‘Inspiration is hard to
When your heroes are discreet’
Whenever you read or
hear of someone who has made a great contribution to a particular
pursuit or discipline, oftentimes that notoriety is attached to winning,
be it medals, trophies, certificates or whatever.
Winning in itself suggests a contest. A contest suggests conflict
and thus turmoil…all these things are contrary to the massive
contribution that Tom Dorrance has made to the world of horses as it
relates to their interaction with humans.
Born in 1910, he grew
up in the northeast corner of Oregon, fifty miles from the nearest town.
For over fifty years, farming and ranch work filled his life: “I
never did consider myself a horse trainer and I still don’t. I just grew
up with cattle and horses. I
spent a lot of time alone with them and when I was alone, that was when
I learned a lot of things. If I made a mistake, there wasn’t somebody to
clean up after me. It was
important that I get the job done.”
This maxim is the
same that has spilled over into Toms’ work with other people.
On the surface it would appear that he has no interest in
promoting his views or ideas to future generations of horse people.
However, I believe that is too simplistic a view. We are such a
goal-oriented society that it is sometimes hard to see the wood for the
trees. When Tom says:” I’m just
living. If anybody gets any good
out of it, that’s great. I don’t
want to force it on others. I
don’t work with a horse that way and I don’t work with people that way.”
This quote alone speaks volumes about the manner in which Tom Dorrance
In the human’s eyes,
the horse has been viewed in many different ways, from the lowliest
beast of burden thru to the almost godlike status of mythology. The
horse has been a warrior, a farm worker, a circus act, a means of
transportation…against his own nature he has carried humans to safety
thru the extremes of natures elements. Operating in the main willingly
despite the ignorance of the human in understanding the incredible
potential of what Tom Dorrance would call True Unity that the horse can
and will offer, if given the opportunity.
Tom Dorrance has been
‘offering back’ to the horse all his life, in his own words:”it’s so
simple, it’s difficult.”
Having said that, this
‘simplicity’ is loaded with subtleties.
Listen closely when Tom
says:” It seems like people expect the horse to know what they ask it to
do, while the horse has no idea what is being asked.
They expect the horse to already know.”
The three elements Tom
When trying to help
people ‘get with’ their horses: Feel, Timing and Balance, are in
themselves so deep and variable that even a vague attempt at explaining
the concept will often bring on a headache!
At this point the reader may be wondering, ’then why are we even
bothering to try?’ The answer is
deep within all of us. We all have a capacity and capability to do more,
to understand on a more complex level. What we don’t all have is the
fortitude and deep desire to dig deep and search. This is not meant as a
criticism, we are all different, thankfully.
I personally enjoy being around music, even working in the
industry, yet I don’t have that deep desire to dig in and search
further. I enjoy playing and writing a song, but I don’t feel the need
to learn more, maybe read music or play another instrument. I am not
driven the way I am with trying to understand more of the relationship
between horse and human. I’ve heard some beautiful music and wonderful
voices. I wouldn’t want to be in a place where I would never hear them
again, but…I’ve seen Tom Dorrance work with horses.
Tom will often mention
his friend Ray Hunt. How much fun it was to give Ray direction in the
early days and watch him develop. Now I’ve read some marvelous books and
heard some outstanding poetry and I wouldn’t want to be in a place where
I never had that opportunity again, but…..I’ve seen Ray Hunt ride.
For 23 years of my life
I taught Martial Arts. I mention this because although the very essence
of this practice is steeped in the esoteric, much of what we actually
see is a thin veneer of the truth. People often ask me why, after
coaching so many people to championship status I no longer teach or
practice. The simple answer is I
went to a Ray Hunt clinic and realized that I wanted to direct my energy
toward better horsemanship.
Movies and TV have shown the Martial Art in its grossest element, as
nothing more than a means of crushing your opponent. Competition has
diluted the Art into a way of collecting memorabilia in the form of
trophies, certificates and medals. In oriental philosophy a ‘Way’ is a
reference to a mode of living as opposed to a rigid method.
I have heard of people
who would dilute Toms ‘Way’. They would rather plot a course of action
whilst working with the horse in a modular system i.e. 1+1=2, A is
followed by B, then C etc.
I don’t believe I’ve
seen Tom address a horse project the same way twice. I have seen him
pause and reflect on similarities in behavior. I’ve heard him try to
help the human see where there may be an opening, a moment in time where
an opportunity to change is presented, but of course the balance is so
fragile, that the moment is often lost before the words are spoken.
What Tom shows us does
not translate into formulas.
Exact procedures are not part of his ‘Way’. If he was a Chef you could
spend a lifetime trying to find his recipes, and you would still miss
that pinch of magic he sprinkles in along the way.
When someone comes to him with a horse project he might ask some
questions or he might not, he may make some suggestions or he may not,
but you can be sure that he will fix it up for the human to dig in and
search for themselves. And when the lesson is learned, he will give
credit to the student, (both horse and human), not the teacher.
Tom has said,” It seems like most people working with horses are working
from the person to the horse. I
start with the horse and try to figure out where he is.
The horse tells me where he is and then I try to figure out how
to present myself to the horse in a way that’s understandable to the
My aim in writing this
essay is to encourage people to dig in and search. Read Toms’ book,
‘True Unity’, watch his new video ‘Greetings from Tom Dorrance’.
There is a wealth of knowledge within.
The book will support you in your search for a clearer
understanding, but it may take years for some of the text to become
clear to the reader. I believe
someone wanted to re-edit the book ‘True Unity’, put it into a more
understandable format. I saw the results of a new revised chapter; not
surprisingly it had lost all the subtlety of text and phrasing and, in
that revised ‘clarity’ had fallen into the well of the mundane.
I cannot even begin to
put into words what Tom really means about how we should be working with
our horses. I wish I could say ‘this is how Tom Dorrance would do”, but
I can’t. I have my own interpretation of his work and it isn’t
satisfying me, I’m so far behind it’s discouraging sometimes, but..that
is where I’m prepared to dig in and search.
I heard Ray Hunt say, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m not
lost.” I’ve also heard Tom say, “You’ve got more than you started with
and that’s good.” This in itself gives me heart.
I’ve had some
long visits with Tom in the last couple of years. I swear I’m asking the
same questions, (in a different disguise), and yet he never tires of
trying to help me search for the answers. I believe much of his ‘Way’,
follows the recommendation of give a man a fish and you can feed him,
teach a man to fish and you can feed a family (or whatever that is!)
doesn’t stop with just horses around Tom; I’m finding a different view
on life in general. Somehow it’s all wrapped up in his ‘Way’, his
manner, his presence.
Many years ago I was performing in a
Tennessee Williams play in England, the cast were all very intellectual,
(beats me how I got in), and we had many long evenings running into
mornings discussing life, the universe and everything. The subject
matter of the play was intense and harrowing. At the end of the run, the
cast were pretty well worn and the heroines statement "I'll always
depend on the kindness of strangers', reverberated throughout. A friend
and cast member gave me a book on parting, inside was the inscription,
"Inspiration is hard to find, when your heroes are discreet." I've
thought a lot about this over the years. I feel very lucky to have found
To many of us who are involved in this
'way' of working with horses, it has often seemed curious if not
extraordinary that although Tom is known throughout the world and is
recognized as the man who 'started it all'; revolutionizing modern day
horse training. He has never been 'celebrated' in a commercial sense. It
took about six years to write the one and only book in print and about
the same time to produce the one and only video.
There is nothing demanding about Tom.
Yet, when you're around him there's an aura of life and wisdom that
enriches the soul. This isn't to say you have to be in a state of
genuflection whilst around Tom. He'll be the first to make a humorous
observation and I know he enjoys a good joke. But where the moment
demands some serious reflection, you are immediately drawn into the
quality of understanding Tom has for life. For the longest time I
thought I might learn to be the horseman Tom is and then as time goes on
and he tells me more of things that he has done with horses in the past,
I realize I started too late. But that doesn't bother me now, it used
to. Now I'm happy to be doing what I'm doing and growing with the
process. There's a lot to learn and I'm enjoying the trip. Some of this
essay deals with my struggle to learn. This is my way of encouraging
others to 'dig in and search'. They may have more success and if that is
so then I'm sure Tom would be happy. In Toms' book 'True Unity', there
is a chapter called "Feel the Whole Horse", where he discusses
communication with the animal and understanding where they may be
troubled. He tells us how we need to look at both the physical and
mental aspects of this trouble but also search deeper and look to a
third factor, spirit.
A horse can offer a tremendous amount and
we can look pretty good hands when we're up there in the saddle, but we
can also be missing a great deal, a huge part of what the horse can
offer is deep inside and to get that part, to get that wonderful feeling
of partnership, the human has to search deep within themselves. This
alone is one of the main reasons that Tom's work is so complex and hard
to fathom, for although he can do 'it', he can only act as a guide to
There is always a certain amount of
physical direction, which can be pretty clear and direct when we get our
bodies to assume the necessary position, whether it is with our hands,
legs or seat. But the feel of the horse and what we offer in return, the
timing of when to make that offer, the balance of how much we should do;
all this has to come from within the person. For sure there is another
element, which can come into play, we may refer to this as experience.
This 'Way' cannot be loaded in and switched on like a new program in
your old computer. The heart of the matter is deep within the person,
the will and desire to come through with something special, something
that is to a greater degree inexpressible/ineffable.
One of the more incredible things that
Tom never ceases to amaze me with is his innate ability to KNOW when to
quit and move on. He may be working with someone on stopping his or her
horse for instance; under his direction the rider may have helped the
horse to simply wind down to a stop. Right there I've seen Tom praise
the horse and rider and move on. Initially I used to think, 'all right
let's get the next step and get that horse stopping. But Tom would have
already moved on to the next 'project'. Sometime later, maybe hours
later or the next day, he would come back to that person and their horse
and things would be 'just right'. The horse would be ready to stop when
the person asked. Tom knows when to quit, when to let that horse know
he's a winner. We as responsible horsemen need to catch up on that.
Being focused and paying attention whilst around Tom is the best lesson
you can learn. So much of what he says, (or doesn't say), can be missed
and lost if we are not right in the moment. It is also important to cast
off any ego. Earlier in my visits with Tom I would find myself "filling
in' for my inexperience with statements such as:" Well, I usually do
that but…etc". It didn't take me long to figure out that Tom is not in
the least bit interested in that kind of line. His concern is what you
are doing 'right now', in the moment. The crucial thing is to accept
this, remember what is offered and develop from it.
Regarding technique. Although there are a
variety of procedures you might wish to be familiar with before
embarking on a horse project. None of them will amount to much in regard
to building a true communication with the horse unless these
procedures/techniques are employed with those three attributes of Feel,
Timing and Balance. Toms' words.."Adjust to fit the situation, which
best fits the occasion", ring loud and clear. The horses sense of self
preservation is such that if more of our handling and riding of the
animal were done with consideration of this trait, we would be able to
achieve so much more and most importantly, without undue trauma or
A final thought from Tom: "I encourage
people to draw on themselves, experimenting and exploring. That's what
will help you keep your horse entertained and learning different things.
A horse should be learning something new all the time. You can't get it
all. It's an ongoing learning experience, an art or science; I prefer to
call it an art. It all has to come from within."
When I began composing this essay it had
another title, which in retrospect seems more fitting to place as a
coda, it is an old Chinese proverb: "When you drink of the spring, be
thankful for the source."