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The Man Who Could Talk To Horse

July 2024
11min read

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

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.

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.

While in the popular mind the taming of Cruiser was always the peak of Rarey’s triumphs, it did not represent the most tiring of his battles. It took four hours for him to train a zebra to the saddle, and a half-mad coaching stallion, Stafford, nearly ended the exposition of the Rarey method when it fastened its teeth on the horse tamer’s shoulder during a private confrontation in Paris. Only hasty action by manager Goodenough, armed with a pitchfork, saved Rarey. The Paris Illustrated Journal recited the scarcely believable details of the Ohioan’s public demonstration with the animal:
Mr. Rarey concluded his first exhibition by beating a drum on Stafford’s back and passing his hand over his head and mouth. Stafford was afterward ridden by a groom, and showed the same docility in his hands as in those of Mr. Rarey.

Mr. Rarey succeeded on the first attempt in putting him in harness with a mare, although he had never had his head through a collar before; and he went as quietly as the bestbroken carriage horse in Paris. Mr. Rarey concluded by firing a six chambered revolver from his back.

Novelist Théophile Gautier joined the French Emperor Louis Napoleon in public praise of the remarkable American, while the lion of German science, Baron Alexander Von Humboldt, nearing his ninetieth year, expressed the hope that he would live long enough to meet the horse tamer from Ohio. His wish was granted, and the Baron attended a dinner in Rarey’s honor.

For most of his triumphs—and he averaged several public exhibitions a week—Rarey’s quiet approach, his seemingly intuitive understanding of the psychology of the horse, his measured gestures, and his wellmodulated voice were sufficient. But when confronted by hard cases, such as Cruiser and Stafford, Rarey took additional steps, and they were all dangerous ones. Moving with a light, springy step about the horse, he would draw up the animal’s near foreleg close to its body and fasten it in that position with a short strap. With one foreleg drawn up in this manner, the horse had difficulty maintaining balance and could not kick or buck. Next Rarey fastened one end of a long strap around the lower part of the horse’s far foreleg and passed the other end through a loop in a belt which he had put around the animal’s belly. Now the trainer could quickly bring the horse to its knees. Rarey explained the procedure this way:
Keep the strap tight in your hand, so that he cannot straighten his leg if he rises up.

Hold him in this position, and turn his head towards you; bear against his side with your shoulder, not hard, but with a steady, equal pressure, and in about ten minutes he will lie down. As soon as he lies down, he will be completely conquered, and you can handle him as you please.

No cruelty had been involved, no spurs, whips, twitches, beatings, or blood-letting to weaken the animal. Instead, the beast soon began to undergo an experience unlike any it had ever known before.

One of Rarey’s pupils, S. Sidney, hunting correspondent of the Illustrated London News , described the next step in the proceedings:
Smooth his ears, rub his legs, scrape the sweat off him gently with a scraper, rub him down with a wisp or brush, give him a drink of water, then go over him again as if you were a shampooer at a Turkish bath … rubbing his head, breathing in his nostrils.

One of the curious results of the Rareyfying or strapping up and laying down is, that after being duly shampooed or mesmerized, the moment he rises he seems to have contracted a personal affection for the operator.

Rarey maintained that since “seeing, smelling, feeling and hearing are the senses by which the horse examines every strange object, we may, by allowing him to exercise these senses, reconcile him to any object or sound that does not hurt him.” While “Rareyfying” a horse, the Ohioan was able to convince the animal that it was quite all right to have a pistol fired near its head, a drum beaten loudly, or a whip cracked above its ears. So astonishingly effective was the procedure that Punch suggested the extension of the Rarey methods to obnoxious politicians, and Harper’s Magazine foresaw them as a cure for wayward husbands.

Honors continued to be showered on the Ohioan: Victoria’s court danced to the “Rarey Waltz,” and the King of Sweden expressed his gratitude for an exhibition in Stockholm by presenting Rarey with a medal giving him entrance to all royal palaces and arsenals. Launched on a world tour, Rarey astounded Czar Alexander at St. Petersburg by his mastery of the wildest animal that could be corralled on the steppes. In the Middle East he rode with the Arabs and found they had nothing to teach him. When he returned to England in the spring of 1860, his audiences at the Crystal Palace averaged eight thousand a night.

And then, almost three years to the day after he had left the United States, Rarey sailed homeward with Cruiser, his fame running well in advance. While the Civil War engulfed his homeland, Rarey continued on tour with spectacular performances in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. Prizes were offered for the most vicious horses that could be found to test his skill. At Niblo’s Gardens in New York City, Rarey and Edwin Forrest, the great tragedian, were the star attractions, appearing on alternate nights. In Boston, Ralph Waldo Emerson was so impressed that he as- serted that the horse tamer’s methods had “turned a new leaf in civilization.” William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist, hailed Rarey for substituting “the law of love for the spirit of brutality” and unblushingly invoked for him “the horse-pitality of the world.” On December 14, 1862, at the invitation of Major General Henry Halleck, Rarey paid a visit to the Army of the Potomac, where he gave instruction in his method to Union cavalry officers.

The war, however, had brought uncertainty to theatrical tours with Cruiser; moreover, although still a young man, Rarey was exhausted. Returning to Groveport, he busied himself with the construction of a mansion for himself and his widowed mother on the site of the modest home in which he had been born. With the end of the war came plans for a new tour of Europe, where the sweetest memories of triumph still lingered. Groveport was beginning to lose some of the charm remembered from boyhood. Geniuses have little standing in “the old home town,” and scandal has a long tongue. “My grandparents seemed more concerned about his reputation with the ladies than his fame,” a present-day member of the Rarey family recalls. “Poor man, his travels were a little too much for the conservative town of Groveport.”

A paralytic stroke in December of 1865, shortly after his thirty-eighth birthday, blasted Rarey’s plans for the new tour. He seemed to be recovering when death came suddenly on October 4, 1866, as he was visiting in Cleveland. Nearly twenty years later, his old pupil Sidney wrote of him: “Rarey’s reputation has suffered from the inevitable reaction after an extraordinary season of sensation, and it is often sneered at by writers who are ignorant of, or incapable of comprehending the principles of horse breaking which he illustrated in his lectures.”

Today in the land of his birth Rarey remains virtually unknown. No tourists now come to see his grave in the Groveport cemetery or to ask about the story (untrue) that Cruiser, who was provided for in his will and outlived him nine years, lies besides him. The football team of the Groveport-Madison High School, which stands on the site of the old Rarey mansion, remains one tiny link with an American legend that is now all but forgotten: the players call themselves The Cruisers.


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