They didn’t know how he did it – he did it in secret, with no witnesses. But they had seen the horse acting wild, biting, kicking at people before, and then when he led it out, it was as gentle as a lamb. Some said it was magic potions. Some said he dripped wax down the horse’s ear. Others believed it had to be witchcraft, a deal with the devil, as it was impossible for a mere mortal man to create such a change.
He was a horse whisperer, the first to have the title. He took horses that had been deemed as demons and broke through to them, bringing out their gentle nature. Horses that were afraid, and horses that were violent, all found a friend in him, and changed their personality. He healed broken spirits.
The concept of a horse whisperer is popular today. From the book/movie, to the world of natural horsemanship trainers, people want to have a connection between horse and rider. But before all of this, there was one man, taming horse’s souls with his gentle touch. This man was John Solomon Rarey, legendary horseman, and the original horse whisperer.
Rarey grew up on a farm, with ready access to animals, and limited access to other children. He spent his days interacting with the animals, and discovered a special fondness for the horses. It grew into a complete understanding of the equine mind, but it was not without it’s risk. Rarey said of his early years:
I have never had an accident since I became perfect in my system, and I don’t fear any. I have been among horses since I was twelve years old, and at first had a great many accidents. Every limb has been broken except my right arm, but being young when the accidents happened, the bones fortunately healed strongly.J.S. Rarey, at an exhibit in New York City
His early job out of childhood involved working with wild horses in Texas, and he spent his off time training a pair of elk to pull a cart. He was extremely confident in his horse training abilities, and he wanted to be famous for them. He had already written his first book about training horses, and he would drive his elk to the country fairs to try to sell it.
He decided to move to England to advance his career. It took him less than 60 days to become a household name.
Demonstrating for the Queen
A random American no-name moving to England for fame had a serious challenge ahead of him.
Rarey started out by partnering with a Canadian horse dealer, who gave him an introduction to British officers in Canada. The officers were so impressed, they wrote to their fellow officers back home. Word got around, and Sir Richard Airey, “the best soldier on […] staff,” wanted to see him. They arranged for Rarey to work with a series of difficult horses, and one by one, Rarey gentled them.
As word spread of this feat, more were eager to see. Demonstration led to demonstration until Queen Victoria heard about this incredible horse trainer. She wanted to see for herself.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert invited Rarey to demonstrate on several horses. As Rarey started on the first one, the royal couple had to stay away from the stall. Eventually, they were allowed to approach, and it’s said that the queen dissolved into laughter. The horse was laid down, with Rarey laying beside him, resting his head on on the horse’s hind leg, with the other leg draped over top of him. Rarey continued his demonstration by crawling over the horse’s body and through his legs, and sat on his hip and shoulder. He shook an umbrella around the horse’s head, and then had the horse stand up, and beat a drum while sitting on top of him. The horse remained passive throughout.
Queen Victoria was extremely impressed. Rarey received an immediate tour of the castle, and a monetary gift. She invited Rarey to another demonstration, this time the night before her daughter’s wedding. There would be representatives from many other nations there to witness Rarey’s skill. She either really liked Rarey, or felt kind of awkward with how close it was to her daughter’s wedding, but she invited him to that, too.
The British aristocracy loved him. He set up a subscription service for a series of lectures on training horses, and the Queen signed up immediately, as well as two thousand others. Time spent in England so far: 57 days.
Despite his amazing demonstrations to the noble class of England, not everyone was convinced. The common horsemen of England thought he was a fraud. After all, they still hadn’t seen what he did, and maybe it was just luck. They hadn’t witnessed it for themselves, and since photography wasn’t good enough yet, why should they believe a bunch of likely foolish aristocrats?
The racing writer for the Morning Post scoffed at Rarey, and dared him to take on a real challenge – to spend a a day at the racing track with his fancy pants aristocratic friends, and see if he could ride “Cruiser.” The horse’s owner, Lord Dorchester, thought it was a pretty good idea, too. He promised him 100 pounds if he was able.
Cruiser had once been an amazing racehorse prospect, but somewhere along the way, something went wrong. The horse was uncontrollable. He had kicked two grooms to death. He had to be restrained with a leather and iron muzzle. He went into a fury when someone approached his stall. He lived in a prison, unable to be handled by anyone, and unable to be trusted by anyone. The horse was kept alive out of a hope he’d become calm enough to be used as a breeding stud. It was suggested that the horse’s eyes be gouged out, as a kindness, so the horse could be handled.
Rarey was not frightened by this killer horse, and accepted the challenge.
On the big day, he approached the stall, and went in. Three hours later, he emerged, riding Cruiser. He rode the horse around the paddock, and helped Lord Dorchester into the saddle, and he rode him, too. It was the first time the horse had been ridden in three years.
Lord Dorchester was so impressed, he gifted his interests in the horse to Rarey, who purchased the remaining interest to become sole owner of Cruiser. Cruiser would stay with Rarey throughout his travels, as a demonstration horse, and eventually moved back to Ohio with him. Although Cruiser remained docile for the remainder of his life, special care was taken to keep his life consistent, with only approved visitors and activities, to avoid relapsing back to his early-years rebellious horse ways.
In the beginning, Rarey kept his methods a secret. He would tame client horses in secret, use this proof to gather followers, and then teach them the secrets, swearing them to also keep the secret. He was originally interested in selling his methods in a subscription based format, where clients would purchase a series of lectures on horse training.
But he eventually opened up about his methods, and told his followers they could share it, too. He saw the benefits of spreading this knowledge to many.
Once the secrets were revealed, it turned out that none of his methods involved potions or witchcraft. The secret was understanding and empathy. In his youth, he had spent a lot of time with horses, learning to communicate with them through his body motions. He understood horses on a psychological level, and knew what triggered reactions, and what would calm a horse. He knew to look for injuries on the horse, which could trigger fearful reactions.
Beyond just communication, Rarey believed that the ability for horses to use their muzzles was extremely important. Rarey emphasized that horses used their muzzles the way a human used their hands. Their muzzles would investigate objects and determine if they were safe. By allowing the horse the freedom to use their muzzle, they would be more trusting of whatever was introduced to them.
But simply being gentle didn’t work with all horses. Some horses were beyond that point. That’s when he would use his most powerful technique: laying the horse down. Yes, just like in the end of The Horse Whisperer.
Rarey would attach a strap to the horse’s leg, which then attached to a strap on the horse’s back. Then he would gentle push the horse off balance until he laid down. Rarey said it took about 10 minutes to get the horse laying down. Once the horse was down, he would stroke the horse all over, showing it that even in this incredibly vulnerable position, he was still safe. Rarey would often do this more than once, allowing the horse to stand again, and then laying the horse back down.
Rarey said that this created a bond between him and the horse, and based on their behavior, it would seem he was right.
To go more in depth about his methods, he wrote a couple of books on the topic, which are now available free.
A Traveling Clinician
With Rarey now being open about his methods, he traveled the world to demonstrate. All across Europe, people would bring their horses to his clinics, and he would tame them. Cruiser also traveled with him, as a continuing example of his methods and to demonstrate their continued bond. He did tours of Europe and North America before returning to his home back in Ohio. It had been three years since he left to pursue his dreams of becoming a famous horse trainer.
Apparently being a horse whisperer was a lucrative job back then, and Rarey returned with a large fortune. He used the money to built a mansion for himself and his mother on his childhood property.
He made a home for himself and Cruiser in Ohio, but he soon became restless, wanting to travel again and host more clinics. Preparations for another world tour begin.
The Untimely End
Unfortunately, Rarey was not able to travel again, as he soon suffered a stroke. Although at first he seemed to recover, he ultimately passed away from complications. He was only 38 years old.
Cruiser ended up outliving Rarey by 9 years, continuing to be cared for by Rarey’s estate. When Cruiser did pass, at age 23, he was buried beside him, reunited in death. Today, the lasting link to Cruiser is the school built on Rarey’s old property, Groveport-Madison High School, which calls themselves The Cruisers.
While Rarey had a relatively short career with horses, he made a lasting impact on the industry. In a world were pain and intimidation had been accepted techniques to train horses, Rarey showed there was a different way of training horses, through kindness and understanding. These techniques would become more and more prominent in the horse world, eventually becoming the accepted methods. In today’s world, kindness and understanding is the standard in horse training, with brutality and pain frowned upon, or even illegal.
It’s hard to believe that brutal methods were once accepted to train horses, but there was a time when it was. Thankfully, Rarey was a horse trainer who showed the world that kindness and understanding do more for horses, and create bonds of trust between horse and rider.