What is a Horse Whisperer?

Posted on August 11, 2017 by Jerrilee.
Categories: history.

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photo of Nevzorova & horse courtesy,Lydia Nevzorova

Near the beginning of the 19th century, the slow and bulky oxen used for farming began to yield to the use of draft horses. The horse’s greater efficiency and speed was welcome but their belligerent attitude was not. Many an agriculturist found themselves in dangerous disagreement with their plow-horse. A collection of horsemen in Scotland collaborated to design a new, and soon to be, powerful profession. They named it simply:  The Society of the Horseman’s Word.

The aim of the “Society” was to gather the local blacksmith, horse tamer, and dealer together under one listing, and offer the public a core of qualified horse professionals. The Society’s fees for membership guaranteed its members a place in the forefront of all public inquiries for horse services.  The public would gain a standardized quality of work and the coveted use of its members’ mystical, ‘supernatural’ power. You see, Society members were taught to practice incantations and rituals to give the impression that magical spells could control cantankerous horses. As local farmers signed on to the Society’s services, they felt the members did indeed fix their recalcitrant horses. In fact, they coined and attached the words  ‘horse-witchers’ to Society members to describe the magical way the horses seemed to settle down during such magical sessions. For instance, a Society member would draw a circle round the horse, then they would chant while shaking a magical object, until at last they would whisper a special ‘word’ into the horse’s ears. The phrase ‘horse-witcher’ then evolved to ‘horse whisperer’ as members modified the sessions to just whispering into the ears of the horses. The popularity of the ‘Society of the Horseman’s Word’ escalated, not only throughout Scotland but into parts of England as well.  When the technique crossed the ocean, the phrase ‘horse whisperer’ became the highest endorsement of a horse professional’s talent.
Of course, the industrialization of the 20th century brought an end to the era of the horse. The invention of the tractor and the car permanently changed the course for horses. Even the cavalry disbanded after the 1940’s, leaving horses to become just another expensive luxury. The Scottish ‘Horseman’s Society’ that had monopolized and ruled the horse industry for so long with its “horse whispering” techniques slipped quietly into oblivion by 1930.

So, was horse whispering actually “discovered” by the Scottish? Only the phrase ‘horse whisperer’ originated from The Society of the Horseman’s Word. It was nearly two thousand years before the Society was even formed that Alexander the Great, and Xenophon the Greek, (both horse masters from around 300-355 BC), showed such compassion and logic in their training that they are considered among the first documented “horse whisperers”.  In fact, Xenophon was the first horse master to write a book on meeting the horse through its ‘soul’.  Fast forward to the mid-1600’s and you find another application of horse whispering techniques. Known only by the name Pietro, a young Neapolitan gained notoriety through his singular success with a wild barb horse named, Mauraco. An intensely dangerous animal, Mauraco was the great ‘untameable’. Many professionals failed with their use of both torture and deprivation to make this black horse submit. It was Pietro who decided to see if a rewards program might gentle him. Through use of treats and kindness, he successfully educated the horse to respond to subtle hand gestures that indicated a certain trick to perform. Mauraco is one of the first known horses who could sit, kneel, lie down, jump through hoops, and even take a glove to someone Pietro pointed toward in the audience. Pietro completely won the horse’s co-operation and gentleness with his rewards method.  He promoted his training technique in public with shows throughout the European Continent. Unfortunately, the trainer was too far ahead of his time. Performing his show in the city of Arles, France,  he induced hysteria in the townspeople. It was black magic, they claimed. The casual hand movements and ear-whispering were putting demons into the horse. The town demanded the horse and master be executed, and sadly, both were burned to death on the spot.

Today’s current use of the term ‘horse whispering’ resurfaced through such individuals as Tom Dorrance and Monty Roberts. Both authors have written excellent books promoting the harmony of horse and rider. They have renewed the message of using intelligence in horse training. Tom’s book “True Unity” is a must read for every horseman. Monty’s book, “The Man Who Listens To Horses” explains: “A good trainer can hear a horse speak to him. A great trainer can hear him whisper.” Monty learned the body language that wild horses use to communicate among themselves, and began using this same horse ‘language’ to teach his horses in training. It was a  revolutionary breakthrough, bridging the gap between the human and the equine, creating a common ground that connects the horse straight to the ‘human intent’.  “Capture their willingness and …make them happy to work” wrote Xenophon of the horse. Here is a definite and clear declaration of both the spirit and origin of the ancient art of horse whispering.

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Monty Roberts & horse

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