“It was shortly after I started my radio show that I began hearing the name Tom Dorrance,” writes television and radio personality Rick Lamb in his book HUMAN TO HORSEMAN. “It was always spoken with reverence…Some people spoke of knowing him personally, others of being at clinics with him, and others still of the principles he espoused.”
The world lost Tom Dorrance in 2003, but renowned horseman Buck Brannaman has helped keep the lessons Tom shared alive, teaching an approach to training and riding horses that he learned from spending years following and learning from Tom, and Ray Hunt, as well. We now benefit from the wisdom Buck shares on the road, and as you’ll see below, much of Buck’s philosophy mirrors Tom’s own message.
“There are a group of observations and suggestions attributed to Tom Dorrance that, even on first reading, were immensely valuable to me,” says Rick Lamb. “What he did was give us things to think about that help on the journey.”
Here are Nine Nuggets of Horse Wisdom attributed to Tom Dorrance that, thanks in part to Buck Brannaman and other horsemen who learned from Tom and continue to share his teachings, are now an important part of every rider and trainer’s evolution—whatever their discipline, whatever their sport, whatever their age or geographic location.
After all, wherever he is and whatever it is he may be doing while there, a horse is still a horse.
Included are Rick Lamb’s comments and astute explanations of what he feels these lessons mean and how they can help us on our journey to become better horsemen. (You can read more about the famous trainers and clinicians with whom Rick has worked in his book HUMAN TO HORSEMAN.)
1 Observe, remember, and compare.
“To me, Tom is saying you have to be mentally engaged when working with horses,” says Rick. “You need to be focused on what’s going on and apply mental energy as well as physical energy to the process. Every experience you have will add to your understanding, but you need to think about it.”
2 Make the wrong things difficult and the right things easy. Let your idea become the horse’s idea.
“This is Tom’s straightforward way of describing the secret to all animal training, what behaviorists call Operant Conditioning,” explains Rick. “Desirable behaviors (right things) are rewarded (made easy) and undesirable behaviors (wrong things) are punished (made difficult). Regardless of the words you use, you are setting up a situation and allowing the horse to choose his own outcome. A horse learns very quickly to choose things that give him the best outcome, which is what you wanted all along.”
3 Be as gentle as possible and as firm as necessary.
“It is in this, perhaps the most defining of Tom’s ideas, that the concept of justice is seen,” says Rick. “An analogy that comes to mind is what it takes to boil water. At sea level, water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. That is the minimum amount of heat that it takes to get the job done. Water will also boil at 213 or 214 or 215, but that is more heat than necessary. Water will not boil at 211 or 210. That doesn’t get the job done. Justice where a horse is concerned is the commitment to using the least amount of heat (pressure) necessary to get the job done.
“This is also probably the most misunderstood principle in natural horsemanship because many people only see the gentle part,” Rick continues. “It feels good to be gentle to a horse, but closing your eyes to the necessity of being assertive and strong at times is foolish and naïve. The horse is more comfortable—in human terms, happier—with a competent leader in charge.”
4 The slower you do it the quicker you’ll find it.
“This means a couple of related things to me,” says Rick. “One, practicing anything slowly is the way to master it. Speed comes naturally. Two, when things aren’t going well, you may be going too fast for the horse, he can’t process it that quickly, or the quality of your presentation is suffering because you are racing through it. Slowing down allows you to be better and the horse to keep up with what you’re asking him to do.”
5 Feel what the horse is feeling and operate from where the horse is.
“This is nothing more or less than empathy, imagining what another creature, man or beast, must be feeling at a given moment,” Rick explains. “Putting yourself in the horse’s place is not only the moral high ground, it also helps you see solutions you wouldn’t otherwise see. Can you really know what it’s like to be a horse? Not really. But as a human, you have the ability to think in the abstract, to imagine what it might be like and that gets you close enough.”
6 Do less to get more.
“This is perhaps the most counter-intuitive of Tom’s prescriptions, yet I’ve seen it proven over and over again,” admits Rick. “The horse’s survival instinct is strong, and it is so near the surface in many horses, that it interferes with them learning. Backing off, turning down the pressure, doing less in whatever form it takes, allows the horse’s preoccupation with his own survival to lessen and his thinking to increase. Just as with the slowing-down suggestion, doing less may also improve the quality and accuracy of your performance, as well.”
7 Take the time it takes.
“Just as the horse is preoccupied with survival, the human is preoccupied with time,” says Rick. “When you are worried about the amount of time a task takes, your body telegraphs it loudly and clearly to the horse. Rather than speeding up the process, worrying about time inevitably slows it down because it worries the horse, too. Conversely, letting things unfold at their own rate usually makes them go faster because the horse does not become worried about his safety.”
8 The horse has a need for self-preservation in mind, body, and spirit.
“This goes to the essential nature of the horse, the nature that the horseman tries to use instead of fight,” Rick explains. “But it speaks to more than physical self-preservation; Tom invites us to think of the horse as a complex creature whose mind and spirit must be preserved and protected just as his body is.”
9 The horse is never wrong.
“This last point is wonderfully rich. If you accept this premise—that the horse is never wrong—then you must ask yourself about the real nature of your journey from human to horseman,” says Rick. ” The horse doesn’t need changing, so it can’t be about training horses. The journey from human to horseman can only be about one thing: changing ourselves. It is a course in self-improvement for human beings. At the individual level, it makes humans more effective with horses and with people. At the macro level, it has implications for all mankind. By molding a new, more fully realized human being, we improve the lot of our species and our planet.”
HUMAN TO HORSEMAN is available from the TSB online bookstore where it is ON SALE NOW!
BUCK the award-winning documentary and 7 CLINICS WITH BUCK BRANNAMAN are also available.