Since the 1998 movie, the phrase “horse whisperer,” or some variation thereof, has become ubiquitous in pop culture, from Cesar Milan’s Dog Whisperer to Jennifer Love Hewitt’s Ghost Whisperer. However, the training method itself is a serious issue that was quite innovative when it was first introduced. The earliest known practitioner was Daniel Sullivan, an Irish trainer working in England in the 17th century.
Sullivan was able to rehabilitate vicious and disturbed horses otherwise thought lost. The American horseman Willis J. Powell took Sullivan as his role-model in the early 19th century, when he wrote Tachyhippodamia; or, The New Secret of Taming Horses. John Solomon Rarey studied with Powell and was the one to finally share the secrets with the world.
Horse whispering today is very similar to these early techniques, which consist of creating a relationship with the horse, even “whispering” to it to soothe violent activity and behavior. It goes against the traditional idea of breaking a horse, which can lead to disasters such as when a famed horse-breaker’s animals were unable to perform because of their fear of cheering and applause, golf betting.
Jeffrey Rolo mentions this incident in his article “The Fatal Flaw Behind Horse Breaking,” and also suggests that such techniques are likely to create either easily scared and distrustful animals or the sorts of violent creatures that Sullivan had to rehabilitate.
Many trainers today practice the philosophy of horse whispering. One of the best-known is Buck Brannaman, who was an adviser on the 1998 Robert Redford film The Horse Whisperer. Brannaman compares violent animals to victims of child abuse and believes that the more compassionate system of horse whispering is a better way to earn their trust and cooperation than any other technique. If you’re a horse lover as well, then you probably already agree.