No horsing around

It used to be believed that someone who had a gift with horses possessed what was known as the ‘Horseman’s Word’. Picture by Alastair Smith
The badly-spelled letter I wrote to my parents when I was eight asking to buy me a black stallion
Me, aged about 11, kitted out in my riding gear

As a little girl, I was mad about horses and when I was eight, I wrote a letter to my parents begging them to get me what I considered the perfect mount for a small child, a black stallion.

I also entered the annual ‘Win A Pony’ competition run by WH Smith in the hope that I’d beat the gazillion other children with the same dream, not stopping to consider whether my parents could afford to look after one, nor with any notion of where we’d put it. When I started to write this, I assumed that such competitions would be prohibited now, but it appears not. Nowadays, those offering winners a real pony have a duty to carry out ‘due diligence’ on entrants, which just wasn’t considered back in the 1970s. Thankfully, competition hopefuls now have to have parental consent and must prove they have the skills, finances and knowledge to take on the substantial commitment of owning a pony.

To my parents’ eternal gratitude, I never won the competition, but the disappointment was softened when they instead agreed to pay for me to have weekly riding lessons at a local stables. That kept me happy until about the age of 15 when, after a particularly miserable wet and cold day in the saddle, I’d had enough and gave up.

I was a distinctly average rider, and can’t say I had any special connection with any of the horses I ever rode. But there are those who have what you might call a ‘gift’ when it comes to communicating with these very intelligent and noble creatures. As my dad mentions in his column from 30th May 1981, people like this were believed to possess a charm known as the ‘Horseman’s Word’.

Those living and working in the equine field used to put great faith in this secret ‘word’, and believed that there were only a select few who knew what it was. When it was whispered into a horse’s ear, it had the effect of instantly calming even the most flighty of steeds.

In 1858, American horse trainer John Rarey brought a new style of training over to England. Rarey had a reputation for being able to rehabilitate vicious or abused horses, and perpetuated the idea of ‘natural horsemanship’ which went against the traditional approach of ‘if the stick doesn’t work, get a bigger stick’. Instead of trying to control a horse through fear, Rarey addressed things from the point of view of the horse, saying that if it kicked, bit or bucked you off, it would be because you had done something wrong, not the horse.

It was a revolutionary concept inspired by Spanish settlers known as the Vaquero who landed in America in the 16th century and brought with them a technique whereby riders worked with the horse’s nature, gaining its trust so that it felt safe and secure around humans. They understood that if you did that, then you were far more likely to get the horse to behave in the way you wanted it to without the need for physical intimidation.

The English assumed that Rarey had the gift of the ‘Horseman’s Word’, although it was never a term he used himself. He was summoned by Queen Victoria to visit a supposedly untameable mare. The queen watched in awe as Rarey placed his hands on the wild beast, which then placidly lay down, and Rarey lay next to it, resting his head on its hooves.

Today we would call someone like him a ‘horse whisperer’, thanks to the term being popularised by Nicholas Evans’ best-selling book of that name which was made into a successful film in 1998 starring Robert Redford. Although the main character is fictional, he is based upon an amalgamation of several people who were famous for training horses in this way, brothers Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman, the latter being the lead equine consultant on the film and a stunt double for Redford.

Brannaman took the approach one step further than his predecessors. He grew up being emotionally and physically abused by his father, and recognised that mistreated horses behave in similar ways to abused children. “They trust no-one and expect the worst. But patience, leadership, compassion and firmness can help them overcome their pasts,” he said.

Surely, right there is a lesson for us all.

Contact me, and read more, at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 4th and the Gazette & Herald on 2nd June 2021

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