What do Cesar Millan, Robert Redford, vampires, Phantom of the Opera, an unsolved 1945 murder and Frankenstein’s Monster have in common?
Andrew Forster’s The Horse Whisperer!
I love this poem. I love it because it’s so sad and also because this one man represents a whole group of people who had been terrorised in the past. Think Salem Witch Trials, Pendle Witch Trials, The Crucible and so on.
Did you know, though, that horse whisperers really existed, and really used frog’s pelvis bones as well as the spongy tissue from a foal’s mouth to work their magic?
You can read about the Horseman’s Word secret society here
Remember that people who had rapport with animals were often seen as outsiders, ‘weird’, ‘odd’. No lovely Dr Doolittle, but crazy old cat ladies. You might remember at the beginning of Macbeth that the witches have a cat (Greymalkin) and a toad (Paddock) and that these were called ‘familiars’. The devil was believed to be able to inhabit animals, or appear in human or humanoid form, or even as a ghostly spirit. Crazy old cat lady would have been muttered about as a witch, no doubt. I talk to my chickens and no doubt that would set me aside as a witch.
Medieval villages often relied on what they might sometimes view as ‘witchcraft’ and we might view as old wives’ tales. Have a toothache, suck on a clove. Have a backache, drink some willow bark tea. In the past, this was ‘mystical’ and magical. Now we know that willow bark contains salicylic acid, a type of aspirin. You can buy clove oil in the chemist for toothache. It contains a mild antiseptic and a mild anaesthetic. This works wonderfully until someone has something happen and then the ‘witch’ gets blamed. If you can work good ‘magic’ (even if it’s magic that was subsequently shown to have some positive medicinal effect) then that’s okay. You can live in your little cottage on the edge of the moors with your 21 cats. But as soon as someone has a miscarriage or their milk goes sour, or a cow dies, expect to find yourself hanged as a witch.
In fact, much of what we believe about midwives (sage-femmes in France, literally, ‘wise women’!) comes from history. Now they are respected nurses with scientific qualifications, but in the past they would just have been women with lots of experience delivering babies, having got a few tricks up their sleeve from doing it so often, or having heard stories themselves, like a herbal remedy to give an easy childbirth or massage to help with pain. Unfortunately the very-male church decided this was against the Bible and against God since Eve’s punishment (and all women’s punishment afterwards) for eating the fruit in the Garden of Eden was a painful birth. In fact, the Catholic Church required that midwives registered with the bishop and promised not to use ‘magic’.
We modern westerners find it hard to understand how ‘magic’ came to have such power, or ‘witchcraft’. We even accept the ‘placebo effect’ – that we feel better because we think we’re taking medicine. That would have been witchcraft! If it really worked (like cloves, or willow bark) then that’s definitely witchcraft. In short, if you knew some tricks to stop a headache and you owned a cat and you were a woman who lived on her own, if things went wrong, you were blamed.
Horse whisperers had a similar fate. In fact, their ‘tricks’ seem half-animal psychology and half trick. They would calm horses with a combination of rosemary and cinnamon, or other smells (aromatherapy for horses!) and the scent of a newly born foal. And they would frighten horses with the smell of tainted meat. They’d rub this on a frog’s pelvis bone. I can understand why a horse might be frightened of the smell of rotten meat, but I think the frog’s pelvis bone is a bit of pretend-voodoo, personally. It wasn’t unknown for so-called horse whisperers to rub stable doors with a barely perceptible scent so that the horse wouldn’t come out of the stables without a horse whisperer to come along with another scent. Talk about making business for yourself!
The Horseman’s Word group did themselves no favours, because they practised several initiation ceremonies that were seen as black magic, like reading bits of the Bible backwards. So when the end came – tractors – they were quickly outcast.
And now it’s a ‘dead’ tradition. Partly because animal psychology has taught us a lot about pack animals (like Cesar Millan – he’d definitely be a witch in the past!)
Now some people disagree with Cesar Millan’s methods – and this isn’t intended to be a treatise on dog behaviour. When our little spaniel was weeing everywhere, that was psychology. She’s stopped now. Why? Because I learned that she wees because she’s afraid when we greet her. She has to be submissive and show us she’s afraid, so she wees. Now we ignore her and greet her when she’s got used to us again. Witchcraft in the past, modern animal psychology today. And whether you agree with Cesar Millan’s process or not, that video is pretty awesome in terms of how fast he got that dog to calm down. And if you didn’t get the explanation of how he did it, you might think that was magic.
Now, largely thanks to the Robert Redford film, The Horse Whisperer, we see the soft, gentle and animal-understanding side, not the frog bones and spongy foal spit.
It’s ironic that when people more in tune with others, be they midwives, herbalists, vets, animal trainers or whoever, are welcomed and needed, their methods are just accepted. As soon as something goes wrong, boom. Outcast. And if there’s a whiff of something magic about it, they were in league with the devil.
That’s what happens in the poem. It’s a thin line.
Not only that, but the poem is recent. The horse whisperer’s demise is linked to the tractor. The tractor arrives, horses are put to pasture and the horse whisperer isn’t needed. Mechanics become the new voodoo practitioners, except their ‘magic’ is comprehensible and scientific. It’s accessible to anyone who wants to learn, not a secret like horse-whispering was. He is not only out of a job, but an outcast.
The image of the villagers with pitchforks is also evocative – it puts me in mind of Frankenstein – an angry mob. The Phantom of the Opera uses it as a stock scene, as do lots of 1930s ‘horrors’. This silent movie clip from the end of Phantom of the Opera (1925) shows you what a stock image it is.
Watch the beginning of the trailer for the 1931 version of Frankenstein…
In short, if you had a creepy, unnatural individual hanging around, sending a village-full of pitchfork-and-blazing-torch-wielding would-be killers around to put things right was the sure-fire way of bringing it all to a natural ending. And you don’t think this is real…
In 1945 a man was murdered with a pitchfork. There were literally hundreds of rumours about his death – that he was a ‘witch’ – he had a legion of toads to pull a plough through his vegetable patch, that he was a horse whisperer. There’s no real suggestion that the man was a witch or that he was killed by an angry mob, or his death had anything to do with witchcraft, but it’s definitely in keeping with the poem.
So… to recap…
You have an outsider whose ‘magic’ and trickery are tolerated as long as it is needed and not considered a threat
You have a village turning against someone
You have an outsider who has a hint of magic about him.
I’ll be publishing a new kindle ebook (download to your PC!) in the next couple of weeks with further analysis of The Horse Whisperer. What you have here isn’t analysis as such, just some things that diverted me along the way. Interesting to know, but don’t turn your essay into a history essay. You aren’t being assessed on what you know about horse whisperers or death-by-angry-pitchfork-wielding-mob, but your understanding of how Forster creates an image of an outsider who is turned on when he no longer conforms to what is socially acceptable.
I just thought it was some interesting background!