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The vaquero way

In old California, cowboys knew a subtle language between horse and rider that could replace whips and whoops. Jane Smiley tells how two brothers brought the tradition to modern horsemanship.

September 27, 2005|Jane Smiley | Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including "Horse Heaven."

EVERY year in mid-September, I go to a rodeo in my neighborhood of Carmel Valley. It is so close that I can see the arenas from the deck of my house and hear the announcer's voice wafting through my front windows. The presiding spirits of this rodeo, known as the Carmel Valley Ranchers' Days, are the brothers Bill and Tom Dorrance, inventors of what is often called natural horsemanship.

The Dorrances are legendary in this part of the world. Bill, who died in 1999, and Tom, who died in 2003, left a legacy that has helped transform the relationship between people and horses. While popular culture has given due attention to "horse-whispering" -- thanks mostly to the Robert Redford movie -- the Dorrances' story is a California story, little known outside horse circles.

September is one of the best times in the Carmel Valley. The mornings and evenings are starting to cool, and it won't be long before the calves are born. Ranchers' Days is mostly a local affair. Contestants live and work in the area. If you stop by the corrals, don't be surprised by the tenor of the competition, especially if you're accustomed to traditional rodeos.

One of my favorite events is the Bill Dorrance Old Style Calf Branding class. Here it's all about style, and it's quiet and slow because it is meant to be quiet and slow. Any wild whoop-de-do would mean things are going wrong.

Two riders walk or trot their horses toward the calf. They lasso it, and a groundsman lays it down and changes the head rope to the two front feet. Stretched out between the two horses, the calf is then "branded" with white paint. That's it. Patience and deliberation are the goals. There is no galloping, yelling, whooping, arm-waving or panicking -- especially on the part of the calf. The prize here is given for elegance, not tricks. It is the sort of horsemanship and cattle handling the Dorrances prized and taught.

While watching the Old Style Calf Branding class, I imagine how Bill and Tom used to work, perfectly in sync with their quiet and attentive mounts, never missing a throw, efficiently getting the calves branded in the course of the day, hardly ever raising the dust. Skill is on display, but also kindness and respect toward the animals -- equine and bovine.

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Connecting horse and rider

GETTING a horse to do what a rider wants is at the heart of the human-equine relationship. It is by nature a coercive practice. The real challenge, however, is to tap into the intelligence and strength of the horse without diminishing either. Bits and spurs are two tools of the trade, but they have their limitations. Some horses will either fight the rider or never quite understand what the rider is asking.

When I first moved to California with a quirky ex-racehorse, Mr. T, I kept him in my backyard, and I tried out every horse trainer and riding instructor who happened to pass through. Mr. T was old and set in his ways, carting me here and there and doing the best he could with my confused and, no doubt, confusing instructions. We got along well, but we were definitely not progressing.

Then Mr. T and I took a lesson with Ellen Eckstein, a friendly blond woman in her 50s and a classically trained dressage rider and instructor who studied with the Dorrances. Ellen carefully watched our collective bumbling and soon offered some advice.

Imagine your elbows connected by elastic bands to Mr. T's hocks, she told me. The results of this visualization were immediate. Using a little left leg and a little left hand but mostly shifting my weight downward and a little backward, I succeeded in getting Mr. T, still trotting, to pivot on his right hind leg and then trot off in a new direction. I couldn't believe the supple pleasure of this move, which I learned to reproduce trotting, cantering and galloping.

After Mr. T died, I did what an amateur is never supposed to do: I went out and bought a 3-year-old failed racehorse. I should have paid attention when the dealer had to tranquilize her into a state of insensibility to get her on the trailer.

For the next five months, this filly, named Fanny, got more and more domineering until one day she reared up, tossed me and galloped back to the barn, breaking her bridle in the process. A friend recommended that I "take her to Ray."

In Carmel Valley, possibly the busiest working horse trainer who learned the Dorrances' methods is Ray Berta, who has a lean cowboy physique and an enigmatic look in his eye. When Ray came over, I wondered how we would get Fanny into the trailer. There were no helpers, no ropes around her back end, no grain as a lure or lunge whips as a goad. Ray simply stood inside the trailer, casting what looked, from the outside, like a spell. After 10 minutes, a filly who had never voluntarily entered a small space walked onto the trailer.

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