- Historic Sites
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
The royal household had never before witnessed such entertainment, and the response was immediate. Rarey was, as he wrote to his sister, given a grand tour of the castle “from kitchen to cellar, the state rooms and the Queen’s private rooms.” In addition to dining at Windsor Castle the next day, Rarey received a “gift,” in the form of a check for one hundred and twenty-five dollars, by order of the Queen. More important for his career, he was invited to give a second demonstration for the crowned heads of Europe who were crowding into London for the forthcoming marriage of Princess Victoria and Prince Frederick William of Prussia.
The wedding was to take place January 25, with Rarey scheduled to perform the preceding night; the audience, he boasted to his sister, would include “more royalty perhaps than has ever been brought together on any previous occasion.” The affair, staged in the magnificent riding school of Buckingham Palace, was very much in the way of a family party, with such familiars as the second Duke of Wellington and Rarey’s new pupil, Lord Alfred Paget, in attendance. Paget, son of the first Marquess of Anglesey and equerry and clerk-marshal of the royal household, played stooge in the taming act as Rarey demonstrated his mastery over a livery-stable horse which had won a reputation for violence. The supposedly vicious animal cantered from one end of the arena to the other at Rarey’s whistle, followed the horse tamer about like a pet dog, and, on command, lay on its side. Then, as the riding school rocked with royal laughter, Paget ran a wheelbarrow up and down a plank placed on the unresisting side of the completely docile beast. Queen Victoria led the applause, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes; afterward she sent word that Mr. Rarey would find a place reserved for him in the chapel of St. James’s Palace the following morning so that he could witness the wedding of her eldest daughter.
Rarey had been in England only fifty-seven days, but from that point on the success of his career was never in doubt. Two of the most knowledgeable horsemen in England, Richard and Edmund Tattersall, rushed to set up a Rarey Horse Taming Subscription. The Queen herself headed the list of two thousand subscribers for the series of lectures on the “humane taming of horses,” at a charge of ten guineas, which was equal to the not inconsiderable sum of fifty-two dollars and fifty cents. Mark Lemon, one of the founders of Punch , the English humor magazine that reserved some of its more barbed shafts for Americans, became a Rarey fan of almost embarrassing devotion. By mid-March, Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, signed a testimonial to the effectiveness of the American’s methods, along with such other pupils as the Marquess of Stafford, vice president of the Four Horse Driving Club; the Duke of Abercorn; Lord Dufferin, lord-in-waiting to the royal household; Vice Admiral H. J. Rous, the leading authority of the Jockey Club on all racing matters; and the second Duke of Wellington, the eldest son of the conqueror of Napoleon, who held the appointment as master of the horse from 1852 to 1858.
This list of titled supporters makes it clear that Rarey had convinced the aristocracy of his prowess, but the test which was to make him a hero to the English man-on-the-street still lay ahead. “Argus,” the racing writer for the popular Morning Post , dared Rarey to “go down some morning to Murrell’s Green [a sporting center near Ascot] with a few of his aristocratic friends, and try ‘Cruiser’ and if he can ride him as a hack, I guarantee him immortality, and an amount of ready money that would make a British Bank director’s mouth water.” Lord Dorchester, who had the distinction of being the co-owner of “the most vicious stallion in England, who could do more fighting in less time than any horse in the world,” was amused at the American’s ready acceptance of the challenge. Dorchester bet Rarey one hundred pounds he could not tame the horse in three months, and personally escorted him to Cruiser’s stable.
As they approached the brick prison where the animal had been confined behind a stout oak door, Dorchester briefed the American on Cruiser’s history. Foaled in 1852 and a Derby favorite in 1855, the horse had gone bad and turned killer. On one occasion, such was Cruiser’s fury that it had been necessary to remove the roof of a public stable and rig a derrick in order to extract the horse from the building. After he had kicked two grooms to death and bit in two a one-inch iron bar on the wall of his stable, Cruiser had been restrained by an iron and leather muzzle. Dorchester had sold the animal on one occasion, but had been forced to take him back as too dangerous for use. Some gentle souls suggested that if the horse’s eyes were gouged out he might be quieted down enough to serve for breeding purposes. At present, Dorchester told Rarey, the mere approach of a human was enough to send the stallion into a frenzy of rage.
Three hours later the American led the animal from its prison and rode it quietly around the paddock. He then assisted Dorchester into the saddle, and he, too, was able to ride the one-time killer. It was the first time the horse had been ridden in three years. The challenge to Rarey had been public, and the triumph was equally so. Dorchester is said to have presented to Rarey the half interest he owned in Cruiser; later the Ohioan became the sole owner of the animal by buying the other half interest, which was held by a breeding company.