The Original Horse Whisperer

John Solomon Rarey (1827 - 1866)

(Exerpt from "The Horse Whisperer" by Nicholas Evans, Delacorte Press, 1995)

There was a man from Groveport, Ohio called John Solomon Rarey, who tamed his first horse at the age of twelve. 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.

It was duly found.

He was a stallion by the name of Cruiser, once the fastest racehorse in the land. Now though, according to the account Annie read, he was a "fiend incarnate" and wore an eight-pound iron muzzle to stop him killing too many stableboys. His owners only kept him alive because they wanted to breed from him and to make him safe enough to do this, they planned to blind him.

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's Technique as Depicted
in "The Horse Whisperer"

In the both the book, and Robert Redford's movie of "The Horse Whisperer," the hero, Tom Booker (Redford), uses Rarey's general approach to horses - respect, gentleness, firmness - to gain the confidence of the high-spirited but horribly traumatized horse, Pilgrim. But the speciific technique that Rarey invented for taming a wild, vicious horse - a technique by which he gained worldwide fame using it repeatedly to completely tame the most malevolent horses in the world in a matter of hours, if not minutes - this technique Tom Booker does not use until the very end of the book, after he has been working with Pilgrim for weeks.

Briefly, the technique consists of hobbling one of the horse's legs with a strap enabling the trainer to completely control the horse and quickly tire him out. The trainer can then make the horse lie down, then stroke and gentle the subdued animal, even laying down on it, until the horse is thoroughly convinced, in the most peaceful way possible, that the trainer is master.

On the left below is a still from the movie of "The Horse Whisperer," in which the Redford character hobbles Pilgrim by strapping up one of his legs. On the right is an illustration from John Rarey's book from the 1860's showing the same technique.

The second pair of pictures shows Tom Booker making Pilgrim lie down, along with Rarey's illustration of the same action.

It's amusing that in the fictional work, Booker's taming of the wild horse is drawn out for dramatic purposes to occupy many weeks of intense effort. Rarey's skill with his own technique made the taming of an ill-tempered horse appear so easy as to be boring - except that it dazzled the entire world in a day when the horse was the primary means of conveyance, even as the automobile is today.

Further, Rarey demonstrated that skillful use of his method could enable the trainer, regardless of physical strength, to quickly tame the most violent horse. And that the tamed horse could then be easily handled by anyone; that is, the horse's taming was not personal to the trainer. This is all the more remarkable in view of the general acceptance of the day that violence and extreme force was the only to "break" a horse.

Rarey became a rich man after he demonstrated his method for Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. He traveled the world teaching the Rarey method, to France, Sweden, Germany, Russia, Norway, Egypt, Turkey, and the Arab countries. In one demonstration he took four hours taming a wild zebra to be ridden like the most docile horse. Newspaper articles were written about him and poems were composed extolling his virtues. In dictionaries of the time the verb "rarefy" appeared, meaning "to win by love, to mollify with oil of kindness, to reclaim a badly broken horse, to tame a horse by kindness." Ralph Waldo Emerson said of Rarey that he "turned a new leaf in civilization." His method was adopted as the official training procedure of the U. S. Army from 1862 until the advent of the Jeep. The English magazine Punch suggested that the Rarey method be practiced on obnoxious politicians, and Harper's Weekly recommended it as a cure for wayward husbands.

Click here for the text and illustrations of John Solomon Rarey's book, "The Complete Horse Tamer," in which he details his famous method. This edition, an inexpensive reprint of his book in cardboard cover, was probably published in the 1870's after his death, though it carries no date. He wrote the original manuscript in 1862, but I have not been able to locate an earlier edition. In this edition the first half of the book is Rarey's writing, and the second half, "The Complete Farrier, or Horse Doctor," is written by John C. Knowlson. Only Rarey's half is presented here.

On their personal webpage, Rich Rarey, of National Public Radio, and his wife, Kerry Thompson, have published the fine biography of John Solomon Rarey written in 1916 by his niece, Sara Lowe Brown.

This website was created by Damon Rarey, whose great-great grandfather, George Solomon Rarey, was uncle to John Solomon Rarey.

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