Master Horseman, Rancher and Rawhide Braider: Bill Dorrance
Profile and photos by Leslie Desmond
Back in 1997, the producers of WESTERN HORSEMAN TV MAGAZINE filmed a rare interview with Bill Dorrance, a Salinas, CA-based rancher and rawhide braider, that portrayed him as he really was: clear-witted, matter-of-fact and unassuming. With superb reflexes and deft hands that he could apply nimbly to his ranch roping and rawhide work at the age of 92, Bill Dorrance imparted new meaning to the concept of “human potential” for the cowboys and horse lovers around the central California coast who admired him. With gentle, charismatic poise Bill Dorrance lived until the age of 93, going about it “no different than I do every day.” He openly appreciated the rich blessings in his life and maintained an unshakable, subtle optimism at the forefront of his actions and his thoughts about other people. Bill strongly believed in the capacity of others to perpetuate the “ways of going about things” that he held dear. His capacity for discussion about horses and ranch roping knew no limit.
As viewers posted their inquiries about his sought-after rawhide work on the internet, horse lovers around the country also caught wind of his unusual approach to helping people get along better with their horses, using an approach the he called "feel.” Bill Dorrance was a strong man with a reputation for quiet integrity. His enthusiasm for the California cattle culture seemed boundless, as was his passion for horses and better horsemanship. It wasn’t surprising that his generosity with both knowledge and time attracted many people who thought he might be able to help them improve their connections to horses, and their horse handling, riding and roping skills. There was quite a hubbub over it all in the years before he passed on.
July 20th of this year marks the twentieth anniversary of this great horseman’s death. Just as he slipped quietly away, so, too, has much of the impact of his important legacy, especially as it concerns the importance of the horse's "mental setup," as Bill used to call it. When he was alive, people used to find Bill’s logical, straightforward approach to horses and horsemanship refreshing. “I’ve always liked horses, and I’ve always wanted to help them do their job better, whatever it was that they had to do,” he said. Was it his generosity of spirit that attracted people to him wherever he went? Could it be that his kindness toward horses and their owners is what drew the beam of curious attention to him through cyberspace? In the mid- to late-1990s, stories about Bill Dorrance started to crop up in the horse industry’s trade journals on a regular basis. The wisdom inherent in his teachings, and the simplicity of his curiously effective demonstrations placed him in a unique position of respect among his fellow horsemen.
Pioneers were just starting to develop the great northwest when Bill Dorrance was born in a small homestead near Enterprise, Oregon. That was January 19, 1906. The railroad had only been running out to that territory for a few decades and the tractor and automobile had not yet replaced the horse.
The amenities and conventions we take for granted today were unknown: fresh water for a bustling household of ten was carried half a mile in a barrel from the well to the house when the pipes froze up; Bill and his seven siblings doubled and tripled up on horseback to make the two-mile ride to school. According to Bill, his father’s handshake was his contract and his mother’s word was final.
Bill came from a family of excellent horsemen. His father, William "Church" Dorrance, built his homestead with a team in the 1880’s, and kept up to 150 head of horses that he used for ranch work and had available for sale. Church and his wife, Minnie, possessed a strong sense of justice and truth, which is clearly reflected in the family of horsemen that Bill and his wife, Marie, raised in Salinas, California.
Bill lived on Mt. Toro with his son, Steve, and his family. Bill’s other two sons, Billy and Dave, live on the Dorrance ranch between Hollister and Gilroy. In some ways, his setup in California is reminiscent of the way the Dorrance family did things in Oregon. They kept their cattle on the home ranch in the mountains and grew their hay crop in the valley.
Anecdotes from Bill’s life as a rancher and rawhide braider have appeared in two large-format, collectible books: El Buckaroo (Northland Graphics, 1995) by Ernest Morris, and Voices and Visions of the American West (Texas Monthly Press, Inc. 1986) by Barney Nelson. Examples of his homemade rawhide tools and museum-quality braiding illustrate a book that many braiders think of as a bible: Braiding Rawhide Horse Tack (Cornell Maritime Press, Inc. 1985) by Robert L. Woolery of Salinas, CA. Bob Woolery was one of Bill’s most accomplished students.
In the course of his braiding career, which began in 1933, Bill produced 122 pairs of hobbles, 103 hackamores, 35 bosals, 44 sets of reins, 19 quirts and a few hundred hondas. He also braided 67 reatas, which ranged in length from 60 to 75 feet. When he no longer braided reatas himself, he instructed other cowboys in the art of making fine rawhide gear.
Bill trimming fat off a green hide stretched in the frame. Then when it dries it won’t have so much grease in the rawhide.
Flesher for thinning down the reata string. Bill’s younger brother, Fred, made this in 1933.
Ready-to-braid rawhide reata string in bundles called tamales. This makes it easy to handle the excess string when you’re braiding-there is 90 feet of rawhide string in each bundle, and it takes four of these to braid a 65-foot reata.
Braiding a honda with four strands of rawhide. A honda goes on the end of the rope so you can make a loop. Bill’s brother, Fred, taught him how to make these, and Bill has taught half a dozen other people to make them since the end of World War II.
The hondas in stretchers, which are a graduated set of shims pounded lightly into place while rawhide is still damp; this way it can dry in the desired shape.
Reata finished and ready to use. Bill made this in the early 70s. He also made his reins. The tuft of hair sticking up at the base of the neck on the horse he’s riding marks her level of training as a bridle horse.
Reins and hobbles made by Bill and Fred that are prizes in Dorrance’s private collection.
“I always have time to talk to people about horses and roping. There don’t seem to be as many people wanting to talk about the rawhide braiding as there used to be, but you never know who might have an interest in making their own gear, so I’m happy to share what I’ve learned. When you’ve passed on, especially, it’s always nice to leave something useful for others.” - Bill Dorrance
Perhaps it is by virtue of the vitality he had and his adherence to the values and practice of the Vaquero traditions that Bill Dorrance is still held by many in such high regard. He meticulously groomed and tacked his own horse, packed his own gear bags and maintained his classical equipment in the elegant way of the early Californios. “My horse and my horsemanship are my greatest pleasure,” he would say.
Or, maybe it was due to his quiet independence that people admired him so much. He prepared three meals a day from scratch - elaborate soups, ranch beans and stews that he served with broiled beef or venison. Up until the mid 1990s he put up 40 quarts of fresh fruit every summer. He washed and hung out the laundry, hauled the firewood in and hauled the ashes out. He maintained impeccable daily records. And, Bill maintained a high degree of independence by driving the two miles down a winding mountain road to welcome visitors at the main gate, and then escorting them up to the ranch house. If a visitor couldn’t make it up the steep grade to the ranch house in his own rig, Bill was known to pony the horse right up the mountain alongside his jeep after it was unloaded down by the roping corrals.
Or, possibly it was simply by virtue of his ethics and his virtues that his reputation preceded him. It didn’t matter how long you sat and visited with Bill, you wouldn’t hear a bit of gossip or a negative comment. Perch-on-the-edge-of-your-seat adventures, yes, but you would never hear him complain about anyone or anything. Hopefully, small snippets from colorful chapters in his life are still the lore of bunkhouses, tack rooms and saddle shops from the Canadian to the Mexican borders. Certainly some of the people who were fortunate enough to attend his clinics at Pebble Beach in 1997 and 1998, and the ranch roping clinics with Joe Wolter in the Midwest and as far east as Memphis, do not forget.
But who can really say? The reasons people looked up to Bill are many, but it is the same after his passing as it was before: Bill Dorrance is known and loved as a mentor by many mentors who are themselves far better known. Whether you were learning to rope, ride, train horses or starting to braid rawhide, Bill was the tireless teacher of beginners, and the horses’ faithful friend.
Bill Dorrance's enthusiastic role in most aspects of ranch life inspired those who knew him and piqued the interest of many who didn’t. Judging by the number of calls, visits and letters he received from people who asked Bill for help with their horses, it isn’t surprising that he decided to write a book. Leslie Desmond worked alongside Bill for nearly four years in the capacity of co-author, photographer and publisher to produce True Horsemanship Through Feel. “It was an unexpected privilege and an honor to be asked to help Bill with this project,” she said. “For many years, he had wanted to write a helpful book for people who cared for, handled, and rode horses. He understood from first-hand experience how important it was for people who actually needed a horse to do a job, no matter how small it was, to have somewhere to turn when things didn’t go as planned,” she said. “He had a lot of respect for anyone who would take the time it actually takes to educate a horse thoroughly, using feel. It never pleased him to see someone skipping over the basics and working ‘up the line’ as he put it, on things that the horse was not yet able to clearly understand.”