horses are like abused children. They trust no one and expect the worst. But patience, leadership, compassion and firmness can help them overcome their pasts."

In recent years, Mr. Brannaman has become a motivational speaker for groups outside of the horse world, frequently describing the connection between animal abuse and abuse of children and other human beings. "For me, these principles are really about life," says Brannaman, "about living your life so that you're not making war with the horse, or with other people."


Brannaman also is a skilled Trick Roper, having performed rope tricks in television commercials since he was six years old. For his roping abilities, Brannaman also holds two spots in the Guinness Book of World Records. Though Brannaman has said, "... my dad gave us the choice of practicing roping tricks or getting whipped," he still takes pride in his skill, offers roping and cattle working clinics, and retains a close connection to the historic vaquero cowboy tradition of the western United States. Buck Brannaman currently lives with his wife, Mary, in Sheridan, Wyoming.


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