Demystifying the Mystery Behind the Whisper

According to Webster’s the word ‘whisper’ is defined as “to speak or utter softly, using the breath, but not the vocal cords.” We whisper to one another when we want our words to remain hushed and in the confidence and confinement of closely guarded quarters. We whisper to convey secrets, deliver intoxicating revelations, or special utterances of the heart that are meant for only certain ears. So how and when did the whisper come to be associated with horses?  

In all of the episodes of Mr. Ed, never do I remember a time when Wilber whispered to Mr. Ed, Roy Rogers to Trigger, or even The Lone Ranger to Silver. We did not whisper to our horses, quite the opposite; we spoke with more oft times than not, a false bravado; our words meant to echo a superior authority and assurance designed to denote our intentions and hierarchy in the overall chain of command. How else could we ever reinforce the “I’m the boss of you,” theory of teaching and learning that we are taught to instill in all animals, big and small, horses being no exception to this tired tirade. But then came Monty Roberts, followed closely by a herd of equine evangelists led by the iconic Robert Redford and the book, soon to be movie and forever stomped in the hearts and minds as “The Horse Whisperer.” 

And here we stand subtly silent in our attempts to softly simulate the proverbial horse whispering theory of new. Are we really supposed to be whispering ever so softly to our horses in the hopes that they can and will listen to the less is more and respond accordingly to our every wish? Is the art of “horse whispering” a literal translation; or for lack of a better description, just more horse-training hype lost in translation?  It is these questions and more that I posed to a posse of equine professionals so as to go behind the smoke and mirrors and see for myself what all the whispering is about.

Ginger DeGrange of Cloverleaf Ranch and SRJC equine program hall of fame would be the first stop on my journey to discover the mystery behind the whisper. As an instructor in the SRJC equine department for the last 30 years it came as no surprise that Ginger stressed the need for, and the importance of, education in combination with years of experience. We’re talking decades here so a person needs to exercise patience in their progress as an aspiring “horse whisperer”. Working with one horse, or even ten or twenty does not necessarily give you credibility in the equine arena. Talk to Ginger about experience after you’ve reached the triple digits in decades and horse numbers and then maybe you just have something to whisper about. 

Ginger was quick to state that working with horses and getting results doesn’t take magic. It’s about gaining an understanding of the horse, their body language and the fine art of equine communication, both verbal and non-verbal in the sense that you have to learn how to listen, not just with your ears, as one is accustomed, but with your eyes.

Ginger stressed the importance of not coming into the horse meets human equation with an agenda, let the horse be the teacher, and always set them up to succeed in the sense that you want to make the right choice easy and obvious, and anything other than that, difficult and uncomfortable. Know which fights to pick; and more importantly know when you’re in over your head, hopefully prior to finding yourself under their tail, and should that occur, when to call a professional. In answer to the question as to how effective the horse whispering affect really is, Ginger advised one to keep their eyes open and their mouths closed; so much for whispering.

“So are you a horse whisperer?” I gingerly asked Ginger, who in turn emphatically replied,

“Hell yes. I’m a horse whisperer because I don’t have to yell at my horse to be heard. But I can if I need to.” 

Moral to that story is that there’s a time and a place to shatter the silence and whisper no more. 

Next stop on my horse whispering hunt is Makela O’Neil located at Diamond Mountain Stables in Calistoga. Makela stands by her belief that horses by and large are simple, honest, strait forward herd animals with a natural need and want to follow one’s lead and please.

“No one can become a truly accomplished horse person, without also being an accomplished rider,” says Makela as evidenced by her innate ability to do both equally and exceptionally well.  Makela states that even though the less is more philosophy has almost always worked with and for her as a teacher and trainer of horses; there is a time when less becomes more than a ‘whisper’ if one is to effectively affect your role as the dominant player in the equine herd of two.

Makela stresses the amazing capacity and generosity of our horses in that they are ever so forgiving of our tendency to be human and exhibit humanistic-like errors. Be it errors in communication, comprehension, or consistency in our ability to follow even the most simple of leads. Horses, try as they might to keep us grounded in logic and the less is truly more philosophy; find themselves muzzle to face with their, oh so complex human counter parts who measure success in daily doses of the I want more, now yesterday. In our attempts to imitate some of the masters of horse whispering fame and wizardry, who say we can avoid going long on training, are we selling our horses short? Though there may be some truth to this concept, Makela concedes that there is still a buyer for every market, and a way to market every buyer of that belief system.

So much to think about; I felt like I was well on my way to discovering what all the whispering was really about when I had the opportunity to cross paths with non other than Joel Bartlett of Channel 7 weather man fame. Joel, a keen horseman and avid polo player, gave me yet even more insight into what goes into the making of a truly accomplished “horse whisperer."

“You need to think like the horse,” Joel said.

I asked Joel to elaborate on that concept and he went on to say that one needs to see things through their eyes, so that one can gain a better understanding of the horse, their environment and how and why they react the way they do to any given situation. Taking the time to understand your horse and horses in general takes just that, time. Joel went on to explain the need to exercise patience with not only your horse as you make your way through the learning process, but also with yourself. In the end what you end up with is a true partnership; an animal that is with you, not out of force, but more so because they trust, respect, and truly want to be with you. No whispering mystery there, but definitely a nice concept that I think we can all agree upon.

Well, as much as I hate to completely silence an already hoarse whisper, I’m going to state the obvious and say that there appears to be no magic here folks. The rabbit doesn’t live in the hat; nor does the horse jump over the proverbial moon at the drop of a whisper. Becoming an accomplished horse person takes time. And not time as we know it, measured as we do in the seconds that it takes us to answer our cell phones, minutes that it takes to hit our local Starbucks, hours that it takes to complete another dreary day at work, and days that it takes before the weekend rolls around and we can go play with our horses. But horse time otherwise measured in the real time that it takes to get the job done right. And as any accomplished equine professional will tell you, every horse is different. Just as they differ in color, breed, temperament and ability, they too differ as to what and how much they can do with us, for us on any given day and time. Our agenda may not be their agenda, and no amount of whispering will successfully convey otherwise.

See, our horses, grounded as they are in herd logic and prey animal instinct, predicate their main goals in life as being to simply survive and procreate. They haven’t had the time or felt the need to read the books, or watch the videos or even the movies in which they had starring roles, much less tune in to the clinics or clinicians that tell us it can and should be anything other than what it is. Try as we may to bring our horses up to our level of thinking that more is better, and better is faster, based on our nonsensical need to move our horses through the levels at the speed of the hype, the most successful of “horse whisperers,” knows that though we may technically be the trainer, the real teacher is the horse and the timeline is theirs. And just as we ask of our horses to respect our space and boundaries, so too, must we respect their time in our space. It is all negotiable to a point.

The point being that the truly accomplished “horse whisperer,” comes with a genuine want and need to gain a deeper understanding and a real connection both with and for the horse, as they take their place both on and off their back. So the lesson for the day may well be that we can all learn a lot from these equine teachers of ours, and not so much the other way around. I’d say that in and of itself makes us all “horse whisperers.” Don’t you?

P.S.  A note to all aspiring horse whisperers:

“I don’t have to tell yell at my horse, but I can if I need to,” and

“When in doubt, keep your mouth shut, and your eyes open,” …pass it on.          

-Ginger DeGrange (2006)