What is the ancient craft of ‘Horse Whispering’?

The origins of Horse Whispering


My Grand Father was a Welshman, a Gypsy and a horse whisperer and when I was very young, before he died I remember how he would be able to talk to these four legged strangers in fields and stables around the UK with ease – I know, I watched him in stunned silence many times – his connection with horses was nothing short of remarkable. Which got me thinking, where did this talking to horses and training them this way originate – where did it come from and why?

Well it all started a long time ago. Throughout the first, and a good deal of the second, millennium, the Horse was regarded by many as a mystical animal.  The names of certain horses, like Alexander’s Bucephalus or Caligula’s Equine Roman senator Incitatus have achieved lasting historical fame, while others, such as El Morzillo – mount to Hernando Cortes during his 1525 campaign to conquer Mexico – came to be regarded as Gods!


Some advice from Xenophon’s book:

The groom should stroke or scratch the colt, so that he enjoys human company, and should take the young horse through crowds to accustom him to different sights and noises.

Modern horse whisperer Frank Bell advocates giving pleasure to the horse first in order to build trust. Clinton Anderson has produced a series of DVDs to accustom horses in advance to sounds they will encounter at horse shows and parades.

The one great precept and practice in using a horse is this – never deal with him when you are in a fit of passion. A fit of passion is a thing that has no foresight in it, and so we often have to rue the day when we gave way to it. Consequently, when your horse shies at an object and is unwilling to go up to it, he should be shown that there is nothing fearful in it, least of all to a courageous horse like him; but if this fails, touch the object yourself that seems so dreadful to him, and lead him up to it with gentleness. Compulsion and blows inspire only the more fear; for when horses are at all hurt at such a time, they think that what they shied at is the cause of the hurt.

All the modern natural horsemanship trainers stress the importance of remaining calm and quiet during training, reassurance over punishment, and careful baby step-by-baby step desensitisation when dealing with fearful horses.

If you desire to handle a good war-horse so as to make his action the more magnificent and striking, you must refrain from pulling at his mouth with the bit as well as from spurring and whipping him. Most people think that this is the way to make him look fine; but they only produce an effect exactly contrary to what they desire, they positively blind their horses by jerking the mouth up instead of letting them look forward, and by spurring and striking scare them into disorder and danger. This is the way horses behave that are fretted by their riders into ugly and ungraceful action; but if you teach your horse to go with a light hand on the bit, and yet to hold his head well up and to arch his neck, you will be making him do just what the animal himself glories and delights in. So when he is induced by a man to assume all the airs and graces which he puts on himself when he is showing off voluntarily, the result is a horse that likes to be ridden, that presents a magnificent sight, that looks alert, that is the observed of all observers.

It is not difficult to imagine the impact of mounted troops on peoples who had never before seen a horse, let alone a man seated on top!

Clearly, such was the power of the horse that a man able to harness it to his will rose above the level of the ordinary man in pre-industrial times.  And to those who lacked the skills, and were in awe of the ability to control such power, the horseman could all too easily be believed to have mystical knowledge.

For many, ‘mystical knowledge’ suggested use of the arts of sorcery and witchcraft, and it is not surprising that some particularly skilful trainers were burned as witches. In fact it was not only the trainer who was at risk.  In the case of a horse called Mauroco who performed in the French town of Arles in the 17th century, the horse was burnt along with the trainer!  How many more might have suffered the same fate is not well recorded, but we can safely say that any man or woman who exhibited unusual ability was liable to be denounced.

As long as it remained possible that a charge of witchcraft might bring about a terminally abrupt end to a horse-trainer’s career there was a need for secrecy.  Just to be seen talking to an animal was quite enough to attract a charge of devil-worship! The early Christian church did not take to such ideas at all well – along with the earth revolving around the sun and suchlike!

It is no wonder then that those who were skilful also became somewhat tight-lipped about their work, and often chose to do it in a place that was safe from prying eyes. So, we have mysticism, secrecy and silence – all the required ingredients for the creation of a myth!

Once the practice of burning witches had finished, showman practitioners began to flourish. The aura of mystery remained, but this could now be turned towards attracting a crowd and, along with the crowd – their money!

One such man was Dan Sullivan from Mallow in County Cork , Ireland .  The story goes that Dan would take a previously unmanageable horse and, by whispering a few words into its ear, make it docile and well-behaved.  Apparently Dan had learned this secret from a penniless soldier in a public house, who had been taught it himself by a mystic in India where he had served. The soldier gave Dan the secret for the price of a meal, and the ‘Whisperer’ was on his way.  But there was obviously more to it than just whispering a few words.  Dan’s method involved taking the horse into the secrecy of a barn or shed from which the horse would emerge, completely subdued and in a state of terror.  On what took place in the barn Dan’s lips remained sealed.

It makes a good story, but it would have been even better if the horses Dan treated had stayed well-behaved.  Alas no.  They returned to their old ways once away from Dan’s influence. Some said that Sullivan’s method, whatever it was, was cruel, and that he damaged the reputation of those ‘whisperers’ who, by some innate gift, were able to quiet the most unruly horse. Whatever the truth was, the term ‘horse whisperer’ had arrived.

The whisperers were sometimes also said to have the ‘horseman’s word’.  Secret societies such as the Horseman’s Word and the Toadmen sprang up throughout Britain and were in existence for many generations. Initiates would, as is common in Masonic ritual, first be bound to secrecy, be made to undergo an ‘ordeal’, and then be given the secret of ‘the word’. One supposed version of this was ‘Both in One’.

There were indeed some strange rituals associated with some of these societies. One such was called the ‘Water of the Moon’, and was commonly practised in East Anglia and Cambridgeshire regions of England . The ritual required that the horseman kill a frog or toad and hang the body on a thorn tree until only the skeleton remained.  At full moon the man then had to take the skeleton to a running stream and throw it into the water.  One small forked bone would detach itself from rest and float upstream, and it was this bone from which the horseman would then derive devil-given power over horses. Such were the Toadmen; whisperers with a demonic covenant!

Of course many of the old horsemen were extremely good – their whole livelihood and safety depended on their ability to achieve a good working relationship with the equines in their care. And it is also true that there are people who do seem to have a natural flair for working with horses. But this has nothing to do with ‘whispering’ or pacts with the devil, and an awful lot to do with body language,  personal temperament and, perhaps most important of all, patience, kindness and a real affection for horses.

An Old Horse circa 1755 by Thomas Gainsborough 1727-1788

For every gifted horseperson there are, and always have been, untold numbers of charlatans whose primary interest is lightening the purses of the unwary and gullible.

Take for example the classic case of ‘Professor’ Sample and his ”Marvellous Horse Taming Machine”.  Sample arrived in London in 1885 bringing with him his machine, with which he declared he could tame three or four wild horses an hour. The machine consisted of a platform onto which a horse would be loaded and secured, and which would then be spun by a steam engine until the horse was made quite dizzy. Unfortunately for the self-styled professor the machine failed to work during several public displays in theatres of the time. Such was the design that the mechanism would only function when sited on a level surface, and theatre stages are commonly angled down toward the audience – otherwise, and heaven forbid, people might be spinning horses to this day!

Even though the flamboyant Sample failed to prove that his ‘system’ worked, and was finally discovered to have rigged a horse-taming challenge with ‘Leon the Celebrated Mexican Horse-Tamer’ (an ex pupil of Sample’s who was in fact an Australian printer’s clerk called Franklin) another of his pupils was to add a significant element to our knowledge of horses. Sydney Osborne, another Australian – better known as ‘Professor’ Galvayne’, was to invent a system of telling a horse’s age by its teeth.

Horsemanship in the 1800s was still an unscientific practice, perhaps due, in part, to the mysticism of the past.  The following bizarre suggestion is taken from a collection called The Horsekeeper’s Handbook of Tips and Wrinkles and titled “How to Handle a Savage, Vicious Horse”

“Approach the horse firmly, fixing your gaze upon his eye. Have in your hand a six-chambered revolver, loaded with blank cartridges. The moment he attempts to savage you, fire, not point blank at him, but directly in front of his face. This will give the horse a sudden shock and take his attention. If he is in a stall this is your opportunity. Before he has time to recover himself, rush in and seize him by the headstall, and again discharge the revolver close alongside his face, saying: ‘What do you mean?’ ‘How dare you!’ (presumably in a stern voice!)

As the heyday of horse power waned with the introduction of modern machinery the whisperers passed into the twilight -a myth, born out of ignorance, and shrouded in secrecy and superstition, whose day had passed. But has it? Just try an internet search for ‘horse+whisperer’ and you will be amazed at the number of hits.  Whisperers, it seems, now come in both genders and all shapes and sizes, and variously offer ‘horse whisperer training techniques’, ‘secret techniques’ and even whisperers with ‘clairvoyant understanding’. There are ‘whispering’ challenges and time trials, courses offering to teach the horseman’s word, in fact a whole little industry whose various journeyman gurus circle the globe performing brief but expensive clinics and seminars for the ‘enlightenment’ of the horse owner, so perhaps nothing has really changed!

And – as has, no doubt, always been the case – there are those who quietly go about the business of altering the way in which we view and manage the horse, and exposing the typical master-servant relationship to the light of twenty first century ethics. Finally perhaps the true mystique of the horse is that, through our relationships with them, we are able to rediscover that precious connection between us and the rest of creation – a truly mystical oneness that is not bought and sold, and requires neither show nor whisper!

How can you learn to be a horse whisperer?

“Horses only offer resistance to humans because of fear. In order to tame a horse one must first quell their fears. To communicate calm and safety to the horse, nothing is more powerful than soothing touch.”

To answer this question, horse whispering encompasses many forms of communication using all our senses. A horse whisperer can:

Use their body language to speak equine

Use observation to learn the equine language

Use their focus and attention to speak to the horse

Use their intuition to hear the horse

Use empathy to understand the horse’s needs, desires, motivations and fears

And remember, even though it is called horse whispering, the most important part of it is learning to listen to horses!

Photo credits: ‘Xenophon and the Ten Thousand Hail the Sea’ by John Steeple Davis (1844-1917)






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