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The Man Who Could Talk To Horse
John Solomon Rarey was possibly the greatest horse tamer the world has ever seen; his incredible feats made him the toast of Victoria, Napoleon III, and the Czar
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
He was marked by that characteristic of most successful nineteenth-century Americans—sublime self-confidence. His self-confidence was well founded; for his peculiar art carried him, in less than sixty days, from the backwoods of Ohio to the glittering Court of St. James’s. His name was John Solomon Rarey, and when he came out of ncxt-to-nowhere, the village of Groveport in the Buckeye State, where he had been born in 1827, he had an asset which he parlayed into earnings of one hundred thousand dollars a year and invitations to most of the courts of Europe: he could tame vicious horses.
The son of a successful farmer and tavern keeper, Rarey was the youngest survivor of his parents’ eleven children. Without playmates his own age in the frontier settlement, he concentrated on making friends of the farm animals. His search for companionship resulted in a revolutionary concept of horse taming, but not before the family physician had been called three times to deal with the young experimenter’s fractured or dislocated bones. In his twenties, Rarey was testing his method on animals corralled in the wild-horse roundups in Texas, and he had broken a brace of elk to harness so he could drive them to county fairs where he peddled his treatise, The Modern Art of Taming Wild Horses .
Confident that he knew more about that art than any other man who had ever lived, Rarey decided to go to England, where the horse was king, to win the recognition he had never achieved at home. When he reached Liverpool on November 29, 1857, he was described as “about five feet nine inches in height, delicately made, decidedly prepossessing, light haired, light complexioncd, with intelligent gray eyes and an open countenance.” Before two months had gone by, Rarey was using peers of the realm as stooges in his act, and had accepted an invitation from Queen Victoria to attend the wedding of her eldest daughter, the Princess Royal.
A Toronto “general dealer,” R. A. Goodenough, acted as Rarey’s partner-manager after having paved the way for the English campaign by arranging demonstrations before British officers in Canada. Forgetful of their usual reserve after seeing Rarey perform, the Englishmen had dashed oil testimonials to important fellow officers in the homeland, including letters which were to lead the Ohio horse tamer to Sir Richard Airey. In the Crimea, Airey had won the distinction of being “the best soldier on Lord Raglan’s staff.” Now, impressed by the reports from his old comradesin-arms, he quickly arranged a demonstration in which the American would confront horses he had never seen before, beasts acknowledged by their owners as loo vicious to control. While the astounded British officers watched, Rarey promptly rendered the horses as docile as aged sheep dogs.
Rarey’s success was brought to the attention of Colonel Alexander Hood, late of the Scots Guards, and his wife, Lady Mary Hill. Hood, later Viscount Bridport, was groom-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. His wife’s interest in horses that misbehaved was far more personal: her brother, William, had been killed when thrown from his mount in iS.j.i. At Hood’s invitation, Rarey demonstrated his almost hypnotic powers at the Royal Stables at Windsor, and the Colonel and his lady rushed to impart the news to Victoria and her consort, Prince Albeit, who immediately asked for a chance to see for themselves.
Rarey, in a letter to his sister Margaret, dated January 17, 1858, described his demonstration for the royal couple at Windsor Castle: After the royal family entered the Riding House Queen Victoria and Prince Albert came in and to the front, where I was introduced to her Majesty, and the Prince consort, while sitting on the back of a large wild colt which stood perfectly quiet with its head up.
I, facing the party, with my hat in hand, made a short speech to the Queen. A drum was afterwards handed me, which I beat with fury, without the horse exhibiting any signs of fear.
A second horse was tamed, and then a horse belonging to Prince Albert was brought forward, a wild, nervous animal which Victoria’s consort had found too dangerous to use. The horse was placed in a box stall, which Rarey entered. A quarter of an hour later, Victoria and Albert were allowed to approach the stall to see what was going on. As they peered in, they had what was probably one of the most startling surprises of their lives; Queen and consort dissolved in laughter. Albert’s high-strung charger was there all right—lying on its side, its head somewhat raised from the straw as though to watch Rarey. The Ohio horse tamer, as the incredulous Queen noted, was lying beside the horse, using one of its hind legs as a pillow, while its other hind leg was draped across Rarey’s chest. The royal couple summoned the guests to see for themselves, and then Rarey began his usual demonstration that the animal had been made completely docile. He crawled over the horse’s body and sat on its hip. He took the passive animal’s hind feet and knocked them together. Then he crawled under and through its legs and sat on its shoulder, while the horse craned its neck so it could watch the amazing proceedings. At the request of the Queen, Rarey ordered the charger to rise and vaulted onto its back. He then proceeded to show his mastery of the horse by raising an umbrella which he swirled around the animal’s head. Then Rarey beat a tattoo with a drum, and the charger stood stock still.