Meeting Tom Dorrance


The day I accidentally met Tom Dorrance was a really important event in my life. I knew of him by reputation and was surprised to find him at a Ray Hunt clinic in Gustine, CA.

While Ray Hunt was teaching, Tom was working on the sidelines with a big, dark Thoroughbred mare I had seen before at several Buck Brannaman clinics. A lady named Iris owned this mare and I had watched Iris ride through a few clinics with the horse bucking and pretty consistent unruly behavior even outside the arena. I already had a true admiration of Iris’s ability and persistence with her horse. The situation reminded me a great deal of my own struggles with Phinneas, my first horse and also an off-the-track Thoroughbred. So Iris and her mare were always a point of interest for me at these horsemanship clinics.

Since I was an auditor at this Ray Hunt clinic, I gravitated over to where Tom was working with the horse. Tom was sitting on what looked like a little stool and had Iris’s horse at the end of a long lariat rope, facing him and also on top of a small hill. He was just sitting there, looking at the horse and would make an almost imperceptible movement with his hand every once in a while. The mare was standing stock still, with her eyes riveted at Tom, her head held high and ears pricked straight forward. I watched for about 30 minutes. Each time the mare would get distracted and nervous, Tom would barely tap the rope and she would look at him again. I eventually wandered off to watch Ray teach.  It looked like this deal with Tom and the mare had been going on for a while and nothing much was happening. Little did I know then!!

About another 30-45 minutes later Tom came whizzing up from where he was towards the clinic arena, trotting the mare next to him while he was driving a golf cart. The mare looked quiet and calm, focused on Tom and trotting along side with slack in the lariat rope. What the hell?  I thought to myself and trotted myself after the golf cart.

Each time Tom would stop the golf cart the mare would wait patiently, calmly and remain focused on Tom, despite all the activity and distractions provided by the clinic atmosphere. I knew this was entirely new behavior for this horse and decided to follow Tom around the rest of the day. What he appeared to do with horse after horse was nothing but the results of the nothing he did were spectacular as each horse transformed while working with him. Mind blown. New direction found. I made it my mission to one day understand the magic of Tom Dorrance and hopefully experience such invisible communication with horses.

I ran into Iris many months later while trail riding through the redwood forests. There was Iris, on her mare, in the forest, with the mare calm and walking along on a loose rein through steep, single-track trails with other horses and mountain bikers coming around blind turns. Needless to say, I HAD to talk with her. She couldn’t say enough about what happened at that clinic and the help she received. Tom, Ray and Buck all helped give this mare a new lease on life and made riding safe and enjoyable again for Iris. Already sure I wanted to learn more, Iris and her mare cinched the deal and turned me into an insatiable student.

Watching Tom Dorrance work with horses that day was indeed a crossroads in my life. Not because anything spectacular happened but because of the magic I saw happen between a horse and human. Tom was actually pretty boring to watch (the importance of which took me years to understand). What was specifically important to me was what Tom Dorrance looked like while working with horses coupled with the amazing results and transformations in horses that he could accomplish. Here was a man who had an amazing reputation as a horseman and he was not a huge, strapping, muscled up cowboy! I’m only 5’4″ and all the really good cowboys I had seen before meeting Tom absolutely towered over me. I had always believed that at some point success with unruly horses was going to become a matter of physical strength, so I never fully believed it was possible for me to work with young or difficult horses. Tom turned that thought in my head upside down.

It was also later in Tom’s life when I met him, somewhere over 65 years old. I don’t know exactly how old he was at the time but suffice to say he was no spring chicken. Again, this impressed me greatly that he didn’t appear to be a whole lot stronger than me in his body. Since he obviously didn’t use physical strength to get the job done, I was able to observe that his powers were in his mind, in his timing, his feel and his observations. He was creative and patient, something that even I could learn to be.

I had heard people say that size and strength have nothing to do with horse training, but the reality was I had always seen strength used at some point. But there I was, seeing for the first time, incredible ability coming out from his insides only. The horses would change without drama or incident. Watching Tom Dorrance work made something shift in my brain, it really didn’t take brawn and might to be great with horses, any horses! I finally believed with every fiber of my being that I could become excellent with horses if I put my mind to it and began working on my own insides.

I picked up Tom’s book not long after that clinic and I still read it annually. Each year it makes more and more sense to me as I gain experience and knowledge. The respect I developed that day for Tom Dorrance remains the same. I am still on my own journey of horsemanship and still striving, but I share this story because it was a personal experience that changed my perceptions and my life. That day, observing Tom Dorrance, I comprehended the end result of what I was moving towards. Even if I never make it in this lifetime, it doesn’t matter. The image guides my daily development, helps me choose teachers wisely and recognize the difference between a really good result and everything else.

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1 Comment

  1. Janis Podesta

    Kirsten, I’m a first-time visitor to your site, & am very impressed with Dr. Scofield’s knowledge about the horse’s biomechanics & how you’ve integrated it into your horsemanship program! This essay on your meeting with Tom Dorrance was very interesting to me, as well; I think that all women can savor the fact that Tom was small & worked with horses past “spring chicken” age, because he used brain, not brawn! Thanks!

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