- Denton Offutt of Kentucky:America's First "Horse Whisperer"?
The term "horse whisperer" has long been a part of equestrian vernacular, traditionally applied to persons who have an almost mystical affinity with horses, able to tame even the most cantankerous animals through sympathetic handling. Since many such persons were seen to confront their subjects face-to-face and apparently communicate with them silently or in low voices, they were designated "horse whisperers." Denton Offutt of Kentucky is perhaps best known to history as the man who in 1831 befriended and gave young Abraham Lincoln his first real job as a clerk in his store at New Salem, Illinois. While there can be little doubt that Offutt, garrulous and good-natured, often impulsive or even reckless, and an inveterate schemer, had a significant influence upon the future president, it was more likely as an example to avoid rather than one to emulate. During his lifetime, Offutt was better known as an expert horse trainer, and he is the first American who can be identified as an authentic "horse whisperer." This aspect of his life has largely been ignored by historians, who have focused almost exclusively [End Page 173] upon Offutt's brief sojourn as a merchant and entrepreneur at New Salem and his relationship to the future president. His subsequent career as a well-known horse tamer has generally been dismissed as inconsequential by historians unfamiliar with the equestrian world of the nineteenth century.1
The distinguished Lincoln historian Michael Burlingame considered Offutt, in post–New Salem life, as no more than "a confidence man, peddling a magical expression that would allegedly tame horses when whispered in their ears." William G. Greene, who was Lincoln's assistant in Offutt's store, described Offutt as "a wild, recless [sic], careless man, a kind of wandering horse tamer." Yet such worthies as Henry Clay of Kentucky and some of the most prominent horsemen of the country who knew Offutt personally praised his amazing ability with horses; such men would be difficult to deceive. Though fame and fortune always eluded the hapless Offutt during his lifetime, his methods spawned countless imitators—some genuine horse whisperers, others no more than charlatans.2
During much of history, the use of fear and pain as training methods has generally defined the human-equine relationship. The process of training a horse to accept human control, whether as a mount to be ridden or to labor in harness, has traditionally been known as "breaking" the horse. Although still in common usage today, the term is suggestive of both the philosophy and methods from which it derived, methods that would now be considered unnecessarily [End Page 174] harsh, or even cruel. Horse training was intended to "break" the independent spirit of the animal through the use of coercion and render it submissive and obedient. Treatment was liable to be especially severe if the subject was a grown horse, either a feral animal captured from the wild or a domestic animal considered to be unruly or vicious. The trainer, in such cases, might resort to beatings, confinement, starvation, sleep deprivation, or even bleeding in an effort to render the horse manageable.
During the nineteenth century, more benign methods of training horses began to replace the brute-force approach, part of a larger social movement toward more humane treatment of animals that began in Britain early in the century and spread to the United States much later. Influential British equine authorities, such as John Lawrence and William Youatt, urged patience and kindness in the training of young horses, deploring the barbarity of cruel treatment. "The restive and vicious horse," Youatt wrote, "is made so by illusage, and not by nature." Contributing to this shift toward a gentler approach were certain trainers, often known as "horse-tamers" or "horse whisperers," whose successes in domesticating notoriously ill-tempered animals brought them widespread fame and focused attention on their methods. These "whisperers" often cloaked their methods with secrecy, so that many observers attributed the taming of a vicious horse to the use of mysterious charms or potions or to an occult "animal magnetism" unique to the trainer. Only gradually came...