The Horse Whisperer

It is feeling, timing and balance that we are looking for.

Tom Dorrance

The 1996 movie The Horse Whisperer told the true story of a cowboy who could tame wild and unruly horses that others had given up on. The movie was based on the life of cowboy Buck Brannaman, who had an extraordinary gift with horses and who was trained by cowboy Ray Hunt, who himself had been trained by Tom Dorrance, who originally developed the techniques that future horse whisperers would eventually follow. What Tom learned goes far beyond the world of horses and can help us understand the problems in our world today.

Here is Tom’s story.

He was the youngest of eight children of William and Minnie Dorrance, who raised cattle and grew hay on a homestead that William obtained in 1882 in the Wallawa Mountain Range in the far northeast corner of the state of Oregon. It is one of most beautiful areas of the state, but it is very remote and few people travel there. The Wallawas — as the locals call it — feels like a world unto itself.

The four boys and four girls all pitched in with the ranch, and horses were an integral part of ranch life, so they all rode horses. No one gave much thought to how they trained horses, because it was so much a part of life that it just seemed to happen.

All the Dorrance boys — Jim, Bill, Fred and Tom—were involved in ranching and all rode horses, but Tom had an unusual fascination with the horses. He wondered “what is it that happens between horses and humans that enables them to work together?”

Tom was a gentle soul and older brother Bill observed: “One thing about Tom, he never liked to be in trouble himself or have trouble with the horses or stock that he was handling. That is probably why he spent as much time as he did trying to figure out horses.”

Humans usually want a horse to do something for them. Tom wondered: why is it so easy with some horses and so hard with others? He also wondered why some people were naturally at ease with horses while others struggled to get the horses to work for them. Are the horses that different, Tom wondered, or do humans treat different horses in very different ways?

Tom was a quiet sort. When his brothers got to rough-housing, he usually stayed out of it. Often when it got really rowdy, Tom would slip out of the house and go down the hill to his favorite spot: the horse paddock. He kept a wooden box here and used it for a seat. He would sit quietly for hours and simply observe the horses.

And this is where something happened that would change his life. As he sat and watched, he began to see things that are too subtle to pick up when you are trying to get a horse to behave. What he realized in the paddock would come to revolutionize horse training and has implications for the rest of us as well.

Learning to Feel

As young Tom Dorrance sat on his box in the horse paddock, he watched the horses, but did not interact with them, just watched. He was curious why they acted as they did. He knew the older horses. He had trained a few of them. Some would come over and acknowledge his presence. Others ignored him. He just sat and watched.

Then he started to feel them. Tom did not think of it this way, but as he sat there and watched, his heart center was slowly opening wider, though Tom would probably not have used those words. Tom was beginning to feel the horses.

Most of the time Tom worked with horses he had to stay in control and make sure they were doing what he wanted. Here in the paddock he was freed from that. He had no agenda with the horses. He had no expectations. He did not want anything from them. He sat and watched.

He was most fascinated by the young foals born in the spring. He watched with great interest as they tentatively explored their small world inside the paddock. At first they stayed close to momma. As they got more used to their new world, they started to venture forth away from her. Eventually they would come over to check him out. Tom sat completely still. He did not want to startle the foal. He wanted to convey to the animal that he was safe and that the foal had no reason to fear him.

In the stillness of the moment Tom started to recognize that he was doing something. He was not doing anything physically. He was not trying to think about it with his head. He sat perfectly still. His legs did not move. His arms did not move. He held his head still. And yet, he could feel his inner self opening to the foal. He wanted to communicate to the foal that he, Tom, was safe, that he would not do anything to harm or alarm the foal.

Tom sat still, motionless. Yet he could feel the movement. His body was not moving. The movement was within his body. He could feel this movement flowing outwards as if to embrace the foal and to communicate that the foal would be safe with him.

And then he saw it, quickly, out of the corner of his eye. The foal responded. He stood still, but his body relaxed just a bit. There was a softening in the foal. A brief second of recognition of some mysterious connection that had just occurred between the boy and the horse. The two of them–one standing, one sitting—each acknowledging the other. Each accepting the other unconditionally.

Tom got it: this has to be the foundation of all horse training. There has to be a true connection between horse and human. The horse wants the connection. The horse wants to be helpful. But the horse needs to feel safe. That feeling of safety is the cornerstone of all that goes on between the horse and the human.

How to Build Safety in Others

Tom Dorrance learned the importance of creating safety for others. He realized that even seasoned horses needed to feel safe. Tom called it Self-Preservation and it was the bedrock for all his teachings.

Tom saw his challenge this way: how do I present myself to the horse so that the horse will want to do what I ask of him? Tom believed that horses want to be helpful to humans. They do not need to be motivated or coerced. But they do need to feel safe. Over the years of working with many different horses Tom got to see the many subtle ways that horses communicate their lack of safety.

For Tom two things are essential for working with a horse;

  1. true unity
  2. willing communication.

True unity is achieved when the horse recognizes that the human has the horse’s self-preservation foremost in mind. The human has to recognize that the horse is …“something really really special in his own uniqueness” (emphasis in the original). For Tom, horses are wonderful beings in themselves and he wants all horse owners to fully appreciate what their horse is and what their horse wants.

And Tom sees the human in the same way; as a willing being that really wants to do right by others (including horses). Just as he does with his horses, Tom starts with his clients where they are and gently leads them to understand what they need to do to make their horse feel safe. Too often, Tom says, the human tries to crowd the horse. That is, in their enthusiasm to get the horse to cooperate, the human pushes his or her agenda onto the horse and does not give the horse enough time or space to figure it out on their own.

Tom put it this way:

“The best thing I try to do for myself is to try to listen to the horse. I don’t mean let him take over. I listen to how he’s operating: what he’s understanding and what he doesn’t understand; what’s bothering him and what isn’t bothering him.
“I try to feel what the horse is feeling and operate from where the horse is. I am trying to get the rider to operate from where the horse is and not where the rider is.” (p. 13, True Unity by Tom Dorrance; italics in the original)

Humans rarely understand that the horse wants to be helpful but has his own ideas about how to do that. The horse cannot

convey this if the human is trying to push him to go in another direction. People need to be patient with horses.

There is a subtle irony to Tom’s approach. He uses the same techniques with humans that he wants the humans to use with their horses. Down deep, both humans and horses want to do it right, but do not trust that others understand this. We humans understand this from our own point of view. No human wants to be beholden to someone who shows no understanding that we need to feel safe.

Creating Safety For Others

Tom uses the word “feel” frequently in his book. Feeling (as distinct from thinking) is a way of being with something else. When we relate to the world from our head center we experience one kind of reality. When we relate to the world from our heart center, we experience another kind of reality. What Tom Dorrance understood is that horses and people need to experience both head and heart when they are with others in the world.

We have been taught that we must use our head center to live in the world. The head center enables us to understand what is going on and to solve the problems that are before us. But part of what we need to know comes from the heart center. The head center gives us the optics, the sounds and the sensations of the outer world around us, but it gives us no feeling of how safe the situation is or how others are feeling.

We are in a catch-22. In order to feel safe, we have to be centered in the heart. But the heart center itself needs to feel safe. If we do not know how to work with the heart, then the heart itself becomes vulnerable to the harshness of the outer world. The heart closes out of self-protection when the situation is not safe. This can change in time as people become more grounded in the heart. But in a culture that knows only the head center, we are never taught how to do this. When the outer environment does not feel safe, our hearts close over to protect themselves.

When we think, our mind can go back and forth in time. It can focus on the present moment. It can journey into a world of abstract thoughts. It can get lost in models and concepts. When our mind does this we are not present in the moment to be with the horse or another person. Feeling can only occur in the present moment. Feeling is experienced moment to moment to moment. When we feel we are fully attentive to what is around us, including whomever we are with. We are fully present with the other person.

Our culture has little experience of people being fully present with one another. There is a cost in our society to not having developed our heart centers. We are living with that cost now.

Creating Safety in the Classroom

I learned for myself the importance of creating safety for others in the classroom. In the 1970s I was the Training Officer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Early in that decade Lab management had laid-off the Training

department but later realized afterwards that they needed some training function. When I interviewed with them I described work I had done at Western Electric that was based on experiential learning. They decided to take a chance with me and it became my job to rebuild the training function.

This put me in a bit of a bind. I had only two year’s work experience and no formal education in my field, so I hired staff who knew more than I did so I could learn from them. One member of my staff, a man with considerable experience, advised me that in every class he taught there was always a wise guy who would challenge his authority early on. To gain the respect of the group, he said, you need to put this wise guy in his place. When you do this, he said, people respect you and no one will mess you from that point on.

I was not fully comfortable with this but wondered if it might be true, so I tested it out. Not too long afterwards I was with a group and during our opening discussion one man belittled a point being made by another man. I was concerned about the tone being set in the group and tested out my colleague’s approach by giving a stinging rebuke of the man who had belittled the other man.

I was taken back by what happened next. I could see the man I had attacked visibly shriveling up in front of me. He had retreated to some place deep inside himself, a place I could never reach. Everyone else laughed nervously, but they too quickly distanced themselves from me. I had gained their respect as someone who could hold his own, but I lost them because they no longer felt safe and so they would not open up to me or to the others. I was not be able to create the safe learning environment that I sought to establish for that group.

In that moment I made a vow to myself that I would never—ever—put down someone in one of my groups again. And I never did, no matter how antagonistic the challenger, I always treated each question or statement as a serious initiative and accorded it respect. I really did not care how any antagonistic challnger might respond. I wanted to show the group that all statements and all questions, and every person would be treated with respect. The times that I was challenged were moments when I could display this to everyone. and it succeeded–no group ever shrank away from me again.

Safety in all settings

Horses need to feel safe. We humans need to feel safe. And when we are in groups together, that is especially when we need to feel safe. Every class I taught had to go through a settling period at the beginning. Just like a horse with a human, people need take time to ferret out just how safe they feel in a new situation.

How will differences in opinion be treated? How much respect for one another will there be? How skilled is the leader in reading the group and establishing norms of behavior for how the group will function? People need to know these things before they can feel safe in a group.

Tom Dorrance is right. Safety is a matter of feeling. We feel safe or we don’t feel safe. When we do not feel safe, we respond differently to the world around us. Here is the thing: we cannot gauge safety with our head. Safety is

something that we feel. We might use our head to figure out why we do not feel safe, but the head alone cannot feel anything. We need our heart center to balance our head center.

The Future of Humanity

When we look at the world today it is clear that humans do not feel safe with one another. Nor should they. Look at how we treat one another. We have professional story tellers who make up lies about why we should be so terribly afraid. They trade in fear, and unfortunately, with so many people already feeling fear, their stories of conspiracy and darkness find too many willing believers. On a lesser scale, much of advertising trades in fear, and news editors and headline writers emphasize fear, in part because audiences respond—fear sells).

The problems in the world today cannot be solved with the mind. Tom Dorrance discovered this to be true for our relationship with horses. It is even more true for our relationships with one another.

It is imperative that we humans learn how to live with our hearts as well as our minds. Our very future depends on it.

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