Tinkers, travelers, gypsies...call them what you will, they were the original horse whisperers. Thanks to Harlequin Farms for this great photo.

Origins and Explanations
The term horse whisperer is nothing new despite the interest gained in these individuals over the last 20 years or so. Today’s horse whisperers with their round pens and new training methods are a far cry from the original horse whisperers. The originals, usually from gypsy or Romany stock were common in the 17 and 1800s in the British Isles and in other countries and they bring to mind visions of ancient and mystical charms and skills dating back to an a medieval guild craft.

However, these societies, often secret, can be credited with the inception of many expressions and traditions and societies, including the notorious Klu Klux Klan.

These days the last two remaining centres of Romany or gypsy horse trading are in the North of England at Lee Gap in mid August and Latter Lee in mid September . These fairs originated thanks to King Stephen’s Royal Charter of 1136 and are England’s oldest surviving charter fairs where horses, ponies and donkeys are traded and sold.

There are two other notable horse fairs in England  attended by gypsies and tourists alike and every year more than 10,000 travellers plus up to 30,000 visitors descend on the small town of Appleby-in-Westmorland in Cumbria, Northern England. Stow-on-the-Wold horse fair also attracts hundreds of sightseers twice a year and gypsies gather from all corners of England for a meet and greet and hundreds of horses are paraded and sold, all in one day.

In days gone by, as the heavier draft horses once used to carry knights were crossed with the British natives breeds like the Suffolk, Shire, Fell and Dale ponies  and Cleveland Bays, it is thought that it was with these resulting sturdy, sensible gentle giants that horse whisperers first got started with their secrets oaths, societies and handshakes. Often cared for by the children, it was essential that the horses be kind and quiet, with a willing disposition.  They were pastured, fed and ridden within the gypsy camps so it was important that they became almost part of the family.

In 1873, William Smith, an amateur historian and diarist went to Lee Gap Fair in Yorkshire and wrote about a gypsy man who could control horses, “from a distance without any word of command, but with a slight gesture of the hand seemingly bid them to now come, now stay, now run, now canter or gallop as he wished.”  Smith was told that the art lies, “in a charm amulet which possesses some preternatural efficacy over the horses.”

A gypsy camp dated 1902. The horse is very much part of the "family."

Why the Secrecy?
As with many societies, horse whisperers wanted to protect their craft and in the less enlightened days of centuries past, they were considered witches. However superstitions die hard and as late as the 1940’s in Worcester, Charles Walton, the last known whisperer with powers over toads, cattle, birds and horses, was killed with his own pitchfork by those who viewed him as a witch.

However, it was in the East Anglia region that horse whisperers endured the longest thanks to the flat farmland that enabled farmers to use horses long after the advent of tractors. A folklorist George Evans wrote down many of the traditions, stories and customs associated with whisperers and those possessing the “word” through stories passed down through generations.

Thus I Command”
“Thus I Command or the Latin version of “sic iubeo” was used by the whisperers as a password and as the control words used for horses. However it was the talismans that these whisperers used that held the true power to “draw” or attract horses, and others for repelling or “jading” horses which rendered them unable to move. Their origins sound like something out of a black magic text book.

The drawing talisman was the milt or pad, the spongy mass found in a foals mouth at birth that was, with great speed and dexterity removed from the foal’s mouth before it was swallowed. It was then impregnated with aromatic oils like sorrel, cinnamon and rosemary and tansy.

The jading talisman comes from killing a frog or natter jack toad and impaling it on a whitethorn to dry. It was then buried for a month till the flesh rotted away. The bones were then collected, thrown into running water, and the bone that didn’t float and drifted against the current was kept. This bone, the ilium or main bone in the frog’s pelvic girdle was shaped like the frog in the horses hoof and was carried about in a small pouch along with a piece of raw flesh or gobet of animal grease and Dragon’s blood, the red resin from various plant, all objects that offended an animals’ sense of smell and repelled them.

Some of the horse whisperer’s “magic” was startlingly crude as demonstrated by the old horseman’s trick of putting raw ginger under an old nag’s tail to transform him into a high stepping youthful beast or by twitching the upper lip when working on another part of the body. However, not all their goings on can be as easily explained and the non believers often paid the price when their horses refused to leave the stable or barn after a visit by a whisperer.

Some of their “magic” is easily explained today but centuries ago it was considered truly mysterious. For example the healing properties of penicillin found in culture moulds were not known in the 1700’s and mouldy cheese or bread or a strip of mouldy harness wrapped around a wound saw improvement in a few days. Whisperers were also called upon to cure humans of various ailments and for goitre, caused by an overactive thyroid, they wove and gave a horsehair necklet to the sufferer or offered them the powdered mouldy fuzz on old bread to cure worms.

In my next blog, we will look at the incredible origins of the infamous Klu Klux Klan in the USA and how they are linked to the horse whisperers.  You will be surprised!