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.
His 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 protective of the tradition he had thus learned, and in early versions of his own book did not reveal how the most severely traumatized horses were salvaged by the methods Sullivan originated. He did, however, always give Powell full credit for his methods of gentling horses. Finally he 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 The Horse Whisperer.
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.
Dorrance's True Unity and Hunt's Think Harmony With Horses advocate "true understanding" of the horse.
Some well-known trainers using and advocating similar methods today include:
- Pat Parelli
Literature and film
- On Horsemanship - A treatise by Xenophon, one of the earliest teachings on equitation and training
- The Horse Whisperer - the novel and the movie
- In the classic literature novel Dracula (1897), author Bram Stoker alludes to horse whisperer techniques in the first chapter, as Jonathan Harker travels with the mysterious coachman to Dracula's castle. The coachman calms the horses amid the wolves howling by whispering in their ears and caressing them "with extraordinary effect".