The vaquero way

Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including "Horse Heaven."

EVERY year in mid-September, I go to a rodeo in my neighborhood of Carmel Valley. It is so close that I can see the arenas from the deck of my house and hear the announcer’s voice wafting through my front windows. The presiding spirits of this rodeo, known as the Carmel Valley Ranchers’ Days, are the brothers Bill and Tom Dorrance, inventors of what is often called natural horsemanship.

The Dorrances are legendary in this part of the world. Bill, who died in 1999, and Tom, who died in 2003, left a legacy that has helped transform the relationship between people and horses. While popular culture has given due attention to “horse-whispering” -- thanks mostly to the Robert Redford movie -- the Dorrances’ story is a California story, little known outside horse circles.

September is one of the best times in the Carmel Valley. The mornings and evenings are starting to cool, and it won’t be long before the calves are born. Ranchers’ Days is mostly a local affair. Contestants live and work in the area. If you stop by the corrals, don’t be surprised by the tenor of the competition, especially if you’re accustomed to traditional rodeos.

One of my favorite events is the Bill Dorrance Old Style Calf Branding class. Here it’s all about style, and it’s quiet and slow because it is meant to be quiet and slow. Any wild whoop-de-do would mean things are going wrong.


Two riders walk or trot their horses toward the calf. They lasso it, and a groundsman lays it down and changes the head rope to the two front feet. Stretched out between the two horses, the calf is then “branded” with white paint. That’s it. Patience and deliberation are the goals. There is no galloping, yelling, whooping, arm-waving or panicking -- especially on the part of the calf. The prize here is given for elegance, not tricks. It is the sort of horsemanship and cattle handling the Dorrances prized and taught.

While watching the Old Style Calf Branding class, I imagine how Bill and Tom used to work, perfectly in sync with their quiet and attentive mounts, never missing a throw, efficiently getting the calves branded in the course of the day, hardly ever raising the dust. Skill is on display, but also kindness and respect toward the animals -- equine and bovine.


Connecting horse and rider

GETTING a horse to do what a rider wants is at the heart of the human-equine relationship. It is by nature a coercive practice. The real challenge, however, is to tap into the intelligence and strength of the horse without diminishing either. Bits and spurs are two tools of the trade, but they have their limitations. Some horses will either fight the rider or never quite understand what the rider is asking.

When I first moved to California with a quirky ex-racehorse, Mr. T, I kept him in my backyard, and I tried out every horse trainer and riding instructor who happened to pass through. Mr. T was old and set in his ways, carting me here and there and doing the best he could with my confused and, no doubt, confusing instructions. We got along well, but we were definitely not progressing.

Then Mr. T and I took a lesson with Ellen Eckstein, a friendly blond woman in her 50s and a classically trained dressage rider and instructor who studied with the Dorrances. Ellen carefully watched our collective bumbling and soon offered some advice.

Imagine your elbows connected by elastic bands to Mr. T’s hocks, she told me. The results of this visualization were immediate. Using a little left leg and a little left hand but mostly shifting my weight downward and a little backward, I succeeded in getting Mr. T, still trotting, to pivot on his right hind leg and then trot off in a new direction. I couldn’t believe the supple pleasure of this move, which I learned to reproduce trotting, cantering and galloping.

After Mr. T died, I did what an amateur is never supposed to do: I went out and bought a 3-year-old failed racehorse. I should have paid attention when the dealer had to tranquilize her into a state of insensibility to get her on the trailer.

For the next five months, this filly, named Fanny, got more and more domineering until one day she reared up, tossed me and galloped back to the barn, breaking her bridle in the process. A friend recommended that I “take her to Ray.”

In Carmel Valley, possibly the busiest working horse trainer who learned the Dorrances’ methods is Ray Berta, who has a lean cowboy physique and an enigmatic look in his eye. When Ray came over, I wondered how we would get Fanny into the trailer. There were no helpers, no ropes around her back end, no grain as a lure or lunge whips as a goad. Ray simply stood inside the trailer, casting what looked, from the outside, like a spell. After 10 minutes, a filly who had never voluntarily entered a small space walked onto the trailer.

Ray and Ellen learned directly from the Dorrances, and both of them have combined the brothers’ techniques to come up with training systems that do what horse trainers must do in the 21st century: match idiosyncratic animals to novice riders and owners so that each has a positive experience.


‘Listen to the horse’

BILL and Tom Dorrance grew up in eastern Oregon. Born in 1906, Bill was older by four years. They came from a family of ranchers and were surrounded by horses and cattle all their lives. In the 1930s they settled in California, where they found themselves exposed to the vaquero tradition -- a way of working with horses that brings into play not just horsemanship but roping and rawhide braiding.

The Dorrances came to value the vaquero approach, which is as much a philosophy as a methodology. “Listen to the horse,” Tom would famously say. “Try to find out what the horse is trying to tell you.”

On the ranch, the brothers needed quiet horses that were cooperative and capable of acting as partners in the endless work of finding, moving, herding, separating and tending to cows, calves and bulls.

The method originated in Tom’s detailed observations of how horses in herds interact to establish dominance and exact submission, to form relationships and to communicate to one another what to do and when and how to do it. It makes use of techniques that, to begin with, are easy for horses to understand and perform and that add up to ever more sophisticated communication between horse and rider.

It is a measure of success that the brothers’ techniques work well in different media. At first glance, it would seem that the art of working cattle and the art of dressage have very little to do with each other. The former originated in the American West in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the latter in the cavalry schools of Europe centuries earlier. One was about work and the other about battle.

Yet here at the Carmel Valley Trail and Saddle Club, the dressage arena and the calf-roping arenas are a few yards apart, which seems appropriate. If Tom Dorrance were still alive, he might help train a quarter horse in the roping arena, then walk across the parking lot to work with a Dutch Warmblood in the dressage arena. The best philosophies often cross such boundaries.


Focusing on feet

RAY BERTA grew up on the family ranch a few miles east of the village and remembers branding cattle with the Dorrance brothers when he was a teenager. Ray is the type of trainer who can be so focused on his work that when a mare once reared and struck him with a front hoof, he didn’t notice until afterward that his shirt had been ripped.

After my experience with Fanny, I persisted in doing what an amateur should never do: I started to breed Thoroughbreds on my own. And when they got to be about 2, I took them to Ray for breaking in. I would watch every session, amazed by the incomprehensible behaviors that the horses would present him. I have never seen Ray lose his patience or his temper or forget his goal. Watching him, I am certain this is what the Dorrances practiced and preached.

Ray begins his training with groundwork, the purpose of which is to introduce the young horse to the idea of yielding to pressure. The key concept, for Ray, is “feel.” He motivates them not by fear and pain -- or by such explicit rewards as treats -- but by means of tension and release. It takes a special disposition to work with animals in such a manner; not every horse is quick to understand and accept this concept.

All training systems ask horses to yield to pressure, but it was Tom Dorrance’s insight to see that the pressure should affect the horse’s feet, which are small and quick, rather than his body, which is big and clumsy. The Dorrance method is based on the principle that if the rider controls when and how the horse’s feet move, he achieves leadership over the horse with small effort and minimal confrontation.

The Dorrance method is never based on force or fear. It enables horses to learn more things and people to think of more things to teach them than, perhaps, they had thought possible. It is a kind of upward-spiraling interaction between the human mind and the horse mind that, so far, has not encountered a glass ceiling.

By the time Ray had finished with my Thoroughbreds, they were well-mannered, confident and calm, generous and easygoing, the way horses are when they know both what to expect and how to handle the unexpected.

I can’t say that he was able to franchise to me his feel or his exquisite sense of timing -- much of Ray’s particular genius comes from his own athletic ability -- but he was able to give the horses a strong base of good habits and predictable responses and to teach me enough so that we could progress together.


Reforming dressage

DRESSAGE has been, for hundreds of years, a masculine sport, involving men in elaborate uniforms with very large spurs getting stallions to do what stallions like to do: prance around with their necks arched, gallop about, switching leads in an elegant, dance-like step or pivoting on one hind leg, always proudly submissive to the rider.

Ellen Eckstein studied classical dressage as a young woman growing up in Oregon. In the late ‘70s she became dissatisfied with her progress, and because she was living in Carmel Valley at the time, she asked Tom Dorrance to show her how to free up her horses’ gaits and movements and to enable her to maintain control over horses that were fit, lively and sometimes temperamental.

Dressage horses are trained by the use of pressure, but in some programs and with some horses, the pressure can be severe. Sharp spurs and long whips are standard equipment. After working with Tom, melding European methods with Dorrance methods, Ellen learned how to do what Tom did with ranch horses: to engage them as willing partners in the exercises that move them up the dressage levels. Ellen is clear and decisive in her way of applying pressure, but never severe or harsh.

While Ray’s particular genius is “feel,” Ellen’s is “sight.” When she watches a horse perform, she sees instantly and exactly what the horse is doing and compares this with her understanding of how a horse looks when it is performing properly.

Ellen uses the same techniques Ray does to help the horse shift his weight to his haunches, where his greatest power is. When she asks the horse to move his feet in highly prescribed classical exercises, his movements are quick, elegant, relaxed and submissive, the way dressage movements are supposed to be. The bonus, for her students, is that our horses seem to enjoy their work (“their licensed showing off,” as I call it) and to approach it with actual interest.

One of Ellen’s techniques for making sure that all the tension is out of the horse’s body before the rider mounts goes straight back to Tom Dorrance’s original round-corral breaking-in methods, which work to unkink back muscles and haunches by encouraging the horse to buck and play but also insisting that he move his feet as the rider directs. Tom was not a believer in riding through conflicts. He preferred that, as far as possible, every ride should be a positive experience for the horse. Horses, as Ellen learned from Tom, don’t like things to go wrong, but gain confidence and savoir-faire from things going right.

Maybe this idea that things can always go right if the rider knows what to ask for and how to ask for it is Tom Dorrance’s greatest contribution to horsemanship.

Such a process transforms the human-equine relationship from mechanistic and unenthusiastic (or, indeed, fearful and conflict-driven) into something more like a partnership. Every horse owner has experienced the average horse -- the one that could summon up some interest but usually doesn’t bother, or the one that is always half-asleep, or the one that is always untrusting (and therefore untrustworthy). The average horse must be coerced, at least a little.

But the Dorrance-trained horse has a brighter eye and a more attentive look. From the first day in the round corral, his rider is doing something intriguing, and doing it in an alluring way, a way that invites the horse to join in and makes use of his innate curiosity.

Such an approach isn’t confined to training horses, as Dorrance-style horsemen have learned. I have found that, for example, it’s applicable to sons. A friend of mine uses Dorrance principles with her dog. Ray has tried it on snakes. And there are those who say it beats psychotherapy.



Principles of natural horsemanship

Here are some of the basic principles that natural horsemanship teaches.

Work on your own skills. The rider must communicate clearly with the horse.

Work from the horse’s level of ability. Before each session, the rider must determine what the horse is capable of doing.

Take all the time the horse needs. Don’t push a horse to learn more quickly than it can.

Make the right movement easy and the wrong movement hard.

Prepare the horse for instruction. Is the horse paying attention? Is it relaxed?

Always stay on this side of trouble. Don’t let your ambitions get ahead of the horse.

-- Jane Smiley