Skip to main content

A Scientific View Of Rarey

July 2024
3min read

How did John Rarey do itt Was there a scientific basis to his amazing feats? Does his technique stand up in the light of current theories about animal psychology? In order to answer these questions, AMERICAN HERITAGE asked Dr. F. Dudley Klopfer of the department of psychology of Washington State University to read our article on Rarey. Here is Dr. Klopfer’s opinion.

At times the behavioral scientist, L. from some lofty pinnacle of mod- eni theory, can effectively predict the behavior of anjmals and successfully recommend the best procedure for taming them. It was Rarey’s genius to discover such techniques in the absence of any theory at all and more than half a century prior to any of the observations on which modern theory is based.

Much of the evolution of the horse occurred on plains and prairies, where flight was an effective mode of defense. Not only did horses become good runners; they became increasingly sensitive to and fearful of any unusual stimulation and developed a keen ability to learn from painful experience. Living in herds, because this provided familiarity in a potentially bewildering environment, they benefited from the presence of other horses who might detect predators or other dangers which a lone horse could miss. Chaotic relations within the herd were prevented and social status was enforced by mild punishment—nipping, crowding, or, more rarely, kicking. In time the horse became adept at using these kinds of social control to achieve its most desired objective, the withdrawal of opponents.

Although highly trainable, the horse is an animal that does not give up its vices under the application of strongly aversive stimulation, such as whipping or scolding, but withdraws instead. If it cannot flee, but is held in a stall or on a tether, then it bucks, rears, kicks, and bites. Often the presence of man is enough to set off this unfriendly behavior, and the animal is looked on as wild or vicious. Whether through its wildness the horse manages to escape, or whether its behavior drives the man away in fear, the result is the same: the vicious behavior is rewarded, and the horse is likely to repeat it. Wildness, in short, is learned; removing it is a matter for training.

Nearly forty years ago, E. R. Guthrie, the famous behaviorist, described one method of training that would not work: punishment. It simply produces the kind of behavior the tamer is trying to remove, and the tamer himself becomes the stimulus for further conditioned, i.e. , learned, wildness and viciousness. Guthrie described two methods that were effective in most cases. In the first, the toleration method, the animal while calm and quiet is confronted with the stimuli for the wild behavior, but only a little bit at a time; simultaneously, it is given plenty of positive stimulation—rubbing, patting, watering. Gradually from day to day the stimuli that once evoked wildness—a man coming into the stall with a saddle or attempting to put a bridle over the horse’s head—are increased until the animal not only shows no wildness or aversion, but may even approach its trainer. This is a procedure requiring considerable judgment.

In the second method discussed by Guthrie, that of fatigue, the horse is confronted by the feared stimuli all at once, the confrontation continuing regardless of the animal’s wild behavior until, worn out, it can respond wildly no more and becomes habituated to the aversive stimulation. This is the “bronco busting” technique, and it requires a very able and tough animal therapist indeed. The analogues to this procedure in human psychotherapy are milieu therapy, psychodrama, and group therapy, where violent emotional outbursts to the point of fatigue permit habituation to the stimuli that previously evoked these responses.

John Rarey discovered a shortcut. From his own experience, punctuated by nips and broken bones, he learned to immobilize horses quickly and then hypnotize them. Once immobilized and thus unable to run, buck, kick, crowd, or bite—unable to be wild or vicious—the horses were flooded with the sight and sound and smell and touch of man, the very stimuli that formerly drove them to wildness. Once they were habituated to these stimuli, their wildness ceased. For some horses, man was simply no longer strange; others learned, despite their prior experience, that man was not a source of pain.

The state of immobility wherein stimuli may be received but not acted on is variously known as death-feigning, tonic immobility, cataplexy, catalepsy, paroxysmal inhibition, recumbency reflex, or, more generally, animal hypnosis. Svorad in Czechoslovakia has studied the brain waves of many hypnotized animals and notes that stimuli do register but that the responses to them are inhibited. In the United States, Nina Bull dealt with the same sort of “blocking” in her hypnosis studies of human emotions.

Rarey’s procedures for hypnotic induction in horses are the same as those used with dogs or cats or other animals. Stroking of the belly or steady pressure against the animal’s side, or holding the snout down while blowing steadily in the ear are all commonly practiced, but all require the animal to hold still. This is not a very serious matter with a dog or a cat, but a vicious horse can kill a man before he can even start the process of hypnosis. Rarey solved this inconvenience by use of the “Rarey strap” to hold the horse still so that induction could be started. Use of the strap is not of itself a trance-inducing technique, and it is not at all clear that Rarey recognized the importance of the hypnotic trance. This is probably the reason that references to him in the horse-handling literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century concentrate on the Rarey strap and speak of its usefulness in subduing vicious animals.

Rarey was quite a man. Even discounting his vibrant egoism and an enthusiastic press, his feats of taming and tranquillizing were impressive indeed. Though he practiced his art a century ago, his techniques have the quality of having anticipated the scientific studies in hypnotherapy and desensitization theory of our own time.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.