Observations of Ray

By Kate Burke

Recently I had the opportunity to audit a Ray Hunt clinic in the Four Corners region of Colorado. It turned out to be less than a year before his death, but none of us knew that at the time. I knew of Ray as one of the ancestral gurus of natural horsemanship, as my teacher’s teacher’s teacher, and I had read his books and watched him on video but never seen him live. As is often the case, what I learned at the clinic was not what I expected to learn. Rather than a list of specific nuggets of information about horses, I gained some insights on the nature of what and how Ray is trying to teach us.

I tuned in to a lot of troubled energy in the arena as I settled myself in the bleachers. There were horses that were troubled by the crowded environment. There were people that were troubled by their stressed horses. Once he began teaching, Ray was clearly troubled when people did not listen to his instructions or displayed a lack of basic dedication or effort. Then there was the lady next to me who was troubled that Ray was “rude” and “obnoxious” and was “just not helpful” to the students. All of that trouble churned inside me as I observed the scene.

Ray is well-known for his terse, blunt style, and it is hard, even as a spectator, not to squirm a little like a scolded child when he speaks his mind. I could let the lady’s comment about Ray being rude and obnoxious go by—he talks straight and without filtering and it can seem rude to more sensitive souls. Ray is consistently clear that he does what he does for the sake of the horse, that he is the “horse’s lawyer”—against the person if necessary—and is not particularly interested in our well-being except as it affects the horse. We’ve heard it before and he said it multiple times that day in Colorado. So why be surprised or discomfited when he tells us in no uncertain terms to get our acts together and do right by our horses? Ray tells the students to control their horses, to encourage the horses, to make necessary adjustments, to do what it takes—no less and no more—to get the job done. When someone does not make sincere efforts to do these things, Ray reflects back to them that they are failing their horses, brooking no excuse. As adults, we are not used to hearing bluntly that we are failing or not adequately trying but Ray is not afraid to tell us so; it may sound rude but that makes it no less true.

While I could smile wryly at the thought of Ray’s “rudeness,” I had to think a great deal about her assertion that Ray failed to be helpful to the students. What does it mean to be “helpful” to a student? I imagine that the lady next to me expected and wanted Ray to tell the students exactly how to work with their horses. Something like “if you want your horse to do X, pick up your left rein, move your right leg back two inches, tilt your head to the side and voila!” She seemed to feel frustrated that Ray talked at the level of the goal—“encourage your horse to go forward”—and not at the level of mechanics—“move this or that in such and such a way”.

Why doesn’t Ray give us a recipe or formula? Should we expect him to? I think not. I think there is a time and place for limited formulaic or mechanical instruction, but Ray and others like him have a different teaching role. In fact, it strikes me as the essence of “natural horsemanship” or “the better way with horses” that there is only limited use for formulas. The philosophy that Ray embodies, as I understand it, is based on a dynamic, on-going, two-way conversation or dance between horse and rider that demands constant attention, response and adjustment. The horse is constantly communicating with us and we should be constantly responding and communicating back. In this engagement of two minds and two bodies, we have to be extremely wary of formulaic or lock-step plans. As soon as we decide that there is a simple, predetermined “signal” to get the horse to do any particular thing, we can very easily stop engaging with our horse’s mind and revert to use of empty signals alone. The more we rely on formulaic signaling devices, the more we miss of what our particular horse at that particular time in that particular place is telling us or needs for encouragement.

Ray urges us to focus on the higher goal—“encourage your horse to move out”—rather than on any particular formula for getting it done. In doing so, he necessarily asks us to enter our own conversations with our horses about moving out. He puts the responsibility on us to figure out how to get it done. We have to actively participate in seeking answers rather than just passively receiving information.

In that respect, Ray is part of a long and venerable tradition of educators who ask their students to wrestle with concepts on their own rather than feeding them information—widely called “experiential education” in the modern era. It was supposedly Confucius who gave experiential educators their slogan: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” Ray’s method echoes experiential educators and philosophers like Confucius, Socrates, Zen Buddhist teachers with their riddle-like koans and philosopher John Locke with his theory that students should learn by doing. As a former teacher myself, I used experiential learning techniques with my young students as often as possible. And I frequently saw similar reactions to those I saw at Ray’s clinic. Experiential activities consist of setting a high-level goal for the students—in my classroom it could have been to use only paper and tape to build the strongest bridge possible—and leaving them to figure out how to get it done. Initially there is always grumbling and confusion. It’s much more demanding to put imagination to work, flounder around and experience some failure than it is just to passively absorb information. At the end, however, students have a truer and richer understanding of the principles they explored because they wrestled with them directly. It starts out more frustrating than a simple transmission method, it takes longer, it’s messier, but the results are deeper, wider and much longer lasting.

This is the kind of educational experience Ray offers us. If we take his instruction to “encourage the horse to move out” and struggle with it using our own minds and bodies—and those of our horses—rather than following a recipe, we have the opportunity to come to discover and personally understand what it means to communicate with our horses, although admittedly it may take us a while to accomplish the goal.

Now, I am the first to say that beginning riders or complete beginners to natural horsemanship may require some recipes. As an utter novice rider myself, I would never have figured out a one-rein stop or proper posture by myself. We can’t do away completely with concrete education. As the lady next to me suggested, a person with no grounding at all in horsemanship may feel lost and frustrated when merely told by Ray to “control the horse” without some specific suggestions for doing so. I came to understand that a crowded clinic with a master teacher of Ray’s style is not the place to get basic instructions. I would not recommend that a complete novice go to a Ray Hunt clinic expecting to learn to ride. Instead, it is a place to be challenged to go further, go deeper and to face one’s own failings while receiving ideas to chew on for months afterwards.

At Ray’s clinic, I saw innumerable people who were not interested in taking hold of Ray’s instruction and engaging with it. Instead, they looked around with frustration on their faces and sat on but not with their horses. On the other hand, there was a man having trouble encouraging his colt to move down the arena while mounted and using a halter and single lead rope. The colt wanted to turn endless circles instead. Ray pointed out to everyone that the man was not getting it done but did not tell the rider how. That may have sounded “rude,” and it could have been the end of the interaction, but the rider asked for help, showing an interest in learning how to get it done. With that, Ray kept encouraging the rider to encourage the horse, making subtle suggestions how he might do it but refraining from offering a recipe. Finally the man discovered that he could quickly switch the lead rope from one side to the other to correct the horse’s direction until they finally faced forward and off they went. Because the rider had some dedication to the horse and the task, Ray stuck with him patiently until it happened. In fact, Ray thanked the man for providing that educational experience for everyone else. In contrast, I perceived that Ray didn’t have time or patience for even apparently skilled riders who were not interested in trying to work with the instruction. I feel sure that the rider on the young horse will never again feel lost as to encouraging his horse to go forward or be tentative to start experimenting until he finds an answer.

I agree with Ray that we have responsibilities to our horses and that there are no excuses for not living up to them. If we want to be with horses, we must learn to listen to them, communicate with them, control them, encourage them, direct them. We must at all times either strive to do these things the best we can or quit. If the horse or the task is beyond us, we need to honestly assess the situation and make adjustments until there is a better fit, not look for someone else to come in with a recipe or device to fix the issue.

I left Ray’s clinic feeling that I had been in the presence of a master teacher operating at a very high level that I aspire to but can only just grasp. I also left the clinic even more grateful for my teacher. Kathleen Sullivan is a skilled horsewoman, a student of Buck Brannaman’s and an heir to Ray Hunt. But, to my inestimable benefit, she is based near my home and she utilizes a direct and personal teaching style that neither Ray nor Buck does. It is from my direct and ongoing work with Kathleen that I get the principles that Ray stood for and the excellence Buck demonstrates working for me at my level. From my starting point as a green rider and novice with natural horsemanship, I would be hard-pressed to make any progress at all if I didn’t have Kathleen to bring the art down to earth.

So no, lady in the bleachers, you probably don’t find Ray Hunt “helpful.” Because you are probably looking for the wrong kind of help. And probably the wrong kind of relationship with your horse, in my humble opinion. I do sympathize if you don’t have a Kathleen to work with or the time and devotion to try, but guess what—Kathleen and others like her are a phone call away if you care to think about it, and some time and some try are inherent in every human life if you look for them.

As Ray himself said over and over, most of us did not really understand what he said when he said it. Nevertheless, we all have the opportunity to chew on the “meat” he gave us for months and years until it begins to make more and more sense. His loss is a great one, but we are lucky for the foresight and effort that recorded so much of his work and message and we should make the fullest and best use of his students and descendants who continue to elaborate on his wisdom. I am eternally grateful for what Ray offered us on behalf of the horses and, maybe, if we’re up to it, our own growth.