Faculty Research at Morehead State University


Denton Offutt: America's First Horse Whisperer?


Gary A. O'Dell

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2010


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 apparendy 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 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.