Back at the Beginning with Ray Hunt

by Jim Overstreet, copyright 2009       

First published in Eclectic Horseman, May/June 2009                                                                                                                      


In the days after I heard that Ray Hunt died, I was flooded by memories—mostly good.  Ray influenced my life to a degree that was way out of proportion to the actual time we spent together. It’s hard to believe how much different I, and others like me, rode before we met him. He was instrumental in a tidal-wave-size paradigm shift in horsemanship and I am proud to have been a part it. 

Ray passed almost exactly 30 years after I first met him in the spring of 1979. I was a semi-reluctant participant in a four day clinic that he conducted in the horse pavilion at Montana State University in Bozeman. At the time I was working for the Madison River Cattle Company, a ranch that raised and sold lots of horses. That spring there was an obvious excess of unstarted two and three year old geldings. Although the ranch manager, Mike Thomasknew very little about Ray, he decided that if a half-dozen of us took colts to the clinic it would be a good start toward breaking the whole bunch

I told Mike that he didn’t need to send me to a clinic because I’d grown up starting colts.  He said he thought we should never turn down a chance to learn something from “one of these bridle-horse men.” I couldn’t argue with that and picked out a long-pasterned colt that I figured I could ride if he bucked.

For a couple of days, I was a serious skeptic. I’d grown up the son of the best horseman in southwestern Montana, on a ranch that raised Thoroughbred horses and sold dozens of polo ponies and sometimes hunters to buyers in the east. By age 15 I started competing with my Dad and quit learning from him. I had my successes as a horseman and roper and in our area was considered a good hand. Even so, I knew that Dad was a better horseman than me—I guessed that he had something I was born without. After I left home I started riding horses by the month and began to feel time pressure. Usually, I did OK but like many other horse trainers, when I had a problem I figured I just needed to get tougher.

I tell people that I was over 30 before I got dumb enough to learn anything. In reality, I was only 29, and it was at this Ray Hunt clinic that I rediscovered both my ignorance and my willingness to learn. Those four days became a turning point in my life.

That first morning as I watched Ray chase one colt after another around the round corral then saddle them, I remained a cynic. It was interesting, but saddling a dozen colts in a couple hours without tying up a foot or sacking them out seemed down right foolish to me.  Our group had heard that Ray often turned a dozen or more riders loose together on unbroken horses without a bridle or anything on their head. As we watched and waited, we hid our apprehension behind gallows humor and wry remarks. At home, I’d have never considered riding a horse for the first time without driving him from the ground beforehand.   

The ranch colts we’d taken to the clinic had only been haltered two or three times before—and one of those times they’d been thrown and gelded. For most of their lives they’d run nearly wild in big pasturesIt took at least two people to lead them. I tied mine to a thick post in the arena fence and he pulled back for an hour or soOnce, Ray looked over at him struggling, grinned and said, “He’ll find the end of that halter rope pretty soon.” Even to a skeptic, that Ray was able to saddle those nearly wild colts with virtually no restraint was an amazing feat—especially in such a short time. 

That morning Ray rode only to move the colts around after saddling. I liked some of what I saw—his mare was very soft and flexible. I especially liked the way she carried her head low and tucked without a tie-down. When Ray pulled her head around to his knee and rubbed her forehead, I wondered who would want a horse that rubber necked. (I thought then Ray was pulling. Within a few days, I learned better.) At the time, I figured a horse had to have little stiff spots so that they could push off hard to make a quick move.

That afternoon, when Ray began to get riders mounted on their colts, it wasn’t long before I realized that whatever Ray was doing, he seemed to be able to keep horses from bucking. My colt didn’t seem to care a bit that I was on his back. But it seemed to me that he wandered about aimlessly, even when Ray used his flag to drive us around. About the only control I had over him was the ability to start him moving if he stopped. At home, the colts I’d driven moved out good on their first ride and with a direct rein, I could control their direction.

It was on the second day that my first epiphany came. For the morning colt class, we put snaffle bits on our horses for the first time. Ray instructed us not to tighten the reins but to just go where the horse went. We just rode around slowly for a while drifting aimlessly.  Then, Ray got out his flag and got us moving much faster. About the third time we were loping down the arena he asked us to lift the rein lightly and ask our horse to follow it. I chuckled to myself and thought, if he wants soft, I’ll give him ridiculously soft. I reached out a little and smoothly lifted my right rein as if it were a feather—my horse couldn’t have felt more than half the weight of my thin leather rein. To my utter amazement he followed that tiny suggestion of pressure around a looping turn right in the middle of the arena. It is hard to describe the elation I felt at this discovery. I began to understand where that smooth, supple responsiveness that I could see in Rays horse came from. As we progressed, that “wild” colt helped me begin to learn how to feel through my bridle reins softly. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the smooth willing responsiveness was just as fast, and far more pleasant, than the darting, quickness I had been feeling for.  

Again that afternoon Ray shook my belief in the adequacy of my horsemanship. During his talk before the horsemanship class he sat his little bay mareApril. As he talked her head drooped slightly, she could have been asleep. Then, he proclaimed that if you want to, you can move any foot on your horse. He said, “Right front.” With no visible movement on Ray’s part, April lifted her right front foot as if she might take a step and then set it back down. Almost immediately, Ray said, “Left front.” This time the mare lifted her left front and then replaced it. “Left hind.” The left hind lifted and resettled. After he said, “Right hind” April didn’t move for probably a second then lazily cocked her foot ahead before setting it back in the dirt. During all this, April’s relaxed demeanor didn’t change at all. Up until then, I had had no idea that you could control each foot that separately or that you could control any foot without motion. That he could do it with no obvious effort seemed baffling to me. All these years later I know about what he was doing but I still find the off-handed and effortless way that Ray communicated with his horse incredibly impressive.

Riding in both the colt and horsemanship classes gave me a lot of opportunity to ask Ray probing questions. One of my co-workers accused me of being rude. He was probably right because I didn’t attempt to hide my skepticism. I was lucky that Ray was at a time in his life when I didn’t offend him. He grinned and answered every question with a serious response. The harder I dug, the more substance I found. As my skepticism faded, I became excited about the possibilities. 

About the third morning of the colt class, we were stopped, listening to Ray talk about responding to the slightest try. He said that if you are asking a horse to take a step to the right, you should let the horse know he is doing the correct thing when he shifts his weight to the left foot. The horse can’t lift his right foot if he still has his weigh on it. So we have to recognize that the weight shift is necessary preliminary action and that we have to respond in a way that tells the horse his doing the correct thing before he takes a step.  That example triggered another epiphany for me. I’m still working on the subtle ways that this rule applies and hope that I will continue to get better at recognizing them. 

In a practical sense, probably one of the best things I learned at that first Ray Hunt clinic relates to controlling the feet individually but is simpler. That is, controlling both ends of your horse—moving the front end either direction and moving the hind end either direction. I’d always thought that I because I wanted my horses to turn off their hind end, it always had to remain in place. But Ray made me see the value of being able to move it separately. This made me much more aware of feeling the rear of a horse instead of focusing almost exclusively on the forelegs. I use this every time I ride, whether is placing my horse where I want him in the roping box, opening and closing gate, avoiding a tree that is too close to the trail, or keeping a circle round, or in untold numbers of other ways.

As I think about it, much of what I learned came from watching him and sub-consciously copying it—like the way he touched a horse. Other things seemed to come in a more general way. For example, I had always had trouble catching horses. Almost immediately, I could catch horses much better. Although it wasn’t a hundred percent, even horses I had previously taught to be difficult to catch became easier. Within three or four years after that first clinic I virtually quit riding horses for other people and it has become much harder for me to sell a horse. If I ask a horse to trust me and to behave in a certain way and he does, over a couple weeks time or maybe a month or two we develop a personal relationship. Then, if I send him home with an owner who has very different expectations that the horse doesn’t or can’t understand, I feel like I’ve somehow broken my promise.  The reality is that I have to sell a horse once in a while but it’s more difficult. And, one of Ray’s best gifts was that he made it necessary for me to meet Tom Dorrance.

This is the first thing I’ve written even vaguely about Ray. Some twenty years ago, I talked to him about the possibility of doing an article about himHe thought about it for a bit, then frowned and said, “Well, at least you know a little about what’s going on.”  I know more now, but still only a little bit. In a way, that’s part of what makes my relationship with horses continue to be exciting. That first clinic jolted me and set me on a new path. The possibilities were far greater than I imagined 30 years ago. My relationships with my horses are much more fulfilling. I think the way of being and thinking that relates to this carries over to much of the rest of my life in beneficial ways. Thank you, Ray Hunt!