Tom Dorrance: Natural Horsemanship Pioneer

A self-taught horseman with a lifetime of experience, Tom Dorrance helped riders establish true unity and willing communication with their horses. Written by Judy Reynolds for EQUUS magazine.
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A self-taught horseman with a lifetime of experience, Tom Dorrance helped riders establish true unity and willing communication with their horses. Written by Judy Reynolds for EQUUS magazine.

Tom Dorrance passed away in June 2003 at the age of 93, but his philosophies are carried on by many of today's natural horsemanship trainers and clinicians.

Some called him a guru and a Zen master, and no wonder. Even in his 80s Tom Dorrance had an uncanny ability to read a horse and divine what he needed and when. But Dorrance shunned such labels, simply saying, "Everything I learned, I learned from the horse."

He was too modest. For more than a quarter century Dorrance was at the head of a quiet revolution in horse handling. His philosophy of "true unity and willing communication," built on an acceptance of the mind, body and spirit of the horse, had found an enthusiastic audience among equestrians frustrated with more traditional approaches to horse-human relationships. His disciples-including Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman- spread the gospel in clinics from coast to coast.

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In 1960, Dorrance sold his Oregon ranch and began traveling throughout the West, working with horses and sharing his knowledge and vision with their owners. Over the years, he developed a following as more and more horse people became interested in establishing cooperative rather than coercive relationships with their horses.

Westwind Ranch
The steady stream of horse trailers bouncing down the road to Westwind Ranch attested to the undiminished appeal of Tom Dorrance's ideas and methods. One bright fall day I was part of the procession, my 9-year-old Thoroughbred, Laddie, in tow.

We needed help. Laddie had spent three years on the racetrack and could be explosive. He liked to bolt. He traveled heavily on the forehand and would hang onto my hands at the canter. I had trouble getting his attention at times and often felt frustrated and vulnerable while riding him.

Previously, I had sought the advice of an excellent hunter/jumper trainer and a talented dressage rider. Laddie's dramatic tendency to bolt had led both to recommend a double-twisted wire snaffle. Though this bit offered more control, I knew it did not address the fundamental problem, whatever that was. Safety was still out of reach. I decided that if I had to ride Laddie in such a severe bit, I'd rather not ride at all.

The morning Laddie and I arrived, Dorrance was talking with five visitors about a string trick. It had four steps, and if you missed even one, you couldn't complete it (a concept Dorrance often relates to horse handling). This trick required attention and dexterity, and it could make someone feel like an idiot. Not that this was its intention. Dorrance loves brainteasers, maybe because he loves to see people try to figure things out-including their horses.

"If people figure a thing out for themselves, maybe it'll stick with them a while," he said.

A New Way of Thinking
I soon learned that taking a "lesson" from Dorrance involves more deduction than instruction. A few spare observations he may make often are the only clues you are given in trying to figure out the how, what and why of a situation.

Nonetheless, in my week at Westwind, I gradually learned some of the basic principles underpinning what Dorrance calls true unity and willing communication between horse and rider. Because they are amorphous and impossible to fit into the how-to mode of today's equine literature, these principles can be maddening. And, I must admit, they turned my "training program" completely on its head. But they changed my relationship with horses forever, as they have for countless others who have learned from Dorrance or his followers.

Here are a few of Dorrance's principles:

Establish mutual respect. At one time or another, most of us have been told that the horse must respect us. In trying to win that respect, I have often been counseled to "make" the horse do what I want him to do, the quicker the better. Very few people concern themselves with earning the horse's respect. Dorrance did. His definition of respect was based on an understanding of the horse's perceptions, motivations and preferences. It requires reading the horse, noting the look in his eye and position of his ears, so that at any given moment your response will be appropriate. And it means that everything is done slowly, quietly and carefully.

"It's very important to be able to present yourself to the horse in a way that is acceptable to him," he said.

In Dorrance's view, respect also means seeing to a horse's needs, from making sure he has enough hay and water to adjusting his tack for maximum comfort.

Work with a horse's instincts, not against them. "People don't always take into consideration the way the horse looks at the safety issue," Dorrance said. "They force the horse into situations where he doesn't feel safe, at the same time expecting him to learn something new."

The horse's instinct to flee when confronted with a perceived threat is a prime example. Dorrance does not try to push a horse toward the source of his fright. A spook was sometimes met by turning Laddie to face the object and, at the same time, allowing him to move away from it. The purpose: to build the horse's confidence that the rider will not confine him beside the perceived danger and to let the horse assess the danger so he can learn to feel safe.

Use your powers of observation to make every observation count. Working with Dorrance was intense, because he was constantly noticing so many seemingly insignificant things that many of us overlook. Tiny details, he said, when added up, can provide a clear picture of bigger issues down the road. "By solving the little things, you might avoid bigger problems later on."

For example, saddling and bridling a horse is an exercise in total awareness when done under his watchful eye. "If the horse stands quietly for bridling, saddling and mounting, then you have some communication going on," he said. To put on the bridle, Dorrance turned Laddie's head slightly toward him. Every time the horse began turning away, Dorrance gently bent him back, sometimes pressing his right hand up where the throat meets the jaw to relax him.

The same goes for saddling. The horse was to stand absolutely still, without grinding his teeth, shaking his head, or fidgeting. If at any point he became agitated, Dorrance stopped everything and settled him down before proceeding.

As for the mounting, Dorrance prefered getting on from a fence or block, because it's easier for both horse and rider. The horse can be encouraged, with the reins over his head, to move up closer to the rider. Dorrance advised a little lift on the inside rein as the rider swings his leg over the saddle, which will help the horse keep from moving off. If he steps away as you mount, that small beginning could lead to much more dangerous moves.

All these details require a tremendous amount of attention, but Dorrance believed they are the foundation for willing communication. "It's like the string trick," he said. "If you're having trouble on step number two, you won't get to step number three. And if you don't clear up problems at step number three, you'll have to wait for step number four."

Dorrance understood fully what so many of us only pay lip service to: the fact that we cannot "make" a horse do anything. We can ask a horse, but we can't make him. Not only is the horse 1,000 pounds heavier than a person, but also his persona is the living expression of freedom and independence.

"For lack of a better word, I've taken to calling this the horse's spirit," Dorrance said. "The older I get, the more I have come to believe that this aspect of the horse is the most important and the most overlooked."

This article is updated and condensed from an article that originally appeared in EQUUS in April 1995.