Passing the Gift...

He came from simple beginnings

Bill Dorrance and I shared a great love of horses and he invested the last few of his 93 years patiently showing me his preferred way to handle and ride them. I often heard it said that Bill, whose rural upbringing only provided for a formal education through the 8 th grade, spoke "simply," but what impressed me most about Bill's use of language was two-fold: He selected his words with care and they always sounded appropriate; his judicious timing for their use was in perfect keeping with his horse-handling and riding capacities, which were impeccable.

"Because no two people and no two horses are the same," he said, "a fella is going to have his own experience with that horse. But even if a fella might think he ought to have the same experience that another fella had, if he was thinking about that other fella's experience, he might miss out on a good bit of his own that was taking place with the horse right then."

What also impressed me are the things that Bill did not say. He steadfastly refused to discuss the myriad possibilities and probabilities that can occur in life with horses, and disdained the popular preoccupation that horse enthusiasts have with an infinite number of "what if" scenarios. The things that could-might-or-should happen with a horse, are negative possibilities upon which he chose not to focus. In the beginning of our work together I was somewhat deaf to his frequent dismissals of my apparently irrelevant ideas about horses and the best way to train them. He would constantly remind me that he was only interested in "the actual facts" pertaining to a particular horse and horseman. As you will discover in the pages that follow, strict adherence to this lean approach leads the dedicated horseman to a position of sureness about and command of the invaluable skills one needs to gain in order to become a confident and competent handler of horses.

On July 20, 1999, only five weeks after the publication of the first edition of this book, Bill passed away His death left an indescribable gap in my life. Such was my grief and perception of loss that, for a time, I could not see the point of much in anything. Now, after nearly seven years, I understand that the death of a friend and mentor was, in a way, a gift, and the concept of "loss" has at last taken on a new meaning.

Before Bill died I gave him my word that I would continue to help others incorporate a better feel into their horsemanship. It has taken this long for me to recognize what many people refer to as the "magic" in the refined level of communication that Bill assured me is possible to attain with a horse. I can now agree that to handle and ride a horse that is trained in the sort of feel-based approach Bill had in mind is exhilarating, but I hasten to add that it is certainly not magic. Horsemanship through feel is about trusting that a horse is trustworthy, and taking the time it takes to impart the basics for a good foundation that the animal can rely on to quickly get back on track when things do not go as planned.

Here is a short case in point that perfectly illustrates the relevance of Bill's recommended approach for a horse that had trouble with people.

The bay gelding was headed for slaughter because his response to mishandling at the race track was misunderstood. He kicked with his hind hooves and struck with his front hooves any person within reach. He pushed people over or ran them down when they tried to lead him, groom or medicate him. He bucked off every rider who dared to mount him. He fought restraints, whips, the bit and saddle, and every attempt to manage him. Finally, when too many people had been hospitalized, the fine bloodlines and extraordinary price tag that lead to his life at the track was written off as a loss by the investors, and plans were made for his disposal. Sadly, this is a common story.

However, what happened next is not as common. He caught the eye of a lifelong horse lover who decided to offer the colt another chance. The first rides were the typically fast and reckless rides one can have on a scared colt. These were punctuated with sharp turns, sudden lateral leaps, and many other unplanned and unpleasant aspects. Fearful unsure people who handle and train young horses generally leave their signature in similarly fearful unsure horses, and this was a classic case.

Hand-feeding that had led to the colt's pushiness was altogether stopped. In a few weeks he could be lead without trampling the person on the other end of the rope. When haltering, bridling and grooming of the face and neck was offered from a spot behind either elbow, the colt found that he could not push on anyone who was not in the way. He learned to tolerate and, later, to enjoy the feel of a brush and the stroke from someone's hand. His neck from the withers to the poll lost its iron-clad tension. The placement of his feet and the positions of his shoulders and hips could easily be adjusted to accommodate daily routines in the confined spaces of an aisle way, wash rack and trailer.

No longer did four feet flail at those who purported to tell him what to do and when to do it. Instead, he looked with interest at the people, horses, and other things around him. He would stand with slack in the lead and offer a flexible, graceful arc in his neck in search of the answer to two newly emerging questions that his expression clearly held: "Who are you, and what do you want?"

The bay colt discovered the joy of a good run and fast play with his own kind. He learned about his athletic capacity, his timing, and then improved his judgment about where it was safe to be when, and at which speed certain maneuvers were possible. In a few weeks, the habitually pinned ears, grinding teeth and head-tossing – all evidence of stress and discomfort – had disappeared.  Pacing back and forth alone at the stall and paddock gates became a thing of the past. The colt no longer chewed frantically on the steel bars that confined him. His restlessness abated when the grass he longed for was growing under foot. In winter, the freedom to be a normal horse with a natural, thick winter coat replaced stalls with heat lamps and blankets used in former times.

A feel of belonging to someone who set him up to succeed replaced the previous daily regimen of anxiety and failure. This was an obvious shift, there was a clear connection and for those who knew the horse, it lead to the obvious conclusion: a horse behaves better when he feels better. The re-training began, and he was coached slowly until he learned the distinctly different feel between the requests for steps forward and back, left and right. In separate, short and slow lessons the colt was shown, through feel, how to elevate the neck and head, shoulders, ribs and hips.  "I used the examples Bill gave us to practice new things that could lead the colt out of his confusion about people and what he thought they expected from him. The end of that brought immediate relief to my colt. When he had a brand new feeling about himself around people, it was a huge relief to me," the new owner told me. "If I understand the message in this book right, I think Bill agreed with the earliest impressions that I formed about
horses --- there is never a reason to punish a horse when his behavior is regarded from his own point of view."

I hope this example of respect for horses through a feel-based approached to handling and riding them will be the norm someday. As Bill said, "If a fella works at this a little, why it won't be too long before he's just going to release his horse to the maneuvers he has in mind, and that pressure part isn't going to show up in there at all."

In the years since we worked around horses together, I have frequently relied on this book to help me stay on the right track. The detailed descriptions of feel and the best way to apply it under certain circumstances are not only solid building blocks for advanced work, but a timeless reminder that good horse handling is as much an acquired skill, an art to master, as it is a gift that more fortunate horse lovers among us appear to have been born with.

Before closing, I want to tell you about a little something more about Bill Dorrance. It was June 6, 1999. Sixteen of us packing and shipping books around the clock since June 2 nd. The address labels were on, the book signing was done, and we had nearly completed all the packing, labeling and stamping for 1,750 pre-publication orders when the phone rang. Three carloads of books had already been hauled out to the post office. Another truckload was en route by then to a freight company, destined for Europe and Canada.  
LD: Hello!
BD: Hello, yeah, Dorrance here. How are you all getting along up there ... I believe it's Novato you're in now, is that right?
LD: Well, we're still at it Bill, there is a lot to do here now, and we've just about got most of the books packed into envelopes, they ready to close up and send. A truckload has already been taken to the post office earlier today, and by noon tomorrow we should be all through with the initial shipments!
BD: OK, that is good. Well, I was just thinking maybe had ought to write just a little more on our book, yeah, that's it . . . if a fella thought there was still time for it.
LD: Said nothing.
BD: . . . Hello?
LD: Hi Bill. I'm just thinking about this . . . that's all . . .
BD: Oh yeah, OK then, well, yeah, that's right, there was just that little piece of it in there that didn't make it into our book yet is all, and I was thinking . . .
LD: Bill, I'm sorry to cut in here, but the book is already here, back from the printer, back from China, and we are shipping it out this weekend.
BD: I know but where there's that part in there that we didn't get into our book, I was just thinking how it could be pretty important for the horse, that we get that in there.
LD: What did we forget, Bill? We can't unpublish this book but we can re-publish it -- we can certainly re-publish it with your additions in there...would that be all right?
BD: Well, I'd rather we got it in this time. yeah, that's right. If we can. Yeah.
LD: Stunned, said nothing.
then, finally . . . .

LD. Bill, what is it that we need to put in our book? Is this important enough for us to open these packages that are still here?

BD: Yeah, I think so. It can really help a horse alright, if a fella had this to think about sometime.
LD: Then, are you thinking that should I write something down to add to the book before it leaves Novato in the morning?
BD: Yeah, that's right.
LD: You mean add something on a piece of paper inside the book cover, just stick it in there . . .just like that?
BD: I think so, yeah, that's it.
LD: Have you got the wording of what you want to say all ready to go? You have it ready now? Or is this something I need to come down to the ranch and visit with you about?
BD: No, I've got it alright. What a fella needs to be aware of is that horsemanship through feel is handed down from one friend to another. It isn't for sale, no, it isn't for sale. And I'd rather think that a fella, before he gets too far along on the training end of things where horses are concerned, should know about this on the start.

Some people who purchased the early hardbacks, the First Edition (printed in China , marked 1998-1999) and Second Edition (printed in Canada, November, 1999) might see that 3" x 8 1/2 inch piece of paper that Bill wanted us to stick in there at the last minute for you. About 5,000 of those little strips of paper were "signed" with his rubber stamped signature and xeroxed at the copy place that day. I hope this little vignette from the years that I worked alongside Bill conveys the flavor and feel of the time I spent with Bill.  In some important ways those were the best years . . . so far, anyway. I sincerely hope that I've been able to bring the message he had for us across in the right way, in the way he would have wanted me to. If I didn't, the responsibility lies entirely on my shoulders. If I did, I will never know. But any way, and either way, in the years that have passed since he coached me a few times a week, I have done my utmost to continue working on the things he showed me how to do, and to ride in the ways he asked me to ride.

Leslie Desmond
Chico, CA
November 1, 2006