By Judith Newman
December 06, 1993 12:00 PM

IF BUFFALO BILL WERE ALIVE TODAY, THE sight of Tom Dorrance laming an unbroken horse might well kill him. For what that celebrated horseman would see—rather than the familiar sight of a flailing cowboy atop a furiously bucking bronco—would be more like a scene out of some equine-human encounter group. In fact, Dorrance doesn’t really break horses at all. He’s a pioneer in a horse-training process called gentling, which is gradually winning the hearts of the West.

Right now, in the dusty corral of the Westwind Ranch in Gustine, Calif., Dorrance, 83, is perched on a fence supervising the gentling of a 2-year-old filly named Creme de Cocoa—1,000 pounds of muscle and fear who has been skittish around people since birth. One kick could easily crack a skull. “Let her smell your hand,” Dorrance tells trainer Dave Hillman in the corral. Hillman speaks soothingly to the horse as he gradually slips a halter over her head. He lets her smell the saddle, then taste it, before gingerly placing it on to her back. Gradually, the horse learns to trust him. Within an hour, Hillman will be up and riding Creme de Cocoa calmly around the corral.

As the trainer works, Dorrance dispenses Tao-like aphorisms. “The rider needs to recognize the horse’s need for self-preservation,” he says. “Give a little now, and you will get more later.”

Dorrance’s fans—and they are legion—hang on every word. “I imagine it’s much the same as in ancient Greece when people would congregate around Socrates,” says Valerie Ross, a recreational rider who has come to watch and learn from the master. All types of horse enthusiasts, from cowboys to dressage experts, have been moving away from training by force, because it ruins too many talented mounts and leads to the injury of too many riders. Though others have devised techniques similar to Dorrance’s, True Unity: Willing Communication Between Horse and Human (Pioneer Publishing), a 1987 book he coauthored with Milly Hunt Porter, caused something of a sensation among trainers. Dave Pauli, director of the Northern Rockies office of the Humane Society of the U.S., reports that the new method is catching on fast with horsemen under 40. “We’re really happy to see the trend away from dominance training,” Pauli says. “The end result is better.”

The sentiment is not yet universally shared. “Yeah, my friends tease me,” admits Dennis Reis, 35, a trainer from Penngrove, Calif., who used to ride bucking horses on the national rodeo circuit. “They wonder why I’m doing all this touchy-feely stuff.” For Reis, who considers Dorrance a “Zen master,” the pluses of the method are obvious: fewer broken bones, less trauma for both horse and rider. “The new method changed my life,” he says. “But first I had to get a macho-ectomy.”

For Dorrance, gentling was a matter of survival, not sensibility. Crowing up on a 6,000-acre cattle ranch in Oregon, he and his seven brothers and sisters were taught the traditional riding and roping skills needed to tend their father’s herd of 750 Hereford cattle. “I remember being part of the crew, moving cattle, when I was 5,” says Dorrance, who never made it through eighth grade. A small, wiry man who stands 5’6″ and weighs 150 pounds, he quickly figured out that brute force wouldn’t help him on the range. “I couldn’t manhandle a horse,” he says. “I was often alone and far from home. If he got away, I’d have to walk.” So Dorrance learned to see the world from the horse’s point of view, anticipating its needs and wants. “It seems like most people working with horses, they work from the person to the horse,” he says. “I start with the horse and try to figure out where he is first.”

As news of Dorrance’s novel approach spread, he earned the nickname “the horse’s lawyer.” That was about as close as any other wranglers came to poking fun at him, says his brother Bill, 87. Usually, other cowboys asked him for his advice with their problem horses. “He called it ‘people problems that horses had,’ ” says Bill. “He always seemed to be trying to figure out a better way of gelling horses to understand.”

In the process, Dorrance has become a keen interpreter of equine body language and communication between horses. To him, a whinny, a snort or a shake of the mane is filled with nuance. When a large, playful-but-annoying colt nudges him too aggressively, Dorrance softly taps him on the snout. The horse skedaddles. “I learned that from watching horses,” he says. “If a horse wants another horse to go away, he gives him a peck on the nose.”

In 1960, Dorrance sold out his interest in the family ranch and moved to California to train horses, riders and other trainers full-time. Steadily, his own reputation and the reputation of his students grew. “He’s not as well-known as some of the most successful trainers,” says Pat Close, editor of Western Horseman. “But he’s been a mentor to those trainers.” One Dorrance protege, Monty Roberts, 58, has trained racehorses for the Queen of England. “Tom never won one thing in competition,” says Roberts. “But he gave people like myself that first step up.”

Dorrance, who charges just $60 a day as his training fee, lives frugally in a mobile home on the Westwind Ranch. “Some people have said they didn’t know anybody who cared less about money than I,” he says with a shrug. Yet he considers himself rich in more significant ways. He loves working with horses and loves perfecting the art of gentle persuasion. In fact, his technique works so well he will admit that his own wife, Margaret, 63, used it to break him. He was 56 when they met; he’d never had a girlfriend. “I was real, real girl-shy,” he says. “In Oregon, town was 50 miles away: I lived out there with the cattle and the horses. This lady entered my life pretending she had a horse problem, and before I knew what happened she had me blindered, haltered, hog-tied and saddled.”

“He’s like the rest of the fellers,” says Margaret Dorrance, 63, who was 36 and a prize-winning rodeo rider when she met her future husband. “He only ran far enough to be caught.” The decision, as with much else in Dorrance’s life, was a simple matter of horse sense.