Bringing Bill Dorrance's Message to You
There is a reason that this site exists, and that I do what I do.
I will explain that to you now, and what led up to the decision to make Bill Dorrance’s message available here in a variety of formats.
On July 16, 1999, Bill Dorrance said this:
“If a fella wanted to, why, if he had the time and he wanted to,
he could help another fella to learn about feel, and how it works with horses in that better way.”
I agreed to that easily. And I agreed because, after a chance meeting in Gustine, California, in the fall of 1994 I got to know Bill Dorrance quite well.
Bill’s message has many parts and it can fit in many ways and places in a person’s life. It is a philosophy of life-living without regret, mistakes and all. When it is clearly understood and well applied, it is a life changer. At least for me it was. And logically enough, I observed that the approach he took to life permeated his thoughts and actions when he handled any horse and rode the young Thoroughbred mare he called “Beaut.”
In 1994, a trainer brought this horse to Bill’s ranch on Mt.Toro in hopes that he had a solution to her habit of running away with a rider that she developed during a short second career on the polo field. Considering the mare's prior experience at the race track it was no surprise that her excessive speed was an attractive selling point. It got her the job, but the slowing down and turning part is what her foundation lacked completely. And following a polo ball was a foreign concept as well, although one or two of those polo fellas had success with her for a short time. The rest who tried to ride her were carried straight off the polo field at top speed.
These unwanted episodes came on the heels of a racing career that had gone sour on account of the kicking and bucking habits she acquired at the track. The jockeys couldn’t stay on and after a while the grooms could not handle her either.
These are the reasons I was told that Bill was her last hope and last stop.
There were some “getting-to-know-you” sessions in the beginning. Bill described the early groundwork as “not too eventful.” Bill climbed up there after a while and continued the training job from her back. The first ten rides were “more interesting on account of the way she had a need to run and (had) not much idea about slowing down or turning.” (From my notes: January 12, 1996.)
A member of his family confirmed that she did the same with Bill on board as she had with the others who gave up on her. Born to run, taught to race, it was no surprise to him that
she took right off when he climbed up there. The difference was, he let her.
[IMPORTANT NOTE of CAUTION: Without exception, you must consult a professional trainer and certified riding instructor to evaluate your horse handling and riding skills before considering the solution described below. There are many other ways to help a horse that has difficulty
stopping and turning. The following description of Bill’s decision and experience, as told to
Leslie Desmond, is not recommended, or endorsed by Leslie Desmond.
It is a factual record of the way Bill described what took place.]
Those top speed rides she offered took place in a little triangle shaped area between his garage, a pond, and a steep cliff, which was a thickly wooded drop-off that went down a couple
hundred feet or more. Those were the choices she had.
Bill told me he only picked up the reins to match her movements after she turned one way or the other. He was 88 and didn’t meet the ground one time. Not too long after that, he began to sort the slower cattle on Beaut. Then he headed and heeled with her at the home ranch and other brandings. Between times, he enlisted her help for the tasks that needed his attention from
horseback around the ranch.
The people I met back then, and since, who knew Bill well, said their lives changed in a good way from the effects his way of living and working had on them. During the years that I worked on his writing projects, I had the unexpected pleasure to witness truly astonishing results
that his approach had on many horses.
These are the main reasons why I could easily agree to do what he asked that day.
It was one thing to learn about the way Bill lined up his thoughts before he spoke. It was another thing to hope that, eventually, I could understand what he meant by what he said. The problem was I had another vocabulary and many of the words he used I didn’t actually understand, regardless of the context. The concepts he held dear and the experiences they grew from were also unfamiliar. He hoped I would write down by hand exactly what he meant, and it must be said that Bill spared no effort to explain things I couldn’t understand.
For weeks I pondered and speculated about Bill’s ways of operating and I searched even harder for solid clues that would explain his well-considered ways. Inevitably, my writing began to smooth out as I grew to understand one thing: an old horseman who could handle tough horses from a bench successfully and with exquisite finesse and who still rode one that fit the description at
91-years-old without depending on others for much of anything concerning it,
operates from a place of genuine sureness.
When it came to the timing and placement of a horse’s hooves, Bill’s intention was presented with absolute certainty. And that sureness he presented to those horses is precisely
what I saw those horses reflect.
I was catching on.
Several years went by before most all the things Bill said and did with horses
added up in a way I understood.
In hindsight, I realize now that was because what he said and did was not what I thought I had seen and felt. This gap in my understanding was a tricky one to close. Never mind the daunting challenge it was to convey the small and extremely illusive particles of feel that comprise this infinite and eternal puzzle that has no beginning and no end.
For this reason, a lot more time passed before I had a speck of confidence about what words, explanations and impressions should be left on the pages I pushed my pen across. I emptied the full box of ink pens (24) on the first draft that I hand-wrote and read to him.
Fortunately, the writing part of things went more smoothly after that and I moved into the typing phase. I recall reading eleven typed drafts to Bill at the kitchen table before the words I longed to hear him say were mentioned at the end of each paragraph:
“Yeah, those words sound all right.”
“Yeah, that’s all right.”
And sometimes I heard nothing. When I looked up, I saw that he had fallen asleep. That process continued until I had a check mark by every paragraph, and another at the top of
every page that he approved. Then we were done.
Right after this came a steady stream of 13 rejection letters from editors at the big book houses and university presses that published traditional western literature and cowboy culture. These mood killers piled up in rapid succession. Sometimes a couple or three showed up the same day. I opened each one and read them aloud to Bill. They all said about the same 5 things: Manuscript too vague. Needs a lot of editing. There are plenty of popular horse training books out there already.
No thanks and good luck.
I was disappointed. No denying it. But after reading through the first six or seven I was pretty sure the others would be the same, and they were. One night I started the evening fire with all those letters. As the last few came alive with flame I turned to Bill and said, in hopes of believing it I suppose, “Well, I don’t really give a damn if they like our book, or not. Do you?”
If he had a reply, I don’t recall what it was. I do remember telling him we would have to publish the book ourselves and must print it overseas to keep the expense from getting out of hand. The look on his face formed a lasting impression that was driven by a plan that wasn’t mine.
While I was calculating the number of days it would take me to do a final, super-slick, polished edit from front to back, one that I could send to the proofreaders up in Redmond, Oregon, I heard him say a little louder than usual: “That’s why my telephone number can be on that last page there, so they know who to call. A fella can just go down to that copy place for another fella and make a copy to mail out when someone calls me up to get one.”
I reminded him that we had already advertised the book for a year at $49 and received 1,750 prepaid orders. The funds were banked and waiting. For that money, I said I thought people wanted to read a real book, not a xerox copy with holes punched in the margin. He said he thought that
$49 was too much money. I don’t fancy getting into a serious argument with someone
I respect, but I did that night.
That night we had a little argument about the price. “How much do you think we should have charged, then,” I asked. “Two dollars and a half,” he replied. “That way, it won’t stretch a fella’s paycheck too far.” I had a firm grip on the facts, as well as the expenses. I had assumed complete responsibility for the considerable tab from start to finish so lowering the price wasn’t an option. I choked down my reply and left Bill with the last word on that subject and it wasn’t brought up again.
Although that big, final edit still lay ahead of me, I was confident that the details Bill wanted to share about ranching, riding, and training horses were finally wrangled and dallied hard enough to keep the whole works in place until I could find the right piggin’ string to hold everything between two covers long enough for the glue to dry. Some of you will understand what I mean by this and some won’t but you can think about it and make a guess and you’ll be close enough.
Since we had no publisher, it seemed like a good time to call around and see what the paper would cost. The design, covers, typeface and font sizes, layout and all the rest I could think about later. One thing led to another and soon we had a delivery contract through Palace Press in San Francisco, and I was on my way to Redmond for the last uphill pull. That was in late October, 1998.
What took place up there would fill a book, so I’ll cut to the main point now.
On June 6, 1999, Bill’s 45-year dream took the brand, True Horsemanship Through Feel and galloped off. On the first two shipments, his powerful yet simple message went out to horse folk in 27 countries by air and United Parcel Service took the rest to 42 of the 50 United States by truck.
Bill was silent for a long time after I handed him a copy of the book.
After a while, he looked up and said the book was “OK.” He read a little bit further into it, turning the pages very slowly, and studying the photographs. “It’s bigger than expected,” he said, adding a little bit later that, “Maybe we should have made a movie.”
Book signings were scheduled, and we toured around with the book for a couple of weeks, attending packed events and selling books like crazy in Monterey and Carmel Valley and a few other places. Then I returned to my training jobs and coaching and while I was gone, Bill took sick and went
to the old folks’ home.
His condition downshifted rapidly. But, during that surreal shift to a sick bed in town after 43 years of the ranch life on top of Mt. Toro, Bill stayed on track. He said he wanted his mare, Beaut, given to Don Douglas so she could live life well to a natural end in the deep peace that best described Panoche Valley at that time.
In a serious tone, he spoke to me and to his friend, Jamie Campbell, about the need to develop the most effective ways to share the gift of feel with people who were not familiar with
the horses’ feel-based ways.
When we had that important conversation about what a fella could, or would, or should do to help another fella with his horses using better feel and timing, Bill had only a few days left. In that situation, perhaps you can understand how much I wanted to reply with a
resounding and unconditional "yes."
But I could not. Therefore, I didn’t.
I was pretty sure that what lay ahead for me without Bill, after 5 years alongside him at the writing table and horseback, was uncertain. He’d said as much. “It could be a rougher road than usual,” had been his forecast in the spring and he wasn't wrong. So, I asked if it could be a 5-year promise instead. “Sure,” he said, and that was almost 20 years ago.
Many moons have waxed and waned since that day, and nearly two million miles passed under the truck tires and trains and planes that brought me to the horses and people he hoped I could help. Fortunately, I did help a good many of them. I failed miserably with some others. It is never just one way, but valuable lessons were learned, and the top points have long been noted.
Looking forward from here, with all that wear and tear and travel time knocked out of the equation, what I have left is the prospect of many hours I didn't have as a full-time traveler. I will use this time to devote to improving the way I ride and handle horses. Beyond that, it stands as my
biggest pleasure in life to help horses and whoever is around them
who wants to learn about their own language of feel.
Anyone who has time and a burning desire learn and practice with help from a good coach can apply it to whatever horse is right there. It is possible for them to work much better for the person who communicates a feel-based message, because they are born knowing it.
Upcoming installments on these pages will include new videos, audio recordings, and select unpublished writings from my years working and riding alongside Bill. Twenty years later, True Horsemanship Through Feel remains a priceless gift from Bill to horses and to us all.
All the best to you, dear reader, with regards from the team here that will bring you “up the line,” as Bill would say, in your understanding of what horses need us to know about them and how to
apply these things for best results.
Take care and keep in touch,