A movement began in the middle of the 20th century with a couple of brothers, Tom and Bill Dorrance (pictured here with Ray Hunt). Considered the founders of a new way of working with horses, called Natural Horsemanship, they promoted an alternative to what had been the traditional way of ‘breaking’, training and molding a horse to the rider’s will. Instead they used a more gentle approach using the natural intelligence of the animal. Tom Dorrance said, “The thing you are trying to help the horse do is to use his own mind. You are trying to present something and then let him figure out how to get there.” Some folks referred to them as horse whisperers. In a 1999 obituary in the New York times for Bill Torrance, Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote, “There is no such thing as a horse whisperer. There never has been and never will be. The idea is an affront to the horse. You can talk and listen to horses all you want, and what you will learn, if you pay close attention, is that they live on open ground way beyond language and that language, no matter how you characterize it, is a poor trope for what horses understand about themselves and about humans. You need to practice only three things, patience, observation and humility” In her eulogy she said of Bill, “He was one of a handful of men, including his brother Tom, who in separate ways have helped redefine relations between the horse and the human. Bill Dorrance saw that subtlety was nearly always a more effective tool than force, but he realized that subtlety was a hard tool to exercise if you believe, as most people do, that you are superior to the horse. There was no dominance in the way Dorrance rode, or in what he taught, only partnership.”
A few years later after Tom’s passing, Terry Church remembered his kindness not just to the horse but to the people he mentored. “Learning has to come from the inside of a person, same as it does for the horse.”, Tom said. It was that self-reliance that he waited for in each of us, regardless of the hours, days or years that it took to finally happen” “...each of us has the power, the ability to take the journey from our place of ignorance toward being a little more aware, a little more respectful of the spirit in all things. In this way, each of us continues Tom’s legacy, whether or not we were one of the ones fortunate enough to have worked with him. Our daily progress, no matter how small, is our gift – and our proof that we have not really lost the one who may have helped us realize it to begin with.”
In the 1960’s Ray Hunt became a student of Tom’s and continued the work until his death in 2009. His reputation grew as someone who could take an out of control horse and work with it until it was safe for kids to ride. He eventually was in such demand that he started doing clinics across the country. His work helped to popularize the Natural Horsemanship concept.
Which brings us to the present day and perhaps the most widely known practitioner of what the Dorrance brothers started, Buck Brannaman. Brannaman studied under Hunt for a number of years until he began his own series of clinics.
He was one of the primary individuals who inspired the character of “Tom Booker” in the Nicholas Evans novel The Horse Whisperer, and was the lead equine consultant for the film of the same name. Though the book itself was a work of fiction, Evans himself said:
- “Others have falsely claimed to be the inspiration for Tom Booker in The Horse Whisperer. The one who truly inspired me was Buck Brannaman. His skill, understanding and his gentle, loving heart have parted the clouds for countless troubled creatures. Buck is the Zen master of the horse world.”
The publicity from the book and movie, along with Brannaman’s approach to treating troubled horses and troubled humans with equal doses of compassion, has helped promote other fields such as therapeutic horseback riding. In that context, Brannaman has noted, “Horses are incredibly forgiving. They fill in places we’re not capable of filling ourselves. They’ve given people a new hope, a new lease on life. A horse really wants to please you, to get along.”
A documentary about his life and work was released in 2011.
A related movement that has emerged out of this new relationship with the horse is called The Equine Assisted Therapy Program. One such organization that uses this approach is called Eagala.Their philosophy and rationale for using horses in a therapeutic setting is explained like this:
“Naturally intimidating to many, horses are large and powerful. This creates a natural opportunity for some to overcome fear and develop confidence. Working alongside a horse, in spite of those fears, creates confidence and provides wonderful insight when dealing with other intimidating and challenging situations in life.
Like humans, horses are social animals, with defined roles within their herds. They would rather be with their peers. They have distinct personalities, attitudes and moods; an approach that works with one horse won’t necessarily work with another. At times, they seem stubborn and defiant. They like to have fun. In other words, horses provide vast opportunities for metaphorical learning, an effective technique when working with even the most challenging individuals or groups.
Most importantly, horses mirror human body language. Many complain, “This horse is stubborn. That horse doesn’t like me,” etc. The lesson is that if they change themselves, the horses respond differently. Horses are honest, which makes them especially powerful messengers.”
Eagala has members scattered across the globe, marrying therapeutic work with horses with the needs of the local population. One such member is Connections, founded by Andrea Baldwin and serving areas of the northern Arizona community.
Andrea Baldwin and friend
Connections Equine Therapy Program, through its partnership with horses, helps at-risk and disabled children, teens and adults cope with challenges and grow stronger physically and emotionally. They have also started a new program to assist veterans and their families as these men and women return from the circumstances of modern warfare with all of the heightened stresses that result from being in that environment.
Connections is but one example of a variety of therapeutic activity happening under the umbrella of Equine Therapy.
This new therapeutic relationship between horses and humans is the legacy of two brothers who discovered and taught others the value of perceiving a fellow creature as one who deserved to be treated as an equal, with kindness and not cruelty. The repercussions will continue to be felt as we discover that we may have more in common with our fellow four legged travelers (and other creatures) than we ever thought we did.