The Origins of Horse-whispering

Long before horse-whispering attracted public attention during the 1980s, there was a mysterious groups of people who were believed to possess the ability to control horses. This was at a time when horses were relied upon as the major source of transport, before the advent of mechanised vehicles.

Horses, and especially stallions, can of course prove to be dangerous animals. It was widely thought that some people, including witches, could acquire mysterious powers which enabled them to affect the behaviour of even the wildest horses.


Prominent amongst these was the group known as toadmen, so-called because they were thought to rely on a bone taken from a dead toad for this purpose. Firstly though, in a grusome ritual, the toad itself had to be placed over an ant's nest until its body had been reduced to a skeleton by the insects.

This was then carefully placed in a clear, fast-flowing stream. The first bone to be washed off by the current was retrieved and offered magical powers to a toadman. In some cases, it was apparently necessary to take the bone to a graveyard where the Devil would appear on the third night and try to steal the bone.

As recently as 1908, belief in toadmen still survived. At Bourne, in the English county of Cambridgeshire, one of the workers at the local blacksmith's forge was accused by a farmer of stealing money. When the farmer visited the smithy in a pony and trap, the man was seen to draw a handkerchief across his face. The pony then refused all the farmer's inducements to move, and stayed there all day.

The man finally released the pony by walking over and simply patting its neck. His fellow workers were amazed by this display but the toadman warned them not to follow his example. He explained that it was a dangerous craft which drew on the Devil's powers.

Horseman's Word

Early horse mural

Horses, like many animals, are very receptive to the tone of voice used by their handler. The mysterious Horseman's Word was a secret charm which reputedly offered those who knew it total control over all horses.

Such people were normally members of a secret horseman's society, which encompassed those who worked most closely with horses, such as farriers, grooms and coachmen.

One of the strongest of these societies was based in Scotland and called the Brotherhood of the Horseman's Word. This group was active from the late 1800s up until the 1930s, in the area around Huntly in Aberdeenshire. Such associations may not even have died out totally today.

The annual initiation ceremony was traditionally held at the time of Martinmass on November 11. Invitations to those selected to join the brotherhood were usually sent out in the form of a single horse hair in an envelope. They were then summonsed on the appointed night, blindfolded and taken to an isolated barn.

Here they received the mystical word of command which they were sworn never to reveal. The initiates were then made to shake hands with the Devil. This could sometimes be a man wearing a horned mask and concealed beneath a calf skin to give it an eerie glow. There followed a period of celebration until dawn, when finally, the Horseman's Toast was drunk.

Members of the Brotherhood had a special handshake so that they could recognise each other when they met. They also had a distinctive way of tying their plough reins and arranging the trees of the plough, which would also serve to identify them to their fellow brothers.

Individual success

Some individuals are also known to have had a remarkable ability to tame even the most ferocious stallion single-handedly. One such person was the American called James S. Rarey (1827-1866).

In 1858, soon after his arrival in London, he successfully tame Cruiser, a dangerous, unpredictable stallion owned by Lord Dorchester. By this stage, the horse had already killed three people and could only be approached by a groom wielding a powerful stick.

Rarey entered the yard on his own, however, with no means of defending himself. According to eyewitness accounts, Cruiser immediately charged at him, but pulled up sharply as soon as Rarey spoke, although no-one was close enough to hear what he said.

The reaction was immediately evident though. The stallion stood quite still, and trembled a little, while allowing Rarey to touch him (see right). The onlookers, including Lord Dorchester himself, were amazed.

On other occasions, it seemed that Rarey used just a single word or phrase to calm a troublesome horse. While he never claimed any knowledge of the Horseman's Word, there were many who believed that he possessed this gift.