“Let the horse do as much as he possibly can without getting lost”
– Tom Dorrance
I wanted to pay tribute to a man who inspired me to become a horse trainer. Tom Dorrance showed by example that working with horses, even horses that were considered difficult, did not require physical strength or leverage. Tom, as a person, and the words he shared, helped me see that something far more magical with horses was entirely possible.
Tom Dorrance was a mentor to Ray Hunt, who was also masterful with horses and shared gentle horse training methods with the world. Ray Hunt was a mentor to Buck Brannaman, a more well known cowboy that still teaches the same gentle horse training methods at clinics today. I was lucky enough to spend some time with all three of these men.
As much as my heart desired to understand the mysteries of horses privately, I used to have a belief that I was not physically big enough or strong enough to be a horse trainer. Meeting Tom Dorrance shattered that belief in an instant. I stood awestruck watching an old man gently use his thick, weathered hands delicately with a scared horse. His movements were invisible to me but the effect he had, slowly transforming a troubled horse, changed my perception of training horses entirely and for the rest of my life. I saw in Tom exactly what I wanted to become myself. And my journey is still unfolding.
Tom continues to guide my work with horses today. The book I am sharing with you now is one that I re-read regularly in order to understand horses more deeply. I also find great inspiration from Tom’s life. He was courageous, open enough to share his gentle methods while living in an era where harsh training methods were the norm. I am not sure we are entirely out the other side of that era as we stand today, but I hope to help all of us move along with our horses.
I highly recommend “True Unity” by Tom Dorrance for all horse lovers. Published by Give-It-A-Go Enterprises, the book was first printed late in 1987 and had its 14th printing by 2000. I am doing my part to preserve and share the magic that Tom Dorrance lived by writing about him and sharing some of my favorite passages from his book in this post.
“Feel the Whole Horse”
“The older I get the more it’s beginning to dawn on me how most people seem to have so little feel of the whole horse–of what’s going on in what part. Maybe, overall, they have a pretty good idea, but they don’t know about this little spot here and that little spot there. Any one of them can be a good little spot, or it can be a bad little spot. People may have an idea what comes out of it, but what’s really going on through all of this they don’t recognize. Let me tell you what I think is essential to understand.
When I observe people and horses, it often seems to me that when the horse is trying to avoid something, or maybe is not doing what the rider asks of him, it is because the horse’s sense of self-preservation is immediately taking effect. This may seem as though the horse does not want to cooperate. But the rider needs to recognize the whole horse: the horse has a basic need for self-preservation.
Often when working with riders and their horses, I will mention the need for self-preservation; this to me includes the physical and the mental–and a third factor. I’ve been trying for some time to think of words to get this third factor to where it comes to light; to show how it blends in with the other two–the physical and the mental. It is the least mentioned, but I am beginning to believe it is the most important factor to recognize: the rider needs to recognize the horse’s need for self-preservation in Mind, Body, and, the third factor, Spirit. He needs to realize what that means to the horse so he can benefit from what it is in the horse, what it means to the horse. He needs to realize how the person’s approach can assure the horse that he can have his self-preservation and still respond to what the person is asking him to do. That is going to be a useful thing to both the person and the horse.
As I think back through the years, I don’t know if I have really gotten this thing that I’m talking about clear for anyone that I have worked with. Some people have put some part of it to use, and they use that much to drift over the part they don’t have. I’ll add right on to that–I don’t know how much there is I haven’t discovered yet–how much there is that could be.
It seems to go in pieces. That’s how it seems to go even for a horse. There’s a “time” in there; it’s just as well not to crowd the horse if he isn’t ready for it yet. You keep offering, trying to help as much as you can, without troubling him too much about it. Then, there will be a day when it will just clear right up. I think it’s a lot the same with the person.”
“Responsiveness and Right On”
“The thing that I am trying to bring out here is this feel and timing. I used to say all there is to it is feel, timing and balance. I still can’t improve on those three words, but there is so much that goes on within that.
Some riders I have worked with are getting closer and closer to feeling the feet, and where they are, and what is going to happen before it even happens. If the horse is needing a little support, a little directing, a little help, they are more ready to help the horse at the time the horse needs it. If the horse is going to make it anyway, these riders don’t get in the way, and that is so important. Then these riders will get so they can feel the whole horse, what’s going on all through the horse, one part complementing the other. Until that is working, the rider is at the mercy of a lot of things.”
“I have spent hours with the horse and rider trying to help the rider experience unity between the horse and himself. What I want is for the rider to try to reach for the horse, just as if they were going to start forward. It’s important to remember to keep the head and neck centered. If the horse backs up a step or two, it’s all right, just so he stays straight.
If the horse doesn’t feel like he is quite all together, that’s OK, as long as the rider keeps track of what happens. It may take quite a while for the horse to get just right on.
At the time the rider has the contact, when the horse gets himself together and right on–center–then he can come forward. He will be even, in balance.
The rider will be watching so the horse doesn’t leave too early, just trying to steady the horse a little until he gets all together. The horse can be so close, he is all around it. Sometimes a rider can be so close he knows when it happened, but not recognize it. If it does come through, the rider may not really feel the whole thing take shape. There is a spot where they don’t really have it all together. This is the spot we are trying to get close to, so the rider can feel when it isn’t there, and be able to feel where the horse needs a little help, a little directing and support and when it is time to just let it happen.”
“This is the goal: when you reach, or you let him know, he shapes up and whole horse is all together–balanced. It seems to me, until a person gets this, he is going to be struggling with a lot of things. This is basic.
Pretty soon you just reach for the horse and he comes forward for you, right on–later you just reach for him–he comes and you can go forward or back.
The rider will wait for the horse to get balanced. He may be getting alive but not be getting his body weight balanced, to where if he started, the one end would be ready to complement the other. You want them to move off free. If you have them under too much, or if they are out too much, it seems as if it is hard for them to balance themselves, to position–so they can balance themselves right, to get the weight off the foot they need to move, to get the first step.”
I thought about commenting myself on what these passages mean to me, but decided against it. I am leaving the direct quotes from the book for you to ponder yourself. It may feel difficult at first to understand the cowboy lingo, but the longer you consider Tom’s words while you are with your horse, the more you will start to understand the depth and subtleties that gave Tom the reputation of a horse whisperer.