GREYBULL, Wyo. -- At high noon in a crook of the Bighorn Mountains, the sorrel danced nervously inside the corral, as a lanky cowboy moved in to start breaking the colt -- a practice as old as the Old West.
But this cowboy wore no spurs on his boots. He did not bark at the horse to show who was boss. He did not sneak around to throw a saddle on its back to climb aboard until it stopped bucking. Instead, he offered an outstretched hand, let the horse sniff it, and then gently stroked its neck and back.
"It's OK, son," whispered the blue-eyed cowboy, Tim Flitner, to the bronc. "You're hard as a rock, I know, 'cause you don't trust me yet. But it's OK."
In perhaps the biggest cultural change on ranches since the automobile, a new generation of cowboys is forsaking the traditional rough style of breaking horses in favor of "gentling," a method that shares more with the tenets of Zen philosophy than John Wayne bravado.
"You need to go to where the horse is mentally," said Mr. Flitner, 29, a fourth-generation cowboy on a cattle ranch west of Red Gulch Road here. "You want to become his partner, his friend."
In the rugged mythology of the American West, there is no symbol more powerful than the tough cowboy astride a wildly bucking horse, an image emblazoned in blue silhouette on the Wyoming license plate and honored at every weekend rodeo.
And not everybody is eager to see the old rituals vanish. The gentler method has raised the skeptical eyebrows of some crusty ranchers, who say it sounds more befitting a New Age flower child than a snuff-chewing cowboy.
Dennis Reis, 35, a former rodeo cowboy who conducts workshops and produces videotapes on the new method, said most people "learned from grandpa -- and if it was good enough for grandpa, it's good enough for me."
"My buddies think I've gone off the deep end," said Mr. Reis, who incorporates yoga into his horsemanship. "They say, 'Dennis, you're a cowboy! What's with all this touchy-feely stuff?' And I know how they feel. I had to give myself a 'macho-ectomy.'
"But I tell them: It's a lot less work."
Proponents of the gentler method say it is also much safer than the traditional way of breaking horses, where the frightened colts, who naturally resist being ridden, often respond with flying hoofs and bared teeth as they buck furiously or try to ram a rider into a fence.
Every year, more than 50,000 people are injured in horse-related accidents, including about 200 who die, says Dr. Doris Bixby Hammett, the secretary for the American Medical Equestrian Association, which focuses on safety.
"A 'real man' might not do it this way," she said. "But a smart one will."
The new method is still not as common as the old style, but has grown mightily in recent years, says Dave Pauli, a director of the Humane Society in the Northern Rockies.
"We think this is just wonderful," he said. "It's going to be generations before the old way dies out. But in the under-40 crowd, we've seen quite a change in the last five years."
Book became hot topic
Natural horsemanship, as it is sometimes called, became a hot topic around the stables after the 1987 publication of a book, "True Unity: Willing Communication Between Horse and Human."
The author, Tom Dorrance, 83, a former rancher, said the method probably went "back as far as there were horses," but had never been widely used.
One of eight children on a family ranch in northeastern Oregon, Mr. Dorrance said he "learned the importance of cooperation" early. And as a small man -- he did not weigh 130 pounds until he reached his 30s -- he said he realized that he could not rely on brawn to get his way, but instead needed to communicate with the horses.
"I'm a person who wants to get along, who doesn't like to see trouble, whether it's in the Middle East or out in the pasture," Mr. Dorrance said. "And it bothered me the way people tried to force themselves on a horse."
His teachings have prompted scores of other horse experts to produce videotapes, workshops and brochures. Some younger
cowboys call him "the patron saint of horses"; others have dubbed him "the horse's lawyer."
"I wasn't out for fame or fortune," said Mr. Dorrance, who lives in a mobile home in Gustine, Calif. "My wife and I just like to get outside, be around the animals, where life is real."
Central to gentle horsemanship is the understanding of the instinctive fear that horses have for humans.
"We are predators," Mr. Reis said. "We have eyes in the middle of our head, and we smell like McDonald's. Horses are prey. They have eyes on the sides of the head and they smell like grass."
Mr. Reis, who recently wrote about the method in the magazine Horse Illustrated, advised trainers to use a round pen, which keeps the horse close but gives it a sense of being free, since it can run in circles. With no corners, the horse will not feel trapped.
In approaching the horse, the trainer should use the "universal horsemanship handshake," by extending a palm downward to simulate a horse's nose.
"Allow the horse to meet you halfway," he said. "Let it be its idea to touch or sniff your hand."
The trainer should gently rub the horse's forehead, he said, to demonstrate that touching feels good. When changing sides on the horse, the trainer should "politely let the horse know," using words and a gesture.
"Horses are herd animals, they're looking for a leader," he said. "If you holler at the horse, or whip it, he'll think you're a bully. If you sneak around, he'll think you're a wimp. And he has no reason to follow or trust anybody like that."
Mr. Reis says that when he climbs in the saddle, he does not kick the horse to start it, but simply leans forward and "lets it feel the energy moving forward."
Each time he gets off his horse, he tells it, "Thank you for the ride."
Mr. Reis, who alludes to "Zen masters" in discussing his approach, said he seeks to "become one with the horse, a Centaur," the half-man, half-horse of ancient mythology.