Reflecting on the influence of Tom Dorrance, Bill Dorrance and Ray Hunt

Wednesday, June 01, 2011   

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 personal progress.

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 compare."

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 that? "

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 away.

"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 buck off."

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 most important."

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 life."

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 with horses.

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 corner.


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.



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