Hiram the Horse Whisperer

By David Churchill Barrow

Hiram’s dad, Jesse, had no worries, despite the smirk on the carnival barker’s face.  This was a sure bet. Everyone knew these carnival ponies were trained to throw young boys on command, but the locals in the crowd also knew eleven-year old Hiram and his peculiar way with horses; and so they cheered him on.  The pony’s mane had been trimmed – nothing to grab there – so Hiram mounted up, leaned low on the horse’s neck and snuggled in, putting his knees as tight as he could behind the beast’s shoulders and his arms about his neck. His neighbors smiled as he gently whispered in the horse’s ear – they could see the horse’s head lower and the eyes soften.  The boy was working his horse magic.

The carnival barker cracked his buggy whip: “HYAAHHH!”  The pony seemed to go through the motions of bucking, but with little enthusiasm and in a steady, manageable rhythm.  The boy was as snug as a flea in the fur. The barker scratched is head and cracked the whip again, but all that did was pick up the pace.

To liven things up – and to get that damned boy off that damned pony – the barker picked up one of the performing monkeys and hurled him onto Hiram’s back.  The monkey clawed and scratched the boy’s head at first, but then settled in, holding onto Hiram’s neck and back exactly as Hiram was holding on to the pony.  Round and round the three of them went – monkey, boy and pony. The crowd went wild.

The barker knew he’d been beat.  He knew that even HE would have paid good money to see THAT again.  He stopped the pony and gave Hiram his five dollars prize money.

Calmness, patience and tenacity….  The boy was a prodigy.

Grown men around Georgetown, Ohio would bring unbroken horses to young Hiram.  Only what the boy did could hardly be called “breaking;” no yelling, no striking, no sudden moves.  The horse’s behavior was shaped, not abruptly and brutally corrected.  It was not a quick process, but in the end the horse would keep his spirit; albeit properly channeled.

Some of what drove Hiram to horses was his hatred and disgust of his father Jesse’s main occupation – leather tanning.  The blood, the smell, and the gore was more than the sensitive boy could bear. He was so adverse to bloodshed he even begged off hunting with his boyhood chums. Until the end of his days he could only eat meat if it was just about burned to a cinder – no juice.  So to carry his weight, instead of working in or near the tannery, Hiram used the horses he so loved to plow, haul wood, and transport both people and goods by wagon.

One cold winter day when Hiram was seven, his father Jesse went to nearby Ripley on business and did not return until late.  Jessie went to bed puzzled by what he saw outside the house as he rode up – a gigantic pile of wood and brush hauled in from the wood lot.  Where did all that come from? The next morning all was revealed. The little boy had trained a lively three-year old colt to the saddle, but no one had ever harnessed him.   With no one around to ask, Hiram had spent the morning getting him used to the harness, and the afternoon hauling the wood by sled back to the house.

Calmness, patience and tenacity to get the job done… even at seven years old.

Hiram was so trusted with horses and by people that the boy was allowed to drive a delivery service all around southwestern Ohio, transporting goods and passengers as far as Cincinnati, fifty miles away.  The hotel manager at the Dennison House in Cincinnati was astounded at the eleven year old before him, quietly asking to sign the register and obtain his room key. He finally obliged, after other guests vouched that young Hiram was indeed their carriage driver. 

He could get a bit cocky about his skill with horses, though.   When Hiram was fifteen, one of these carriage runs found him seventy miles away at Flat Rock, Kentucky, admiring a beautiful saddle horse.

“Trade for him?” The boy asked the owner, Mr. Payne, whose brother Hiram had transported thence for a visit.

“Trade for what….?   With You?” 

“Gimme ten dollars and the saddle-bred, and I’ll give you him….”  Hiram offered, pointing to one of his carriage team.

Payne’s brother, a neighbor of Hiram’s in Georgetown, assured him that everything would be on the up and up:  Hiram was allowed to horse-trade as he saw fit, and so brother Payne and Hiram hitched up the saddle horse and headed home. 

Not long after the journey commenced, a pack of rowdy dogs spooked the new horse, who, of course, had never been harnessed.  Off they went on a wild ride, and even Hiram had his hands full. He finally stopped the team, all in a lather. After the horses calmed down, the quest for home resumed, only to have the horse kick up and bolt once again.  This time Hiram stopped the team just on the edge of a twenty foot embankment by the side of a turn in the road. Brother Payne had enough. He left Hiram then and there to seek out a freight wagon going the same way.

Hiram was in a fix.  He was alone, and every time he tried to move on, the horse would revolt. How could he get this horse to calmly follow alongside the other without raising such a fuss?  Hiram looked into his wide, wild eyes. Then he took off his bandanna and gently tied it over those eyes. The horse settled down, and the rest of the ride was without incident.

Calmness, patience and tenacity to get where he needed to go…while adjusting for his own mistakes.

Hiram would never take up tanning – it disgusted him so much – so Jesse had to figure a way to get his son out into the world and on his own, given the boy’s inclinations.  Hiram had always favored the “’rithmetic” portion of the “readin’ writin’ and ‘rithmetic” he’d been taught at various country schools, so engineering seemed a promising field.  But how to get him the training? Jesse wondered. Leather tanning certainly didn’t provide enough funds to send Hiram to a fancy private school.

Jesse found the answer, and announced it to Hiram, who was home from school on Christmas break.  He opened and read a letter from Senator Tom Morris of Ohio.

“I believe you are going to receive the appointment.” Jesse said.

“What appointment?”  Hiram asked.

“To West Point: I have applied for it.”

“But I won’t go.”

“I think you will.” said Jesse, and that was that.

The senator himself had no open appointments to the academy, but instead had referred the matter to Jesse’s Congressman – Tom Hamer – whose own appointment had dropped out.  Hamer, though, had garbled the name on the paperwork he sent to West Point, and the young cadet was informed that it could not be corrected except by direct action of the Secretary of War.  Thus “Hiram Ulysses Grant” became “Ulysses S. Grant,” and so it remained thereafter.

Yes, the boy who hated the very sight of blood would, a couple of decades later, be called upon by his President to do whatever it takes to end the greatest effusion of blood his nation had ever seen; and preserve what that President called “the last best hope of earth.”

“No terms except immediate and unconditional surrender can be accepted.  I propose to move immediately upon your works.”
(Grant’s answer to his old West Point friend’s request for terms, Fort Donelson, Feb. 16, 1862.)

“Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?”

“Yes….  Yes…. Lick ‘em tomorrow though.”

(Conversation between Sherman and Grant, at the end of the first day of the battle of Shiloh, April 6, 1862 – the bloodiest battle in U.S. history up to that time.  The next day the Rebels would be routed.)

“Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do.  Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time.  Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”
(Grant’s answer to a panicked field officer, Battle of the Wilderness, May 6, 1864.)

“Whatever happens, there will be no turning back.”
(Message sent confidentially to Lincoln, Battle of the Wilderness, May 6, 1864.  Lincoln kissed the man relaying it.)

“I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”
(Letter written by Grant to Sec. of War Stanton and Chief of Staff Halleck, May 11, 1864.)

“Go as you propose.”
(Telegram to Sherman, letting loose “the father of total war” to wreak havoc through the very heart of the Confederacy, November 2, 1864.)

“The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands.  The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked…. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by the United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.”
(Terms given by Grant to Lee’s ragged, half-starved Army of Northern Virginia, Appomattox, Virginia, April 9, 1865.  Before it was carried out, Grant ordered that they be fed.)

Calmness, patience and tenacity… How the boy “horse whisperer” grew up to save his nation.


David Churchill Barrow is a Massachusetts “Swamp Yankee” descendant of William Bradford and Myles Standish of Pilgrim fame, who grew up on a farm that has not been sold since first built in the early 1700s.  David has written non-fiction historical pieces and columns for The Tampa Tribune (now the Tampa Bay Times), The Marine Corps Gazette and the “Lore of the Corps” section of The Marine Corps Times.  He has been a regular contributor of both short stories and posts to Liberty Island Magazine since its inception.  He and MaryLu, his wife, co-authored Silver and Lead and are working together on a YA novel centered around the so-called “Boston Massacre.”

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