The Horse Whisperer (25th Anniversary Edition)

Behind the Book

THE HORSE WHISPERER – 25 YEARS ON

You could hear the horse half a mile away, even before the pickup and trailer turned off the highway. She was screaming and crashing her hooves against the metal walls. And when the rear door was lowered, she exploded into the arena, bucking and swerving and filling the sunlit air with dust. Her owner had driven hundreds of miles to bring her here. He was at his wits’ end, sighing as he leaned on the rail beside me to watch. “If Tom can’t straighten her out, nobody can.”

It was April 1994 and I was in Merced, California at the home of Tom Dorrance. He was standing in the middle of the arena, a short figure in a large white cowboy hat, squinting through the dust while the mare galloped in demented laps around him.

Two hours later, she was like butter, calm and sloppy. And for the first time her owner was able to stand beside her and stroke and nuzzle her. She didn’t even seem to notice when he saddled and cinched her and climbed aboard. He could hardly believe the transformation.

For Tom this was just another day’s work. He was then in his mid-eighties. His pale blue eyes seemed to see right into you. You knew you were in the presence of someone special.

He hadn’t tried to catch the horse. Chasing her would have been pointless. He simply stood there watching while she raced around him, bucking and snorting and showing the whites of her eyes. Eventually she grew tired and stopped. Lathered with sweat, she stood scuffing the ground and staring at him. She seemed to be wondering who this little guy was and what the hell he might want. For a long time they didn’t take their eyes off each other. Then Tom slowly turned his back and walked away. And the horse followed him.

Something similar was happening in my life back then. For the previous ten years I had been working as a screenwriter and producer of films. I’d had some success in TV but I wanted to make movies. I’d made one that wasn’t a success and decided that the next screenplay I wrote, I would direct myself. I found an agent in LA and over the next two years tried to get the movie going. But it kept falling through. I was chasing the Hollywood horse but the damn thing kept running away. Meanwhile I was sinking my family ever deeper into debt. So, I turned my back on making films and walked away.

I was 43 and feeling lost and something of a failure. I had a stack of unfilmed screenplays so there was no point in adding to it. I’d never been short of story ideas, so I decided to write the next one as a novel. On reflection, a pretty stupid idea. Why would a debut novel from an unknown author have any more chance of getting off the ground than a movie? Nevertheless, that was why in April ’94, I was leaning on that arena rail in California watching an old man calm a crazy horse.

TV in the 1950s was wall-to-wall Westerns. Cheyenne, The Range Rider, Wagon Train, Maverick, Rawhide – I loved them all. I could still sing you the theme tunes. All I ever did, in our little back garden, was play Cowboys and Indians. My sister Sue, three years older, got roped in – literally. I would shoot guns and arrows at her and ambush her from the garage roof with my rubber tomahawk. Surprisingly, she still talks to me.

As a screenwriter, I’d thought that one day I might try to have a go at a Western, a love story maybe, but set in the present day. It was no more than a vague intention. I had no particular story or characters in mind. That is, until the evening I met a farrier called Robbie Richardson.

At a friend’s dinner table in Devon, where I now live, Robbie told me about a horse whisperer he had once met. I’d ridden when I was a boy and though we weren’t wealthy enough to own horses, I had always loved being around them. And yet I had never heard of horse whisperers.

I started doing some research. It turned out to be an ancient term. For centuries there had been people who had the gift of calming troubled horses. They were often said to have magical powers, even to be witches. I came across accounts of such men (it seems they were always male) being burnt at the stake, the cruel logic being that if you could persuade the devil to leave some wretched, demented creature, you must somehow be in cahoots with him.

I read about a man called John Solomon Rarey from Groveport, Ohio who in 1858 was summoned by Queen Victoria to Windsor Castle to tame a horse nobody dared approach. Her Majesty apparently watched spellbound as he put his hands on the animal and laid it down, then lay beside it with his head on its hooves.

I became obsessed and slowly a story began to come together in my head. I knew from the start that I wanted to set it in America. In England horses and horse ownership carry too much class baggage. I wanted my protagonists, these two people who fall in love, to come from different cultures but for neither to feel socially superior. And just as important, I wanted the story to have scale. Imagine if Annie lived in London, maybe with a second home in the Cotswolds. To take her daughter’s damaged horse to the whisperer in Devon, she could leave after breakfast and be there by lunch. She wouldn’t even have to refuel. But New York to Montana? Two thousand miles across a whole continent. That was more like it.

After many costly transatlantic phone calls from my home in south London, I got lucky. A friend of a friend knew someone in Montana who had met Tom Dorrance. Tom had taught another extraordinary horseman called Ray Hunt who in turn had taught a young man called Buck Brannaman (who was later to do the horse work and double for Robert Redford in the movie). I flew to the States and spent many weeks driving around the West, from New Mexico, through Colorado, California and, at last to Montana, soaking up the vast western landscape and watching these amazing horsemen at work.

Tom Dorrance, the youngest of four brothers, grew up on a cattle ranch in Wallowa County, Oregon. All the boys were good with horses but Tom had something special about him. There was a long tradition of cowboys being tough with their horses, using violence to “break” them. But even as a child Tom knew it needed to be a partnership of equals: horse and rider had to understand and trust each other.

After watching Tom lay down the troubled mare that morning twenty-six years ago, I was a little shocked. It had seemed a kind of ruthless domination, a humiliating forced surrender. I told him so. We were sitting in the shade of his porch. He took a sip of water and shook his head.

“Then you haven’t understood,” he said. “I was just showing her that even if her worst imaginable fear came to pass – to be laid down, utterly helpless, she would still be okay. Nobody was going to kill her or hurt her.”

I asked how he could tell what was going on in a horse’s mind and know what needed to be done and he said it was about the difference between looking and seeing. “A lot of folk look, but they don’t see.”

He pulled a little length of grey cord from the pocket of his jeans and told me to hold up my index finger. He looped the cord around my finger, twisted it and rolled his hand, then put the tip of his finger on mine so that the cord seemed trapped. “No way that’s coming free, huh?” he said. I nodded. Then he gave a little tug and, with our fingers still touching, the cord came clean away. I asked him to do it again a couple of times but even then it still seemed like magic.

“That’s because you’re looking but you’re not seeing. It’s like that with a horse. After a while you can see what’s happening. The way he moves, the way he holds his head. There’s a whole history there.”

Tom gave me the cord and that night, in my room at the Merced Holiday Inn, I spent a long time twisting it around the door handle, trying to figure out what Tom had done. Eventually I got it. I have that piece of cord to this day. It’s one of my most treasured possessions.

Anyway, I came back home in the late spring of 1994 and started writing. I wrote some 250 pages and showed them to my friend, Caradoc King, a literary agent (though not yet mine). He sent this half-manuscript out to the main UK publishers on the eve of the annual Frankfurt book fair. One of them, a talented editor at Transworld called Ursula Mackenzie, wanted to buy the novel and soon word spread like wildfire. By the end of the week publishers from all over the world and three major Hollywood studios were bidding for it too. Like Tom, I had walked away and the horse had followed me.

Wasn’t that wonderful? Well, yes, of course. Except… it was still only half finished. And, on the very day that The Times ran a piece calling me Britain’s luckiest first-time novelist, I was sitting in a grim hospital corridor in London, having just been diagnosed with a killer skin cancer, a malignant melanoma. The prognosis wasn’t great. In those days if a melanoma got through your skin and into your lymph system, you were good as dead. In fact, the same thing was to kill my mother ten years later. My biopsy was uncertain: the melanoma might have penetrated or might not. If it had, I had at most about six months to live. I needed to get a move on.

Caradoc, now (of course, my agent, put my half-book up for auction. And the day after I’d had a chunk cut out of my abdomen, I had to accompany him to meet the three highest bidding UK publishers. Nobody knew about the cancer except my wife Jenny. Not even Caradoc. Why would they want to buy a book from someone about to die? I had twenty stitches in my stomach and a couple of times nearly passed out with the pain. I tried to be charming but they must have wondered why I kept sweating and looked pale as death.

Finishing the book was a time of heightened emotions. Life seemed vivid and precious. I imagined my children growing up and telling people their dad had once half-written something that would have made them rich. Jenny and I had a plan that if I died, she wouldn’t tell anyone; she would put me in the freezer and get a friend to finish the book. Hollywood Pictures had won the auction for the movie rights and wanted me to have a medical before they would sign the contract. It was usual practice apparently. But I refused. How would I explain the big pink scar on my belly?

Well, obviously, I survived. The book was published in the autumn of 1995. Translated into thirty-six languages, it was the number one bestseller in sixteen countries. To date it has sold around twenty million copies worldwide and spawned countless variations. Dogs, elephants, babies, plants, even ghosts, all now have their own particular whisperers.

They started shooting the movie in Big Timber, Montana in May 1997, with Robert Redford as director, producer and star. The wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas, who had just won the Best Actress Oscar for The English Patient, was playing Annie and, in one of her earliest screen roles, Scarlett Johansson was Annie’s daughter Grace. Perfect. Except, it was one of the wettest summers on record. The set flooded, the crew was wading around in rubber boots and there was a plague of the biggest mosquitoes they’d ever seen. And, already delayed, they’d had to start shooting before the script was finalized.

My wife Jenny and I and our teenage kids, Max and Lauren, were holidaying at a beautiful guest ranch in Paradise Valley, just north of Yellowstone Park. At Robert Redford’s invitation, we drove over to Big Timber to watch the filming and meet the cast. Ever since he played the Sundance Kid, Redford had always made Jenny go a little weak at the knees and, to be honest, Kristin had always had a similar effect on me. Despite the fact that it was clearly a very tough shoot for all concerned, both she and Redford were kind and charming. He gave us lunch and showed us around, introducing us to all the key people.

Buck Brannaman, doubling for Redford in the horse scenes and dressed identically, greeted me like an old friend. He would later write generously about the novel and the movie in his book The Faraway Horses:

“I like to think that the work Nick Evans and Robert Redford produced helped a lot of horses and a lot of people, and I’d be proud to ride with them again, anytime.”

When I first saw the movie at a private screening in Los Angeles, I wasn’t bowled over. I loved the first half of it but not so much the second. I had tried to persuade Redford not to change the ending of the novel but he’d stuck to his guns and there it was up on the screen. I still think it was the wrong decision but I also know that writers never like having their “babies killed.” A lot of people loved the movie. And over the years, watching it a few more times, on reflection, I think he did a fine job.

I have long wondered what it was about this story that connected with so many people. If I knew, I’d bottle it. Usually, writing a novel is like climbing a mountain. It’s slow and arduous and you can easily get lost. But with The Horse Whisperer I could see the story laid out before me, like stepping stones across a river. All I had to do was put one foot in front of the other. This is the only time this has ever happened to me.

I became aware that I was telling an ancient kind of tale – the kind that human beings have told each other for thousands of years. It is about good people being plunged into a dark vortex of pain. In the end a hand of love reaches in to rescue and uncloud them. In other versions of this age-old tale, the hand belongs to an angel or a wizard or a stranger in a white hat. Think of Gandalf, think of Shane. Think of the angel saving Daniel in the lions’ den.

For the sake of those who have yet to read the book, I won’t say much more. All I would add is that it isn’t a book about horses. It’s about us and how easy it is for all of us to get lost and clouded and separated from the things in life that really matter. And how, if we get lucky, a pure and selfless love can save us.

Nicholas Evans, November 2020