Horseback Riding

True Unity

November 28, 2011

The man who inspired Ray Hunt, Greg Ward, Dr. Robert Miller, Jack Brainard, Pat Parelli and thousands more.

Tom Dorance

Tom Dorance helped many people learn to communicate better with their horses while sitting on his camp chair. Journal photo.

By Lesli Groves in The American Quarter Horse Journal

Tom Dorrance sat on his little camp chair, and I sat about three feet away on a bale of hay. From out of the canvas bag lying at his feet, he pulled a piece of black nylon string. He had knotted the ends together to make a loop, and he told me to stick out my index finger. Slowly, his small hand reached out for my hand and then turned it so my index finger was pointing straight up. He draped the string over my finger, then he put his finger into the loop and pulled it taut. Using his free hand, he wove his middle finger in and out of the string, then he touched his fingertip to mine. He gave a little pull with the index finger that held the other end and voila! The string just dropped away from our connected fingers.

We stared at each other for a minute. I tried to decide if this was just an old man’s string trick or if there was some special significance that I was missing.

“Now,” he said slowly, “you do it.”

In a matter of seconds, I tangled the string.

“I’ll talk you through it,” Tom said. “The string is not going to change any more than the person who’s working it.”

He was trying to tell me that if I wanted to get magic from the string, I would have to take a different approach.

I have since forgotten how to do the string trick. But I have not forgotten Tom’s message.

Decades before “resistance-free” training had a name, it had an advocate in Tom Dorrance, a shy cowboy whose ability to communicate with animals earned him a cult following with which he was never quite comfortable. His disciples include Ray Hunt, the clinician who basically took Tom’s show on the road, and infinitely successful reined cow horse trainer Greg Ward. Then there’s Dr. Robert Miller, the man spreading the word about foal imprinting, and another famous clinician, Pat Parelli.

The stories about Tom are legion. They say the day Tom took over the rough string at the 25 Ranch in Nevada, they no longer had a rough string. Every horse quit bucking. Greg Ward has seen Tom sitting on his camp chair in the center of a round pen with a whole group of loose yearling lined up in front of him, like little soldiers. “Come on to lunch with us, Tom,” Greg invited after a long morning’s work. “You go on,” Tom said. “I want to stay here and talk with these fellows.”

Because of the stories, many people get the impression that Tom was like some Indian medicine man or shaman with almost supernatural powers. That’s part of why he was so uncomfortable with the fame his talent brought him. He believed that these communication skills are latent in all of us.

Another reason he avoided the limelight is that Tom took no credit for his knowledge. He said everything he knew, he learned from a horse.

“This is not magic,” he has said. “It is reality.”

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For two days, I observed as Tom directed people doing everything from saddling and riding a colt for the first time to teaching one to stand quietly in the center of the arena amidst all the confusion. I saw firsthand how a horse will sigh and lick its lips when it accepts something, and how something as insane as a well-tossed pebble can teach a horse to stand quietly tied for hours.

Most of all, I watched how he concentrated on the horse. He was so tuned in, he seemed to almost be sending the horse a message by mental telepathy. Most of his directing was done from his little camp chair, but when he worked one-on-one with a horse, I observed how he would move in and out, left and right, controlling the horse’s movements with his own. This is what I had heard about so many years ago, what had brought me on this pilgrimage in the first place.

And when I talked to Tom, one on one, that’s what I told him. I explained how I overheard a conversation between Jack Brainard and Monte Foreman, two famous horsemen especially well-known in reining circles. Jack had been to see Tom out in Nevada, and he went on for at least an hour about how he had watched Tom position himself in order to work the horse – how Tom observed each nuance, adjusting his own stance or posture, and how the horse would tune into him. Jack said that Tom believed animals could read people’s thoughts, and that if people would try to do the same, and see things from the animal’s perspective, they could create an environment of willing communication.

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I told Tom how much just hearing that conversation 15 years ago had affected the way I approached animals and, to some degree, people. It was the reason for the seemingly instant gratification I had later as a professional cattle photographer, as well as the reason I had enjoyed that work so much. What I was trying to say was, “Thanks.”

His eyes looked straight into mine throughout this monologue. Then we sat together in comfortable silence. Finally he said: “Every now and then, somebody says that they heard about me, and they seem to be thinking pretty good about it. I tell them, perhaps it might be better to hear about me than to find me.”

Maybe he was apologizing in case I was disappointed that he was human and didn’t do anything more magical than a string trick. Or perhaps he was saying that it’s more important to spend time alone, looking inside yourself and inside the animal, than it is to make a pilgrimage.

“The best thing I try to do for myself is to try to listen to the horse. I don’t mean let him take over. I listen to how he’s operating; what he’s understanding or what he doesn’t understand; what’s bothering him and what isn’t bothering him. I try to feel what the horse is feeling and operate from where the horse is.” – Tom Dorrance, May 11, 1910 – June 11, 2003