Tom Dorrance: A Most Extraordinary Horseman (Part 1)

by Jim Overstreet, copyright 1994, published by permission of the author


Thirty or more unbroke horses milled restlessly in a large corral at Cow Camp, summer headquarters on Montana's Flying D ranch. Boots Shell, the manager, asked a small, dark-haired horseman what kind of horse he'd to like ride when he roped the broncs. "Something that's never been handled much would be best," he said. The other cowboys, who had only met the quiet man the night before listened incredulously. It was the summer of 1964 and Tom Dorrance was already fifty-four years old.

Some of the horses waiting to be ridden were five, six, and seven year olds that for one reason or another had never been handled. Although their breeding was a mixture of good Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse blood, they'd spent most of their lives just eating grass in the big ranch pastures. They were corralled once or twice a year with the riding horses only to be turned out again untouched. Several others had been broken "at," that is someone had attempted to break them but hadn't been successful.

Tom roped a six-year old chestnut who'd previously bucked off the only person who had tried to ride him. He worked the horse on foot. Sam Spring, cow foreman, watched from the barn door. "I don't know what he did," Sam said. "Pretty soon, he had him backed into a corner and a saddle on him. He rode him out of the corral. The whole thing didn't take more than half an hour." By the next day the chestnut was on the payroll. Tom rode him when he caught the other "colts."

A few mornings later, while the rest of the Flying D cowboys saddled for the day's ride, Tom roped and saddled an eight-year old buckskin who'd been caught only once before-- when he was branded and gelded as a yearling. Although the horse was tall, he stood stock still as Tom mounted. Even with Tom on top, the horse remained still. Where another cowboy might have whipped the horse until he moved, Tom waited. "This may take quite a while," he joked with the other cowboys. "You may have to bring me supper."

Tom seemed to know when things were about to change. "He's scared. When he starts, he won't buck, he'll run." Sure enough in a few minutes, when Tom shifted his weight a little, the horse lifted one foot to keep his balance. Discovering that he could move, the buckskin burst forward as if he'd been shot out of a cannon. During the stampede across the large corral in front of the barn, Tom never tightened the reins. Only when the horse slowed in a corner to turn did Tom lift a single rein to more or less direct the buckskin through the turn. Minutes later, Tom rode out with the rest of the cowboys.

Horses like those Tom rode that summer on the Flying D are almost a different species, only cousins to those that have been handled from birth and raised in a backyard or a stable. Full grown, with their wild habits hardened in their mental wiring, they hadn't learned the limits of their strength, and their untamed animal fear had barely been dulled by experience. Rodeo broncs are easier to approach and for most of us, more predictable. To someone who knows how strong and uncontrollable such horses can be, what Tom did seems almost magical. It wasn't wizardry but what he did was radically different from the tenets of any philosophy of horsemanship before.

I know most people aren't interested in breaking such old outlaws, but these examples vividly demonstrate how successful Tom's approach can be. The principles which underlie his success can help you attain a better relationship with your horse no matter how gentle it might be.

As you've already seen, this article is about Tom Dorrance—well, I should say, this article is intended to be about Tom Dorrance and his approach to horsemanship. It would probably be more accurate to admit that it is about Tom and me. I don't think anyone could write a truly objective story about Tom. Somehow knowing Tom, and understanding him to whatever degree any of us can, is an extremely personal experience. The gulf between what he knows and what he can communicate to us about horses and, maybe more importantly, about life, is an immense chasm. We have to guess the rest and fill in as best we can. Consequently, we may miss the mark as much as we hit it. What I say about what Tom means or thinks is only my interpretation, my best guess.

Tom has never shown a horse to a world championship or done any of the things that make most noted horsemen famous but he is without a doubt one of the world's greatest horsemen-- some would say the greatest.

At least a couple of things make Tom great. First, he can get almost any horse to happily want to do anything a horse is capable of doing. The other is that he started a revolution in the way horses are broken and trained. Tom is no evangelist-he's more of a soft-spoken master. But his best-known student, Ray Hunt, has actively spread the word for more than twenty years. Other second and third generation practitioners such as Buck Brannaman, Bryan Neubert, Joe Wolters and others have clinics going across the country almost constantly. Greg Ward and Doug Jordan are two of a number well-known show trainers who have spent time with Tom. Now days even people who have never even heard of Tom are attempting to do some things his way.

When you first meet Tom, he doesn't look or act much like the wizard that his reputation has prepared you to expect. There is no flash or dazzle about him. He's friendly, but not overly so, and quiet. One minute he looks grave as if he is contemplating the unfathomable; the next, his eyes twinkle and you know that he often finds delight in his world. He's in his eighties now and maybe some of this demeanor comes with age but you get the feeling that he never was very flamboyant. If he ever felt the urge to impress people, he's long since grown beyond it.

As you spend a little time around him, you begin to sense a deep-seated confidence and contentment as if this is a man who has led a fulfilling life. You begin to feel the presence of genius. You soon become convinced that he knows something worth knowing-- but understanding exactly what that is comes harder. His knowledge and wisdom generally come out understated and most often unspoken. What Tom has to offer involves the minutest of subtleties. You have to pay attention to learn what he has to teach.

Even if there were more words available for him to use, most of what he has to offer has to be learned by feel. He can guide us but we have to feel it for ourselves. Some of that feel comes through our hands and body but the most important part comes from somewhere deeper inside us, a kind of empathy and honesty from the heart of our being.

There is an intertwining of reason, reflex and emotion in Tom's relationship with horses. Some of it, the things we need to do with our hands and legs-- the physical part-- can be demonstrated and taught. But even that part is not something that can be learned entirely by rote.

I'm almost positive that Tom never does anything with horses exactly the same way twice. It's his broader thinking that is important; the procedures that he uses in any given case are only examples of specific applications of general rules. Next time, Tom may see a situation which appears similar to us as significantly different and do some thing entirely different.

Unfortunately, the general rules can sound pretty obscure to someone who isn't already familiar with the gist of what Tom is talking about. In a way, Tom can show us what to look for but for the most part we each have to rediscover these rules for ourselves. So, be patient.

It seems to me that the mental parts of Tom's approach are equally important to the physical. Tom thinks and figures things out. But there is an emotional part, another aspect of the mental, that may be more important yet. If most of us are going to achieve even part of the closeness with a horse that helps Tom get such a willing performance from a horse, we're going to have to give up a lot of ourselves and our attitudes of superiority toward the horse. Jack Shell, who knew him years ago, summed it up pretty well when he said, "Tom Dorrance is a man without an ego." That lack of ego has a lot to do with his success with horses. Most of us probably cannot free ourselves from our egos to the extent that Tom has his, but even by controlling it a little bit, we'll harvest positive results.

When Tom participates in a clinic, he seems to work as well with the people as the horses. He shows extraordinary patience with other people's ignorance and tentativeness while pleasantly containing those with a tendency to show off. When I commented on that, he replied, "I've always been able to see the best in a horse. Since I've gotten older, I can usually see the best in people, too."

I'm convinced that there are essentially three general things that Tom does which makes his relationship with horses so successful. First, he pays attention. For instance, whether he is watching or riding he is aware of exactly where all the feet are at any given moment-- not just the horses, his or yours, too. He is totally aware of the tiny details. Where it might take a
cocked ear or bared teeth to tell most of us a short story, Tom reads a whole book from a tight muscle or a slightly short step with the left hind foot. He has paid close attention for eighty years and remembers it all.

The second thing is simply this: Tom sees horses as equals. That is, Tom doesn't believe his being human gives him any metaphysical superiority over any horse. To him, horses have as much right to their being as he does to his-- no more, no less, just equal. He treats them the way a very considerate and fair-minded gentleman would treat his equal. He grants them a basic being-to-being respect.

To people who have cultural expectations similar to those of Tom and many of the older Westerners, this description will mean a lot. To others, whose cultural expectations are more combative, particularly in their relationships with their family and friends, this won't convey what I mean. Once when he was helping me work with a horse, he asked me to do something-- I don't remember what now-- then cautioned me, "Don't insult her, just ask." The kind of respect that Tom gives horses is characterized by kindness and informality. It involves carefully avoiding surprises and it always involves leaving a horse its sense of dignity.

Tom expects to get the same kind of respect back from the horse. He does whatever it takes to get it. Of course, he is so aware of what makes any horse tick, he usually doesn't have to do much. You or I might have to do considerably more.

While a lot of Tom's relationship with horses comes from what he is, he does use a lot of specific techniques to achieve what he wants. I suspect that he has only worked them out in detail in the process of helping other people work through problems. Most of us can learn these techniques easier than we can those factors that seem to arise out of Tom's unique personality. I'll try to illustrate with examples throughout the rest of the article.

Like many other horsemen he teaches a horse to move away from leg pressure, and usually he expects people to flow with the movement of their mounts. At a walk, this means each of the rider's legs moves roughly in time with the front leg on that side. Many of us tighten the muscles in our legs and speed up the motion slightly to drive the horse into a faster walk. I do this habitually. Once, when Tom was helping me this must have been getting in the way. He simply said, "Sometimes, I tell people to ride without legs." I let my legs relax and hang down easily. They still moved slightly with each step. But with the muscle tension out, there was no demand from my motion and no pressure on the mare. I must have done the right thing because Tom didn't say any more about it and the mare began working better.

Remember, Tom is very flexible; he adjusts to fit the specific situation. If I say Tom did this or that, it doesn't mean he'd do the same thing in a similar situation with a different horse.

If you ask Tom a question about how to do something or how to get your horse to do something, he'll look real serious for a second then earnestly say, "Well, that all depends." What he means is that he needs to know more details before he can give a good answer. Each horse and each situation is different. Sometimes he will ask a question to prompt the details that he needs, or he just might wait until they're volunteered. Then, he'll say, "Well, you might try...." If you'll listen, he'll often offer several suggestions of what might work.

If you do try something Tom suggests or if you try to do what I describe Tom doing in any of the examples I might use and it doesn't work, you're going to have to stop and think about the general principles and come up with another way to try to accomplish your goal. This is what makes Tom's approach so hard for the rest of us but so rewarding for those well versed in it. As Tom once said at a clinic, "I can't give you eighty years worth of experience this afternoon."

When I tried to talk to Tom about taking hold of a horse's mouth in more technical terms--amount of pressure and speed of application, he very nearly didn't respond at all. I'm sure he understood but thought that such an approach was beside the point. If you read True Unity, his book with Milly Hunt Porter, you'll find that he talks about things like feel, timing, balance, goals, and respect but not about specific techniques. He's likely to tell you how to go about achieving something but unlikely to tell you exactly what to do.

When Tom mentions timing in his book, he makes a point about the right instant-- the right instant for the horse to make a move and the right instant for the rider to act to help the horse. Tom might state the general rule something like this, "Support and direct, before it happens."

I watched Tom spend the better part of an afternoon, trying to get a rider to pull on one snaffle bit rein when her horse had the front foot on that side in the air, so that he would step more easily toward the new direction. Tom wanted the rider to cue when it was easy for the horse to do what she wanted. The window of opportunity was really that period of time from when the weight came off that foot until it had begun its descent down again. There was a best time to cue and the horse responded most readily when Tom took hold of the bit. In the end, the rider was not hitting it perfectly, but sometimes she hit it within the window of opportunity. Tom was satisfied because both she and the horse had made as much progress together as they were ready to achieve.

There's a parallel in music. A good musician times the beginning and ending of her notes and changes in volume and pitch exactly right part of the time and almost right most of the time. A virtuoso times these things exactly right almost every time.

I don't know how many times I've heard Tom say to me or someone else. "You're too late. We don't worry about it this time but use it to prepare for the next time."

One afternoon, Tom was helping me by letting me help him with a nervous mare owned by one of his friends. At first he had me trot and lope to warm her up just enough to take the edge off. "A horse has to develop confidence in his surroundings first, then themselves and their rider," Tom explained. The mare didn't want to buck, but she wanted to go too much. She rooted her head and chewed on the bit. I could feel her strength coming up from her hind legs through her loin and neck. I tried to change the way I took hold of her mouth but no matter what adjustments I made, she kept on tossing her head and gnawing the snaffle.

When Tom began directing me, we walked. In fact we spent more than an hour walking, stopping and talking, and walking again. As I pointed the mare straight down the center of the arena, Tom said, "Now, just stop your hands." His hand sign seemed to say "do it easy." I took that to mean that he wanted me to put a very light -pressure on her mouth then wait patiently for a response. I stopped pushing with my legs, took the slack out of the reins and waited. Eventually the mare stopped. When she did, I responded immediately by relieving that light pressure. We worked at this quite a while. It was almost as if we were seeing how slowly I could stop the mare. As we repeated the exercise, the mare responded more and more readily to the slight pressure and I lightened up even more to keep the transition very smooth.

Of course, each time we stopped moving meant that we soon had another transition from the stop into a walk. Tom was as particular about how gentle and in time with her I was in this starting as in the stopping. At first, when she still wanted very much to go, I had to keep some contact to keep her standing until Tom asked for a start. I let the pressure off slowly in order to keep the mare from taking off too fast. After a while, Tom said, "Open up a little more for her." After that, I moved my hands ahead a little quicker and farther when I asked her to start. A little later, Tom said, "You're opening up too much." The level of support that the mare needed had changed but I hadn't.

Gradually, the mare and I got more and more in tune to each other. Tom had been very careful to keep me from reacting too quickly so that the mare gradually developed a real confidence that she could trust me not to surprise or hurt her. As this confidence developed, she grew more and more relaxed and I suppose I did, too. "See now," Tom said once. "A little bit ago all you had to do was give her permission to move. Now, she waits for you to suggest it." It was important that I suggest instead of demand.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, the mare quit chewing the bit and throwing her head. Apparently, those things had been symptoms of a more important underlying problem. It was really a matter of confidence. By the time I had loped her around the arena a time or two in the warm up, she felt pretty confident that her environment-- where she was-- was something she could live with comfortably. But whoever had ridden her before me apparently hadn't given her much confidence in riders. I probably wouldn't have either if Tom hadn't been there to guide me.

Her self-defense strategy was to take control of the bit and the speed away from the rider. Her strategy might not have produced a pleasant experience for either her or a rider but she seemed to think that by seizing control she could get a kind of mental relief by avoiding the unexpected. If this sounds convoluted, you have to remember that over several million years of evolution, the horse developed a keen ability to escape from trouble by taking the initiative and running.

This entire series of exercises was done at a walk. But, after the mare and I came to our mutual understanding and had gotten in time with one another, Tom suggested that I try to change leads at a lope. Interestingly enough, our togetherness did not fall apart when we speeded up. Although this mare had never done a flying change of leads before, when I gave her an opening to change-- supporting her with my legs without kicking and my hands without pulling-- she did it. The first change felt a little awkward but the second and third were much smoother. After those good changes, we quit. "You have a tremendous responsibility, [as rider and trainer]," Tom said. "Don't overexpose the horse so that they don't lose it, once they've got it."

One of Tom's trademarks is a piece of cloth or plastic on the end of a five to eight foot long flexible wire or whip handle. To him, it is just a tool that makes his arm a little longer and a more noticeable. He often uses it to simply get a horse to move out or to encourage it to turn. Visually, this flag is a kind of identifying symbol that quickly separates Tom and his school of horsemen from most others. Some people seem to think that if they just had a flag like Tom's they could do what he does. "There is nothing magic about the flag. It's just another way for me to communicate my intentions to the horse," Tom said. It is how the flag is used that is important, not the flag itself.

Tom accomplishes a surprising amount in a short time, but he never hurries. "Sometimes, going slow is the fastest way to get there." He starts with only a small part of what he wants to do. If his goal is to get a horse to step sideways with his right foot, at first he'll reward the horse when it shifts its weight to the left foot. That's the first part of the series of movements that will build up to the sidestep he wants.

When a hoof is in the air it can bear no weight so if the right foot is going to step, all the weight must shift to the left foot first. Once when Tom was working on some little thing that by itself didn't seem very important, he said, "When we get this, we'll have something to work with." He wants to build on a foundation of smaller successes.

I recall in the middle of a lesson, once telling him that I'd done something more complicated on the horse the day before. He looked very sternly up at me and said, "We're at one, not two."

Tom talks about the feet and legs a lot. "If you get control of the feet and legs, the rest comes easy." If you are trying to get a horse to do something, "Set it up so that he gets relief from moving his feet. Horses can figure out so many things if you arrange it and have a little patience."

I once heard Tom say, "It doesn't take a lot when it’s a learning process and not a worrying process." I think that's a good benchmark. When things aren't working right and both you and the horse are upset, back off a little bit and either try doing things a different way or get help.

The way Tom works horses, they don't get arena sour or burn out; they become and remain willing partners. If you can learn to use some of Tom Dorrance's approach to working with horses, I guarantee that you will have a better relationship with your horse. Whether you ride every day or a few times a year, whether you ride for work or pleasure, you and your horse will have better experiences together if you can think a little more like Tom.

I've only talked about two of the three things that I believe make Tom's relationships with horses so successful. In part II I talk about Tom Dorrance’s magic.