| May 7, 2009 8:08 pm

Note: Earlier this afternoon, I came across a note on a horsemanship list that inspired a bit of writing.  A very nice person was quoting a part of True Unity by Tom Dorrance.  This gave me the opportunity to reminisce a little bit and think a few relatively deep thoughts.  After I finished writing my response, I was quite taken with it (something doesn’t happen often) and I have, thus, decided to post most of it here.

Dear Margaret (name changed to protect the innocent),

While you may not know it, you just made my day. In the years since Tom and Bill Dorrance passed away, I haven’t heard or seen much about either one of them. They have dropped from the casual conversation of most horse people that I associate with, their books don’t come up with much frequency and I don’t often hear their names. With their passing, Ray Hunt solidly stepped into the role of horsemanship’s grandfather and became the appeal of ultimate authority. About the same time, Tom’s little blue book seemed to disappear. When trying to find a copy for a friend, I was alarmed to see that Amazon had it listed as out of print and “new” copies started from a heart stopping $115.

Thus, to see you citing it here does my heart good. While Tom’s wisdom and legend will never be forgotten, sometimes I worry that that the man will be. That includes his rather infuriating propensity for impenetrable utterances. (Speaking of which, try saying that last sentence six times fast!)

Your quote:

“Sometimes when a horse has had quite a little work and kind of gets up a sweat–I like to just stay on him and while he is cooling out–drying off–just let him kind of be there to explore a little. It’s so much better than if you just unsaddle him hot. I really like to do that if I have a chance.”

And question:

“What do you think he means by ‘explore a little’?”

Whenever trying to tackle cowboy wisdom, there are three things to keep in mind: 1) background, 2) immediate context, and 3) potential symbolism. People like Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Buck Brannamen and other hard-core cowboys often assume that they are communicating with someone of the same background, that of a stockman. (Consequently, the genius of people like Pat Parrelli or Clinton Anderson was never in their message, but in the packaging. They were able to provide a layer between the source and the receiver that made things a little bit easier. Mark Rashid also does a tremendous job of making the ideas more accessible, though for completely different reasons.)

One of my best friends and mentors told me that having a cowboy background helps you to get inside the heads of these gentleman and allows you to arrive at the “message” a great deal more quickly. Having missed that particular boat by a generation (or more), I’ve always just taken his word on it. But I also came to appreciate one should approach their words of wisdom and writing (“True Unity” and “Think Harmony With Horses” in particular) a bit like one would the Bible or another really old text. That is to say: it requires a bit of work.

So, with that in mind, let’s tackle this particular nugget. First, the background: in big horse operations, many a hand finds himself saddled with more horses than he/she can possibly ride, this I know from firsthand experience.  Every summer from the time I was thirteen until nineteen, I would help the owner of a local ranch start off his new crop of colts. Including those taken in for the summer, there were typically between 10 and 15 horses a day that would need to be ridden. My job was fairly simple: take any potential falls so that the ranch owner or hands wouldn’t have to. To accomplish this job, I typically only had an hour for everything: grooming, saddle, warm-up, cool-down, and cleanup.

If you knock off ten minutes at the beginning to get the horse saddled and 15 minutes at the end for clean-up, that only means thirty-five minutes in the saddle per horse. Thirty five minutes is not much time. The situation only gets worse based upon the number of horses in your string. I know several local trainers who expect to ride between twenty and thirty horses a day. I’ll leave the math to you. It’s against this backdrop that Tom is speaking/writing. And this is why his words are full of gems like, “Take the time it takes which will make it take less time.” (I actually pulled that quote from a journal entry, August 1997.)

With that background. let’s move to the immediate context. So Tom thinks it’s a good idea to spend some quiet time at the end of a workout allowing the horse to explore. What might that mean? The horse is still saddled and the rider is probably still mounted. So, these moments of exploration might mean that you allow the horse to “drive.”  Maybe there’s something scary in the arena. Great! Rather than follow my typical proscribed strategy for dealing with such (ignore it), I might let the horse thoroughly mouth, step on, step under and “mosey by” this object. Or maybe there’s something interesting to see (like the green gate the horse has seen a thousand times). Or maybe you’ll take the chance to herd chickens, or chase children and dogs, or simply stare at the horizon. In each case, it appears that Tom is advocating that something be done with the time. Even if it’s constructively doing nothing at all. Again, put yourself in the position of the harried trainer who still has ten horses to ride, or the cowman who needs to sort and load his animals. In each case, stopping after the “work is done” might appear to be the most effective use of the cool-down when, really, it’s not.

There is another point that should be considered. Different things happen during every minute that we spend with our horses. There’s one string of experiences common to ground work and preparation for riding.  Another happens while you ride, and a third occurs when you cool down and put the horse away. Of the three, some of the most effective (and best) moments happen in the quiet of the cool-down. By giving the horse a chance to do things (explore, chew on, nudge, relax), you open the door to an entire aspect of the horse/human relationship that quite often gets ignored.   It is also in these moments that you polish particular rough edges.

Last, think about the symbolism of the word “explore.” Old cowboys are very particular in their choice of words and Tom Dorrance is even more particular than others I’ve met. Thus, when he chooses to use the word “explore,” that is because it best conveys his meaning. Consider: much of the horse’s life is spent being told what to do. Herd life is dominated by a hierarchy.  Horseback riding is dominated by the person. And while we make noises about a truly equal partnership, the simple truth is that horses are very accustomed to the top down mode of operation.

Explore implies that the human become more passive (often much more passive). Indeed, it almost sounds as though we let the horse take the lead and follow. This, also, happens to be something that doesn’t actually happen very often. As noted above, most of the horseback riding is about a human’s needs. If the horse were to truly have his way, it would probably involve a great deal of eating and not so much running around/jumping over things. You really do have to admit that silly little things like passage, piaffe, slide stops and spins don’t make a tremendous amount of sense from the horse’s perspective.

So, while “allowing the horse to take the lead” starts to get at Tom’s meaning, it’s actually more complicated than that.  You don’t allow the horse to completely take over, either.  In fact, you might need to encourage your horse to explore.  When given complete freedom, it is a rare animal that won’t head toward the nearest gate and the safety, quiet and companionship of the pasture or barn.  So, when I’m riding, I like to pay attention and see what things might interest the horse and then help him to investigate further (In addition to being slightly more passive, exploration is also about helping the horse to be curious and inquisitive.  Like you normally would, except more so.)

Exploration might mean that you linger at the tree stump and let the horse snuffle.  It might also mean that you just stand let the horse take lots of deep breaths. What it probably doesn’t mean is that you are going to do one more turnabout, or take one more jump, or practice loading in the trailer just “one more time” so that you can end on a perfect note.

At its heart, Tom’s advice seems to indicate that the horse continues to learn even though the “training” session is over. I would summarize it this way. “Cool down is a gift of quiet time. Use it wisely.”


Rob Oakes

Peekaboo - 2008 0328-19


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