Tom Dorrance: A Most Extraordinary Horseman (Part 2)

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


The beautiful, black gelding charged out of control with his angry and frightened rider. A former race horse, he fairly ricocheted off the arena fences, crowding toward a gate -here and bolting across the arena there. The place was a horsemanship clinic near Elko, Nevada some years ago. One witness described the scene as a "total disaster." When the situation showed no sign of improving, Tom Dorrance offered to ride the black.

Changes came quickly when Tom climbed aboard. Nobody remembers now whether it was ten minutes or half an hour before Tom said, "We seem to be getting something going here." Looping the reins over the horn and folding his arms, he trotted, then loped the horse in circles, turning and stopping at will without touching the reins.

Legendary horseman Tom Dorrance can do almost impossible things with horses. He has the ability to get almost any horse to happily want to do anything a horse is capable of doing. For several years I've been trying to figure out why he is so successful. In Part I, I tried to point out things Tom does that seem critical to his relationships with horses. There is a point, however, when Tom and his ability defy simple analysis, a point where what he does with horses seems magical. It's the "magic" I want to probe. (Tom would never use the word magic but I hope he'll forgive me for doing so here.)

I suggested that there are three things critical to Tom's approach to horsemanship. Because of the length I was only able to discuss two of them last month. First, Tom is totally aware of even the smallest of details that relate to the horse and the person and their surroundings. Second, he seems to see horses as equals and treat them with a basic being-to-being respect. These things are relatively easy to understand and things that any of us can learn to do more-or-less well.

The third thing has an appearance of wizardry. That's where the mystery lies.

You have to realize that Tom sees horsemanship as a whole. To him, no matter how you analyze the parts of that whole, everything is distorted so long as you are focused on the parts and not the whole. But for most of the rest of us, Tom's whole of horsemanship is too hard to grasp all in one piece. When he talks about his own abilities not even someone well versed in his approach finds everything he has to say easy to understand. I've tried to break out meaningful chunks. I hope they will help you come to understand, but my words are not Tom's. And remember, as we attempt to look at the parts of Tom's horsemanship, all the pieces inter-connect.

When I heard about, then saw, Tom's ability to do things that couldn't be explained in terms of conventional horsemanship, I began to search for clues that might give me some hint about those most extraordinary abilities. Much of what follows recounts the primary milestones in this exploration.

In True Unity, Tom's book with Millie Hunt Porter, Tom speaks of physical, mental, and spiritual aspects in the communication between horse and human. The physical part, though not always easy, is understandable. And, the connection between mental events and resulting physical communication is relatively straightforward.

What Tom calls spiritual is a more difficult subject. I can't pretend to know exactly what Tom means by it, but it seems to me that he uses the word spiritual to mean more than one thing.

Part of it seems to be closely tied to the being-to-being equality that he feels with horses; part may have to do with the deep-down, core sense of self or dignity inside the being of the horse that should be left unviolated; and part of it is more complex.

Years ago, a friend told me that Tom sometimes recommends a book called Kinship with All Life by J. Allen Boone. It is so far out of the mainstream view of animals that it took me two or three readings over several years to grasp the clue it provides into how Tom experiences horses. Boone describes a kind of mental telepathy between humans and animals. One of the ways Tom uses the word spiritual seems to describe this sort of thing. Whether or not you and I choose to believe in telepathic communication, we can surmise that in his relationships with horses, Tom has telepathic-like experiences.

My clearest insight into Tom's magic arose out of an experience of my own. My family and I stopped to visit a friend of ours who lives alone with her dogs and cats. She was working in the garden but stopped when we arrived. We visited a few minutes while our girls, then five and seven, ran around the yard playing with the dogs and teasing our friend. In a few minutes we said good-bye. As we began to drive away I looked back at our friend, again working in her garden. She looked up at us briefly. Suddenly, it was as if I were her watching us drive away. I don't mean this metaphorically. For a moment, I had the actual visual experience of seeing us from her perspective. I also had the vivid emotional experience of her feeling a combination of a sense of relief that the wild running of the kids and dogs had stopped and also a strong sense of loneliness.

After I related this incident to Tom, I asked, "Do you do that with horses?" He looked at me and didn't answer for probably half a minute-- it seemed much longer. Finally, he said, "You can make that work for you a half mile away."

Tom knows so much about horses and is so sympathetic toward them that for all practical purposes he can literally see through their eyes. I don't mean to imply that it is a visual phenomenon only. I think it would be equally accurate to say that he can feel with their feet or hear with their ears.

You may recall the incident I described Part I of this article where Tom saddled an eight year old who'd never even been halter broke. After Tom climbed aboard, the buckskin froze. Tom visited with the ranch cowboys as he waited patiently for the horse to move. "He's scared," Tom said matter-of-factly. "When he starts, he won't buck, he'll run." In a few minutes that’s exactly what the buckskin did. The cowboys who watched that day are divided over whether Tom made a lucky guess or whether he had some special control over that horse. I don't think Tom guessed at all, I think he knew.

I don't know how many times I've heard Tom suggest that it is important to see from the horse's point of view. I had always taken that to mean that you should try to be aware of a horse's needs-- something quite different from literally seeing through a horse's eyes.

For our purposes here, whether my experience gave me a true insight into another mind or was my fantasy is not important—there's no way to confirm it anyway. The value lies in the clue it gives us about how Tom experiences horses.

Let me make an important distinction here. Any of us can imagine ourselves in the horse's position and feel what we would feel if we were in that situation. What Tom does is infinitely greater than that. When he looks out the horse's eyes, for that moment he manages to suspend his humanity and in effect becomes that horse. He is sympathetic, not empathetic.

(If you read Kinship With All Life, you will see that Boone assumes that all living things do, in fact, share many of our advanced, human mental activities. To me that's a weakness that makes his argument less convincing. There are important differences in our mental structures that need to be considered. It's probably impossible, for example, to have abstract thoughts without a forebrain.)

Because Tom sees out the horse's eyes, he knows what the horse is really thinking. And because he knows what the horse is thinking, he knows what to change to get the horse to act different. Because Tom works from information that most of the rest of us don't have, we can't follow the chain of his reasoning--so the way he gets results can seem magical.

It's one thing to talk about Tom seeing from inside the horse, and another to duplicate the process ourselves. One wonders whether this is a technique that we can learn or if it is a sixth sense that most of the rest of us were born without. Although I haven't mastered it yet, I'm convinced that to some extent it is a learnable skill, something that most us can practice to a useful degree. I'm not suggesting that we can all become Tom Dorrances but only that we can have better experiences with our horses if we spend some effort in learning to see from the horse's point of view.

In describing this ability of Tom's in terms of knowledge and sympathy I'm suggesting a non-mystical explanation of something that I previously described as magical. I don't mean to pretend that it's the whole answer but I'm emphasizing it because if there's a part of the Tom Dorrance magic we can learn, this is probably part of it.

I wish that I had a formula to give you to tell you how to see through your horse's eyes. Although, I think I'm beginning to know a little bit about how this thing works, but I certainly cannot claim to understand it all.

In his book Consciousness Explained, scientist and philosopher Daniel C. Dennet theorizes that it is possible for a human to know what it is like to be an animal of virtually any kind. Although he mentions bats, lions, and deer in particular, his line of thought suggests that the mental activities of a horse are as accessible to us as its anatomy. He suggests that we have to (1) observe the physical structure of the brain and the sense organs of the horses, (2) study how horses behave, (3) understand the environment in which the evolutionary development of horses took place, and (4) observe a particular horse's present environment and actions. With this in-depth knowledge, he argues that we can imagine with a high degree of accuracy what that horse thinks. I agree.

Earlier, I related Tom's ability to do magic to his sympathy for horses and his knowledge of them. Dennet's reasoning suggests that knowledge is the key. In Tom's case it's what helps his sympathetic sensations be highly accurate.

I think Tom meets all of Dennet's criteria, too. Although he probably wouldn't care to give a lecture on the physical structure of the equine brain, he does know that it is much smaller than ours and doesn't expect it to have the same capacities as our larger one. He knows that horses have unusually large and mobile ears, eyes and nostrils. He knows that they are almost perfectly adapted to survive on open grasslands where they can generally escape from danger by running away. And, as I implied earlier, Tom is the ultimate observer who has spent most of his eighty-plus years studying horses under -a wide array of conditions. In addition to these things, he possesses a unique and amazing intelligence.

Tom's ability to do magic rests to a large extent on an ultimate degree of sympathy. And, telepathy or otherwise, it's an ability that arises out of deep knowledge of the horse.

I want to now approach this same topic from a slightly different perspective. Tom has been frequently been likened to a Zen master. There are some parallels. I once sent Tom a few pages of Zen and the Art of Archery that began with a discussion of drawing the bow "spiritually." He marked several passages and returned the copy to me. One of the places he marked said, "The shot will only go smoothly when it takes the archer by surprise." Later, he marked several places where the author or his master was talking about "It" shooting. This helped me understand that for Tom, what he does sometimes seems to come from outside himself. I infer, therefore, that he is describing a non-conscious process.

Tom sometimes talks about learning a technique as a three-step process. First we have to concentrate (to figure out what we want to do); second, we have to make a conscious effort to co-ordinate our brain and muscles; finally, after the co-ordination becomes thorough-going we no longer have to involve conscious thought to complete the steps, but only have to think in terms of our goals. The point is that Tom doesn't have to think about what he knows. For him, shifting in and out of the horse's point of view, is a subconscious activity. So, knowledge isn't enough by itself, but has to be used until it becomes effortless. One of the characteristics of knowledge at this stage is that the user no longer has doubts but feels certain.

Another of the other passages that Tom marked in Zen and the Art of Archery said, "Once you have grown truly egoless...." In Part I, I described Tom as having little or no ego. That's probably one of his qualities that makes this easier for him. In fact, I've come to believe that a prerequisite to do these things effortlessly and well is to have the ability to suspend both the ego and the conscious will, at least momentarily.

Having lumped the things that Tom does in his successful relationships with horses into three general categories, I now have to admit there is at least a fourth thing--which I don't understand. I'm not sure if that fourth thing is something that he does, or if it is something he is. Let me give you a small example:

One day when Tom was helping me, I was holding the halter rope of my mare. It hung down from my hand in a large, loose sag before climbing again to where it hooked into the halter. The mare seemed completely relaxed, standing still, not quite asleep. For some reason, Tom and I traded places. As near as I could tell, he held the rope exactly the same as I did. If anything, it drooped even more. He looked completely relaxed and certainly less threatening than I had. Slowly, with no alarm and without so much as re-setting a foot, my mare came to attention. It was as if she'd been slumped with muscles almost completely relaxed like you might do in a comfortable chair. Then without really changing position, her muscles firmed up, lifting her body ever so slightly, like you might do in that moment between deciding to get up out of that comfortable chair and actually rising. The mare was still comfortable but for no apparent reason she seemed to regard Tom with more respect than she had me. It was as if there was a communication between Tom and horse on a level I could not sense.

About a year later when I remarked to Tom about this, he almost levitated from his chair. "That's what I mean," he said. "I wouldn't call it spiritual if I could think of any other way to describe it!"

Tom has spent most of his life studying horses. He started with an especially acute ability to observe and a sensitivity toward horses. He has developed the ability to get inside the horses' mind and experience what the horse is experiencing to such an extent that he does it with no conscious effort. He makes that awesome jump between rational analysis of what a horse might think and actually feeling what the horse is feeling at a given moment with the same ease that you or I might breath or scratch an itch. It is a skill that he has developed. And, I think it is a skill, like the game of basketball, that most any of us can learn to do at a level that is enjoyable; with practice, we can improve, yet probably none of us expect to ever play like Michael Jordan. Neither can we all expect to relate to horses as well as Tom Dorrance. Most of us have neither the time or the ability to learn all we have to know to do so. Fortunately, when we deal with horses even small improvements in us can pay big dividends.

You can obtain a copy of Tom's book TRUE UNITY: Willing Communication Between Horse and Human by writing him at 18425 Corral del Cielo, Salinas, CA 93908.


Ed. note: You can now obtain a copy of TRUE UNITY by ordering it from Tom Dorrance's website.