The horse whisperer who saved my life: It’s the classic tale of a gifted trainer who could tame the wildest of horses. But 25 years after the book became a global sensation, its author reveals how the story that inspired it was even more astonishing
You could hear the horse half a mile away, even before the pick-up 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 legendary horseman 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, bucking and snorting and showing the whites of her eyes.
Tom didn’t try to catch the horse. Chasing her would have been pointless. Eventually she grew tired and stopped. Lathered with sweat, she stood scuffing the ground and staring at him.
Reins man: Robert Redford in the movie. 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
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.
Two hours later, Tom had the horse lying on her side, motionless on the ground. And when she got up she was a different creature.
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 her and climbed aboard. He could hardly believe the transformation.
For Tom this was just another day’s work. He was in his mid-80s, with pale blue eyes that seemed to see right into you. You knew you were in the presence of someone special.
At the time, I was feeling a bit like that troubled horse. My career as a screenwriter and producer had faltered. I’d been trying to get a movie going with me as director, but it kept falling through. At 43 I was sinking my family deep into debt and felt a failure. So I turned my back on making films and, like Tom that day, I walked away.
I’d never been short of story ideas, so I decided to write the next one as a novel. On reflection, it was 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 1994, I was leaning on that arena rail in California watching an old man calm a crazy horse.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, TV 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. Like so many young boys in those politically less woke days, all I ever wanted was to play Cowboys and Indians.
My sister Sue, three years older, got roped in — often 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.
I’d often thought that one day I might try to have a go at writing a Western, but it was no more than a vague intention and 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, Robbie told me about a man he had once met who described himself as a horse whisperer.
I’d never heard the term before, so I started doing some research and discovered that, 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.
Writer Nicholas Evans is pictured above
Some of these men (they were always male, it seems) were 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. In 1858, John Solomon Rarey from Groveport, Ohio was summoned by Queen Victoria to Windsor Castle to tame a horse nobody dared approach.
Her Majesty watched spellbound as he put his hands on the animal and laid it on the ground, then lay down beside it with his head on its hooves.
I became obsessed and slowly a story began to come together in my head. But what I most needed was to find someone who had this astonishing gift with horses.
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 landscape and watching these amazing horsemen at work.
Tom Dorrance, the youngest of four brothers, grew up on a cattle ranch in 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 26 years ago, I was a little shocked. It had seemed a kind of ruthless domination. 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’d still be OK. 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 but it still seemed like magic. He shook his head. ‘It’s not magic. 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 nearby 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.
Tom died in 2003 but I have that piece of cord to this day. It’s one of my most treasured possessions.
Anyway, I came home in the late spring of 1994 and started writing my story about a young girl and her horse, both traumatised in an accident, and the man her desperate mother asks to heal them.
I wrote some 250 pages and showed them to a literary agent. He sent this half-manuscript out to the six main UK publishers. One of them immediately wanted to buy the novel and soon word spread like wildfire.
By the end of the week publishers from all over the world — and movie producers — were bidding for it, too. Like Tom, I had walked away and the horse had followed me.
Which was wonderful . . . except the novel was only half written. And, later that week, on the very day a national newspaper called 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 into your lymphatic system, you were as good as dead.
The 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.
The day after I had a chunk cut out of my abdomen, I accompanied my agent to meet the three highest-bidding UK publishers for my book. Nobody knew about the cancer except my wife Jenny. Why would anyone want to buy a book from someone about to die?
I had 20 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.
Across the Atlantic, three huge Hollywood producers were fighting it out for the movie rights: Wendy Finerman, who had just won an Oscar for Forrest Gump, Jon Peters (Rain Man, A Star Is Born) and Robert Redford.
The money was all agreed. I was told to expect calls from all of them, then choose which one I wanted to make the movie. It was ridiculous. These were people whose 18th assistant secretary wouldn’t, until a week ago, have bothered to return my call.
With Jenny and the kids eavesdropping beside me in the kitchen, I listened while these Hollywood bigshots each made their pitch.
In truth, I’d already made up my mind. I had long admired Robert Redford not just as an actor, but as a director, too. And I knew he lived in Utah, knew all about horses and was a fine rider.
On the phone, he was modest and friendly, and I was absolutely charmed. He was 15 years older than the whisperer in my novel, Tom Booker, so I assumed he simply wanted to direct. But I was wrong.
‘Nick,’ he said, in a low, confiding tone, ‘this is the part I’ve been waiting for all my life.’ I changed my mind in about two seconds. Of course he wasn’t too old! Trying not to sound too smitten, I told him I’d be happy, indeed honoured, for him to make the film.
All I had to do now was finish the book. I didn’t know how long I had to live, and I imagined my children growing up and telling people one day that their late dad had once half-written something that would have made them rich. Jenny and I had a plan that if the cancer killed me, she wouldn’t tell anyone; she would put me in the freezer and get a friend to finish the book.
Well, obviously, I survived. I handed in the finished manuscript in the early spring of 1995 and a few weeks later was summoned to meet Robert Redford.
He was staying under a false name in a discreet hotel off Piccadilly. The receptionist called his room and I waited in the lobby trying to look cool and nonchalant, as if meeting one of the world’s biggest movie stars was something I did every day.
Redford strode in, wearing blue jeans and a plaid shirt, gave me that million-dollar smile, fixed me with those famous blue eyes and shook my hand. ‘Hello Nick, how’re you doing?’
I felt like a schoolboy. What should I call him — Mr Redford? Bob? I decided to avoid calling him anything.
We had coffee and talked about the story. I gave him a first edition of The Art of Taming Horses by Queen Victoria’s horse whisperer J. S. Rarey. He thanked me graciously. He looked in great shape for a man of almost 60, with luxuriant, golden hair, not a trace of grey.
Another firm handshake some 45 minutes later and I walked out to my bicycle, head spinning, completely starstruck. A few months later, in November 1995, The Horse Whisperer was published.
Translated into 36 languages, it became the number one bestseller in 16 countries. They were heady days. I toured the world promoting it and my feet didn’t touch the ground for several years.
To date it has sold around 20 million copies worldwide and spawned countless variations. Dogs, elephants, babies, plants, even ghosts, all now have their own whisperers.
They started shooting the movie in Big Timber, Montana, in May 1997, with 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 perfect as Annie’s daughter Grace.
Ever since he played the Sundance Kid, Redford had always made my wife Jenny go a little weak at the knees and, to be honest, Kristin had always had a similar effect on me. We were holidaying that summer at a ranch not far away, so, at Redford’s invitation, we drove over to Big Timber to watch the filming.
It had been a tough shoot so far — it was one of the wettest summers on record, the set flooded, the crew were wading around in rubber boots and there was a plague of mosquitoes.
They started shooting the movie in Big Timber, Montana, in May 1997, with 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 (above) was perfect as Annie’s daughter Grace
Things were apparently getting a little tense, they were behind schedule and over budget and on set you could feel the nervous tension.
But Kristin and Bob (I still couldn’t bring myself to call him that) were charming. He gave us lunch and showed us around.
When, the following spring, I saw the movie in Los Angeles, I wasn’t bowled over. I loved the first half, but not so much the second. I had tried to persuade Redford not to change the tragic 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.
I became aware I was telling an ancient kind of tale — the kind human beings have told each other for millennia.
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. 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’d 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 that really matter.
And how, if we get lucky, a pure and selfless love can save us.
The special 25th anniversary edition of Nicholas Evans’s The Horse Whisperer is published on Thursday by Sphere at £8.99.
To order a copy for £7.64 (offer valid to December 6, 2020; UK P&P free on orders over £15), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.
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