On July 20, 1999, Bill Dorrance, a Salinas-based rancher and rawhide braider, passed on. He was "crowding 99" and had lived a long and full life. Fortunately for all who aspire to excellence in horsemanship, his legacy, a book called True Horsemanship Through Feel by Bill Dorrance with Leslie Desmond, was completed and made available to the public shortly before he died.
The book is an sumptuously-sized coffee table book. On the cover, a penetrating portrait of Bill with his horse, Beauty, carries a haunting quality that bespeaks the wisdom of his years. Clearly Bill Dorrance poured his heart, mind, and soul into the effort of the book. This 90-year old man cared enough to take the time to describe in detail each particle of feel that goes into the making of good horsemanship. And Leslie Desmond made a point of printing the words exactly as Bill said them. Leslie, who refers to herself as the “official scribe” for the book project, is the founder of "Diamondlu Productions," and a video series called, “American Horsemanship for Young and Old.” She is a coach for horse owners who want to advance their skills using feel; she holds seminars and clinics nationally and internationally, and is a regular contributor to several horse magazines in the U.S. and Europe. Leslie’s literal documentation carefully preserves Bill’s vernacular, so that reading the book is like a face-to-face visit with him. Bill says, “We all want our horses to be responsive to us. It’s just a matter of how we go about getting it done, and I almost didn’t live long enough to get this sorted out in a way that was really fitting to the horse.”
The book begins more or less philosophically as Bill boldly attempts to define, and quantify, that elusive quality called feel. Bill explains that feel is the horse’s language, and the means through which the horse learns. Says Bill, “It’s only through feel that a rider can make use of the lightness in the horse without creating resistance....When you can direct a horse’s movements through feel, then there’s understanding taking place between the person and the horse. That is the sign of true horsemanship.”
In the first three chapters, Bill tells about how he came to understand more about working with feel. He talks about slowing down and taking the time to build in a feel on a small particle level. Chapter 3 ends with an inspiring story of a horse named Beauty and how Bill, at 88 years old, was able to turn the horse around using feel. Throughout the first three chapters, a promise is made which goes like this: “When the horse understands what you want, he will do what that is, right up to the limit of his physical capacity and sometimes well beyond it.” Then comes Chapter 4, “How To Get Feel Working For You,” a detailed nuts and bolts presentation of HOW to build feel into the horse from the ground up, with specific step by step exercises.
A myriad of photos are included, some of which are used to illustrate precisely what is meant by each step of each recommended exercise. Bill’s personal comments accompany the photos. Also as part of the photo collection throughout the book, are a number of photos of Bill himself, some taken recently, and some from earlier years. One photo of Bill that was taken shortly before he died shows Bill walking up the hill to his house. He is quite stooped over in the photo, as he was in his last few years. Bill’s comments under the photo clearly reflect the spirit through which he lived his life:
”At my age, it takes a little longer than it used to for me to get back up the hill. But when you aren’t in a hurry about things, you’re liable to notice more, so I don’t mind.”
(Photography supplied courtesy of Leslie Desmond.)