The “horse whisperer” thing was very big a few years ago. All the pony people were doing it or learning how to do it, and then there was that movie with Robert Redford being all craggy and sensitive. Then inevitably came the backlash: a big kahuna of the genre turned out to have, er, improved on his autobiography, and his colleagues lost their shiny new luster as other fads came and went. Some are still out there on the clinic and expo circuit, making a substantial living hocking their special method with its special tools and even, in one case, a whole special pen to do it in (just $2895 plus shipping).
Why bother to blog about it, then? Because for a writer, especially a fantasy or historical writer, there’s still a vein of plotting gold in the person who can talk to horses and the horses will listen.All of these “pony boys” and “game players” and “round-pen reasoners” are simply applying old horsemen’s wisdom and common sense, packaged for the modern consumer. Under the hype and the mythologizing and the marketing is a core of basic truth: that a sufficiently observant and attentive human can communicate effectively with a horse.
Some techniques are just nonsense when they’re not active abuse. The genius who “tames” wild Mustangs by trapping them in a box and pouring in a ton or so of wheat kernels may produce a subdued animal, but it’s the quiet of catatonia. The ones who force a horse to lie down and then sit on him are not much better. They’re triggering one of his worst fears, depriving him of his ability to run and then cutting off all possibility of escape. It’s torture, quite simply.
The writer, being a naturally evil being, can use this. Anyone can write standard abuse–whipping the living daylights out of the horse, starving him, working him to death, and so on–but there are other ways to wreak havoc on the livestock, and this is one. So is the “trainer” who ties up the horse’s leg and leaves him for hours “so he’ll learn not to run away,” or straps his nose to his saddle all day “so he’ll learn to bend.”
That’s the dark side. The light side is as wonderful as the dark is distressing, and can, if done well enough, look like magic–like this video. Here is a close bond between horse and man, deep communication and willing partnership on the horse’s side as well as the human’s.
It’s not about whispering, not literally–but there is a softness to it, and a subtlety that can be all but invisible to the uninitiate. Horses themselves are very subtle communicators–most of their interaction is close to subliminal. A human who can turn the volume down to that level is rare, and what he does takes both talent and long training–with the horses as trainers. See here, but allow time for it; it’s over ten minutes long (and if you can go to the show, do; it will inspire you). Here’s beauty, and a genuine symbiosis of human and equine. It’s extraordinary and wonderful and magical, and it’s all real. You don’t even have to make it up.