Horsemanship through feel, timing and balance - an ongoing,
dynamic philosophy of communicating with horses. Perhaps this
concept is what Tom and Bill Dorrance had in mind as they lived and
worked with horses. They eventually shared their ideas and
observations with Ray Hunt, a man that would bring this concept to
the masses. When viewing the world of modern horsemanship, each of
these men is inextricably linked to one another.
Bill and Tom grew up in the early 20th century on a ranch in
northeastern Oregon. In those days, most of America was horse-drawn
or horseback. The Dorrances lived and worked with horses on a daily
basis. They were particularly intelligent young men and, along with
their siblings, were encouraged by their parents to explore,
experiment and think for themselves. While their father, Church
Dorrance, worked the family ranch, their mother was a
schoolteacher. Both parents instilled in their children an ethic of
According to Bill's son, Steve Dorrance, "Even from the time
they were young, my dad and Uncle Tom would observe other people
work with horses and learn from them." Tom, later in life, would
often recommend that habit to students: "Observe, remember and
Tom adjusted his approach to horses early in life. In Tom's
words, "I was kind of a small fella as a child, and I'd watch the
bigger guys work with their horses and I thought, 'I'm not big
enough to do that so I'll have to figure out a different way.'" Tom
often worked alone as a young man. Not seeing another human for a
week or more was common. Consequently, and largely for safety's
sake, he worked with horses from a quieter, less forceful position.
Perhaps, even at this young age, Tom was considering the horse's
thoughts and feelings.
Known to be a quiet, pensive man, Tom was certainly not one to
seek attention. He enjoyed the company of horses and dogs when he
was a child and carried this affection for animals with him
throughout his life. Steve remembers seeing Tom, who would visit
Bill's ranch in California during the winter, spend long periods of
time just quietly petting horses out in the corral or doing the
same with dogs around the place.
Tom eventually married a woman named Margaret. She shared his
love of animals and riding and encouraged Tom to help people with
their horses. Both Margaret and Ray Hunt, Tom's friend, had told
Tom that he should think about teaching horsemanship clinics, but
Tom humbly declined at first.
Horseman and clinician Bryan Neubert, who grew up on a ranch
neighboring Bill's outfit, tells a story of when he and Tom were
fixing fence together; the subject of horsemanship clinics came up.
"Tom told me that Ray told him he really should be out there doing
clinics," Bryan recalls. "I asked Tom, 'What do you think about
Tom, who had conducted a couple of clinics by then, answered by
telling a story - a common conversational tactic for Tom. His story
centered on a pig that kept escaping the pig pen.
"We had a pig pen with several young pigs in it and one day they
all got out," Tom began. "We gathered them up and put them back in
and then put an electric wire around the pen that they'd hit if
they tried to get out again. The wire worked pretty well but,
somehow, there was one pig that continued escaping. He'd end up in
the shop or just any ol' place and was a real nuisance, and we'd
catch him and put him back.
"This happened almost every day 'til we made a plan to just sit
and watch that pen and see how that pig got out. We sat and waited
for hours and were about to give up and just get on with our chores
when we heard a terrible squealing come from the pen. We looked
back at the pen while the squealing went on and there was that
little pig, backed up and making a racket. Then he makes a run for
the fence and wire, hits them and keeps going, still squealing
"Well, when I have to do a clinic, I feel just like that pig,
squealing away before I even start."
Gradually, Margaret encouraged Tom to do more clinics and he
complied. A big challenge for Tom was communicating what he saw,
felt or sensed in a horse. Over time and with considerable effort,
Tom was able to increase the awareness in many people of what their
horses needed and thereby, help their horses. The experience
changed the lives of some horse owners.
Bill Dorrance was also influenced by his younger brother. Over
time, Bill became aware of the subtleties Tom would speak of in
relating to horses. He garnered a reputation for making bridle
horses and went on to win awards in the show ring as well as help
others with their horses.
A rancher, horseman, talented rawhider and remarkable roper
(he's said to have made ranch roping an art form) Bill led a quiet
life on his ranch and couldn't devote a lot of time to working with
outside horses. However, according to Neubert, "Bill happily gave
his time to anyone looking for help with their horses or their
roping. He was just a great guy and we became close friends even
though there was almost 50 years between us."
Bill could see Bryan had a passion for horses and cowboying, and
helped young Bryan with his horsemanship. He also taught Bryan to
make and braid rawhide into beautiful, useful horse gear, a talent
both Bill and Tom learned from their brother Fred, who drowned in
1940. Bill and Tom spoke highly of Fred and passed on stories of
his athleticism and his talent for riding bucking horses. On
separate occasions, they each told Bryan, "No one ever saw Fred
Fred, his brothers claimed, had a photographic memory; if he had
seen a person doing something well, Fred would teach himself the
skill in a short time. Fred set for Tom and Bill a high standard
for which they both would strive.
Oddly enough, during Bill and Tom's lifetimes, many horse owners
disregarded their approach to working with horses. It went against
the long-held, widespread belief that horses were merely beasts of
burden and must be forced to perform their tasks and do our
bidding. This attitude turned around in later years, but it took
Ray Hunt to instigate the change.
Ray and Tom's relationship began through a horse named Hondo.
The story surrounding Hondo could fill a book but, in short, Ray
first approached Bill at the Elko Fair in 1960. Ray asked for
Bill's advice on how to get this talented, athletic horse to stop
bucking at inopportune moments. Bill told Ray that he should really
talk to his brother Tom, who he described as "really good with
horses." Ray, of course, went on to meet with Tom and Hondo, with
Ray in the saddle, eventually became a champion in working cow
horse classes. Thus began the relationship that would change
horsemanship worldwide, forever.
For Tom, Bill and Ray, horses and horsemanship were never about
fame or fortune. Yes, Ray went on to become a world-renowned
horseman and clinician, but that was not his goal. For all three
men, "it was always about the horse," a phrase so often used to
describe the motivation behind their work.
For over 40 years, Hunt brought forth the message that force,
coercion and bribery are not necessary when working with horses. As
Ray would say, "The horse is a thinking, feeling, decision-making
animal. He doesn't need to be treated like a slave." This was a
shocking statement for many.
Now, in the early part of the 21st century, the Dorrance-Hunt
message is widely presented and practiced. Several clinicians
working today are worthy ambassadors for their message. Buck
Brannaman is among them.
"[Tom, Bill and Ray] wanted us to work with horses as if the
horse had a say in it," he says. "A lot of people - trainers or
clinicians - have the physical or mechanical part of what Tom and
Ray were talking about, but they're missing the feel and that's the
Bill, Tom and Ray are no longer with us. They each passed away
over the past dozen years and are profoundly missed.
"Ray changed my life," says Maria Kastros, a longtime student of
Hunt's. "Everything he taught me applies to how I live my
Brannaman, Neubert, Joe Wolter, Peter Campbell and Martin Black
are among today's widely known horsemen who spent a great deal of
time with Tom, Bill and Ray. They are considered the next
generation of horsemen who adhere to the principles and philosophy
of those three great men and purposefully continue to spread their
message. Others, like Mike Thomas, a longtime friend and student of
Ray's, keep their memories alive in other ways. Mike maintains a
web site dedicated to the men he calls, "The Trinity of Horsemen."
Mike's site preserves the men's stories and messages about working
After Ray's passing in March 2009, Carolyn Hunt, Ray's widow,
organized an event to honor her legendary husband. The Ray Hunt
Memorial Clinic was held in Fort Worth, Texas, in February 2010 and
featured the talents of some of Ray's finest students. The event
was such a success that Carolyn, along with Buck Brannaman and
Martin Black, wished to repeat it but with a slight twist. They
wanted the event to focus not only on today's horsemen, but also
the horsemen of tomorrow. The result was, "A Legacy of Legends,"
held last December. The event was another success and there has
been talk of developing a scholarship program for young riders
interested in pursuing the horsemanship that Tom, Bill and Ray
shared with us.
Ray Hunt would occasionally speak of his hope for the future of
horses and horsemanship: "My dream is that one day there might be a
young boy or girl riding a horse and they are in perfect harmony
together - the horse and rider turning, stopping, changing leads,
all effortless as if they are one body, one mind. Someone watching
might ask the youngster, 'Where did you learn to ride like that?'
And he or she would answer, 'Is there any other way?"
Perhaps the realization of Ray's dream is right around the
Joel Eliot is a horseman, musician and cowboy poet living in
Arizona. For their help in researching this article, he thanks
Bryan Neubert, Steve Dorrance, Buck Brannaman, Maria Kastros, Mike
Thomas, and Margaret Dorrance, who's at work on a new book about
her husband, Tom.