One Day with Ray, 1979: "Ugly" the Horse Becomes "Good Looking"

By Mike Thomas, March 12, 2010

Arriving at our first Clinic

Around 7 AM on a Spring morning in 1979, we pulled into the Montana State University Horse Pavilion and Indoor Arena with our load of seven horses. We had enrolled for the first time in a Colt Class and a Horsemanship Class to be held over the next five days. At that moment, I had no idea we'd enrolled in Ray Hunt’s life for the next thirty-plus years. I saw an older pick-up with a camper and well-used bumper stock trailer parked near the arena and assumed it must belong to that Ray Hunt fellow that we'd heard about for years. Ray Hunt was just starting to do Clinics full-time on the road and this was one of the first big Clinics of the time. He had done Clinics in the years before, while he was developing his approach to teaching the public, but not full-time.

I'd enrolled myself, my wife Sharon and four cowboys from the Madison River Cattle Company of Three Forks, Montana, in the Colt Class and Horsemanship Class. It turned out to be five days that changed all of our lives forever. None of us would ever be the same again, and that is a good thing, especially for horses.

Our ranch was running about 150 head of horses, including 50 or 60 colts from yearlings to 6-year-olds that had never been touched except once at weaning. Weaning was a wreck, a real slam-bam introduction to the human when they were haltered, thrown to the ground out of a chute, and cut (gelded). This happened before I took over the ranch, and that was the last time it was ever done that way on our ranch. So we really needed to meet this fellow Ray Hunt and hoped the stories were true.

With that said, this story is only about the first two hours of the Clinic and the horse "Ugly". The rest of the week was also incredible and will be covered in a separate story. Please understand that this story, about one horse and the following incredible five days, made the next 30+ years become reality.

We unloaded and went in to register, pay up and hang out with other ranchers, neighbors and friends, and people who would become our new friends for life. We waited for Ray Hunt to appear, not one of us having ever seen him before. For years, we'd been hearing stories about Ray that circulated around the Good Old Boy Ranch Network in the Northwest, over land lines, in auction barns, at cattle buyers and stock growers' meetings and real saddle shops, and in the Cowboy/Farmer Whiner Cafés found in all ranch and farm communities. Not one of us, that morning, believed any of the stories we'd heard, but still we were there!

Things got started

Around 7:30 AM, a stock trailer pulled into the indoor arena and backed up to a Powder River Round Pen. A guy appeared and broke a panel for the trailer to back into and unload the load. The Yellowstone Valley ranchers opened the trailer gate and out flew the damndest thing I ever saw - about four to five yearling bovines and one Very Ugly Equine who was either scared to death or plumb nuts. It took a while to reload the cattle, leaving Ugly in the pen.

This whole time, I was watching the man who was chapped up, his lass rope in his hand and a Winston cigarette in his mouth, intensely looking at Ugly with a sly grin on his face. After the ranchers left with their bovines and the panels were closed up, this stranger got himself ready like a fellow about to have a nice day. Meanwhile Ugly was crashing into fences, trying to jump out, getting high-centered on a panel and falling back into the round pen, running around plumb crazy and scared poopless!

Ugly the Horse

Ugly had been running wild in the mountains of Yellowstone Valley for over twenty years, touched only once by human hands. He ran with pasture cattle in the Summer and elk and deer in the Winter, and they were his only friends. Not one horse ran with him, all those years that we knew about.

When it came time for the ranchers to gather the cattle in the Fall, Ugly retreated into the hills that still had some grass, going higher in the Yellowstone Alps-like Mountains, and ran with the elk and deer until snow drove them to lower altitudes. The cattle were gone, so he hung out with his friends of many seasons.

Many years before, probably around 1957, he'd been roped and gelded, and after that day he decided to live in the Alps of Yellowstone Valley and take his chances in life on his own terms. His first introduction to the human told him he didn’t need any more of those two-legged predators and parasites.

Let's get something straight right now about Cowboys and Ranchers: the vast majority are very talented stockmen who spend their lives taking care of every horse and bovine that they are responsible for. They live their lives for their stock, their families and their communities with great honesty and integrity, and are respected by all. A few are great horseman; most are not, but their role in life is one of high honor. It is not a sin to not be a horseman. They treat their stock and family well and live with respect for all. But once in a lifetime, if you are lucky, you might meet a Great Horseman, like I did that day! Being called a Horseman is a title of very high honor. Ray Hunt, to his last day, said, "I'm not a Horseman yet, but someday I hope to be."

After hearing stories about Ray Hunt giving a clinic in Bozeman, some wannabe ranchers laid a plan to embarrass him there. They gathered some cattle and caught Ugly in the bunch, then ran them into a corral and shoved him and his buddy bovines into a trailer and took them to Bozeman for the first day of the Clinic. The Yellowstone ranchers planned to embarrass Ray Hunt and make him look bad. This was a set-up, and not the last, either, for they were gunsils, human parasites who scared and trashed horses! Others tried to set Ray Hunt up later, and it never worked for them either. They will never forget what Ray Hunt could do, the full measure of a man and the Greatest Horseman In History.

So what did Ugly look like?

This is going to be hard to believe: Ugly was about 14.2, had hair three to five inches long all over his body and NO EARS! His ears had been frozen off years before in the Alps of Yellowstone Valley, where he'd survived for over 20 years without anyone's help. Ugly's summers had to be great, though, taking care of the bovines turned out in that pristine scenery, one of the true wonders of the world.

I know; I gathered cattle out of the same valley, the same High Country, and it was a long way down to the Valley floor where we ran them on grass for the summers of 1977-1978. When you rode at the top of the mountain gathering cattle and took a look down to the bottom, it felt like looking out an airplane window, but then there was a great horse between your legs, taking care of you, and he had no intentions of making one wrong step.

"Good morning, my name is Ray Hunt"

The chapped-up fellow that had spent about 20 minutes watching Ugly then stepped into the round pen with his lass rope and introduced himself with a very pleasant manner while the horse was still bouncing off fences. He had a smile on his face, very relaxed, very comfortable! That was the first and last day he would ever have to introduce himself to any of us, so many wonderful years ago.

Ray Hunt was about 48 or 49 years old about that time (August 31, 1929 - March 12, 2009). He spoke to us, with a voice that was sure, describing his outlook on the life of the horse and how he was only into this for the horse. Ugly was still bouncing around, crashing on and off fences, but he took on a new awareness while Ray spoke to us. Ray talked about why the horse was always right, the horse can never do anything wrong; he talked about how scared Ugly was, and that his behavior wasn't a big deal, because it was his right for self-preservation. Ugly seemed to be listening better than anyone in the audience, including me. Ray let Ugly find a place to rest while talking to us. He knew that his quiet presence while talking to us was settling to Ugly. Ugly pointed his earless head to Ray while talking and started to "let down", his eyes telling the story. Ray knew how to move to one side of the pen while talking to us and give a place for Ugly to settle and THINK.

Within 10 minutes of entering the round pen, Ray said something like, "I guess we need to saddle this horse!" Seeing the near-crazy horse, my mind was saying, "When - next week?!" Ray simply lassed him and let him pack rope with no pull, and that was quite a "boo", so Ugly ran around some more. Then Ray started taking some of the slack out of the lass rope, and with great feel, tipped Ugly's eye to him and released the lass rope. Ray had to rely on watching Ugly's eyes because there were no ears to watch. Going in either direction, Ugly started looking for a better deal; thinking, feeling, wondering and searching.

After fifteen minutes, it happened! Ugly started to understand and hooked on, the lass rope became nothing, and he ran to Ray Hunt and shoved his earless head into Ray Hunt's chest, and completely turned into a "kid's pony"!

Ray didn't just let Ugly run into him out of escape from pressure like so many do to this day, with people thinking the horse is hooked on when they are not. Ray invited him in, himself, when he knew that the respect and understanding between them were right - not before. It took me quite a few years, and some bad x-rays, to learn the difference between Response and Respect, myself!

Ray Hunt saddles Ugly... rides Ugly...

Ray Hunt had started only fifteen minutes before, and within another ten minutes, Ugly was halter "broke" (taught) and ready for the saddle. All of us were nearly in shock and not one of us believed our lying eyes! Ray went about saddling and Ugly acted like it was no big deal. When saddled, Ray took his lass rope off and let Ugly find his new life with a saddle - a chunk of dead cow - strapped to his back. He wandered off, felt the saddle and blew the cork for about five minutes, crashing into round pen fences, bawling and cow-kicking at the stirrups. Then he lined out and ran and Ray smiled knowingly and changed his direction, left to right, right to left, and Ugly quit bucking. Later Ray explained to me that Ugly quickly found out, when he was on his own and away from Ray, he found nothing but trouble. And he quickly learned that the best place in the world to find peace and comfort was with Ray.

On one of those turns, Ugly hooked onto Ray and ran to him, shoving his head into Ray’s chest. Ray let him settle while explaining to us what was going on in Ugly's mind. Ugly followed Ray everywhere, no rope and no halter on him, while he talked to us. He hung out like an old saddle horse, hanging his head by his new friend in life. None of us had the advantage of watching his ears move, which can be so critical when this time comes. Ray didn't need to watch the ears because he worked from the inside of a horse out and understood his new best friend.

Less than ten minutes later, Ray said, "Well, we might as well go for a ride." He checked his cinchas, put his lass rope around Ugly's neck, having no ears to bump the rope into, placed a spoke of rope gently over his nose from right to left. With coils of lass rope in his left hand, he stepped on smooth, asked for Ugly's feet to move, and rode off in whatever direction Ugly wanted to go. Then Ray reached up and took the lass rope off, never to be put on again during this first ride, leaving Ugly with nothing on his earless head.

They walked, trotted, loped and ran while transitioning up and down. Ray used his coils, with real feel and not force, near whichever eye he needed, to change directions going both ways in the round pen. This took less than ten minutes. Then Ray let Ugly stop in the middle of the round pen and explained what had taken place. Folks, I can guarantee you that it was so quiet at that moment! I'd seen nothing like this ever before. All my years of ranching, rodeo, feedlots, thousands of cattle experiences made no difference; I was speechless. Ray was not. You could have heard a pin drop in soft dirt! All of our eyes were collectively bigger, our ears and minds were open, and we started to realize we'd all just seen something that day that so-called horse trainers, bronc stompers, and other experienced horse handlers could never accomplish. They were not, nor would they ever be, a Ray Hunt, for none of them were a Horseman!

Ray says, "Open the gate, I am riding out"

While Ray was talking to us, Ugly just hung his head in the middle of that round pen, looking like he had spent his whole life with Ray Hunt and just loved being there. It was obvious in his eyes that he was just hanging out with Ray, cocking a hind foot, keeping his eyes on Raymond, left and right. He really turned loose, relaxed like a horse that had been ridden for all of his 20+ years! Ray and Ugly were One! Oh yes... there was no rope, no halter, no bridle on Ugly's head at all!

Ray then touched Ugly's neck and asked someone to open the gate to the larger arena. Ray used his coils of lass rope to guide Ugly through the gate and rode off into the arena. Ray and Ugly checked out all corners of arena, then started transitioning up through all gaits, and they were just One! They walked at three speeds, trotted at three speeds, loped at three speeds, and ran like hell. Ray used nothing but the coils, his whole body, and his feel, and Ugly understood. Ugly learned how to stick his ass in the ground, dropping his tailhead within one foot of the ground. This took another ten minutes! Ray Hunt and Ugly were on a mission, with a purpose to find a new way of life, and they both understood each other completely.

Ray Hunt knew that the Gunsil Ranchers from Yellowstone Valley brought this horse to the Clinic just to humiliate him, and he'd known it an hour before, while watching with his sly smile and cigarette. Ray knew what he must do for Ugly and all of the rest of us, and he laid his plan for the next hour, knowing he could not let those Gunsils get away with it.

Ray continued to help Ugly become the incredible Good Looking Horse! They did every reining pattern ever invented. They loped perfect circles, transitioned up and learned a slide stop, and now the tailhead was only 6-7 inches from the dirt. They rode off, transitioning up and down like they had been doing it for years. Ray did the slide stops by just resting the spoke of his lass rope over the bridge of Good Looking's nose, and he buried his ass in the ground and hung his earless head in complete relaxation, in balance with his body in the slide. (In balance - not like artificial slide stops of many reining horses today.)

Ugly gets a new name: "Good Looking"

Ray would stop and rest with the former Ugly, now Good Looking, cocking a hind foot, at peace, and just hanging out together for quite a while. Ray spoke to us during these rest moments in the big arena and we were in disbelief that any human could do this with a near-crazy wild horse within an hour! Ray was explaining all the things Good Looking had been going through and why he was so good now. We were now into this thing for about an hour and a half. People started to visit, with words of disbelief, and then it happened...!

Ray and Good Looking take a final run at Gunsils

Ray spotted the owners of the former Ugly hanging close to the round pens and knew he could give them one final lesson. From the very back end of the arena, he and Good Looking prepared for a finale none of us have ever been able to forget to this day. Ray and Good Looking left at a dead run toward the round pen where the owners were standing in disbelief, directly aiming at them.

Just a few strides away from them, Ray put the spoke of his lass rope over Good Looking's nose and he dropped his ass in the dirt in a sliding stop, and threw a shower of dirt over the owners' heads and whole bodies!

Then Ray stepped off Good Looking, put his lass rope on and told the owners, "I guess you guys are in a hurry to get home. I think he will be fine." Ray then went about starting the Colt Class and another fifteen colts or so, for the next five hours, saddling each one and doing what was needed, all before noon the first day!

Conclusion: Good Looking's job is not done

It turned out that the Yellowstone Valley ranchers were not in a hurry to get home. They could not believe what they just saw and they were humbled. In two hours, the former Gunsils became the best students at the Clinic.

They asked Ray to ride Good Looking in the Horsemanship Class after lunch, and he did. Good Looking was the best horse in the Horsemanship Class! Ray demoed on this great horse with long hair and no ears, and he moved better than any of our horses in the Class. Good Looking became a champion for all of us to learn from forever.

Ray put a real green rider on the earless Good Looking for the rest of the Horsemanship Class, and I will never forget when Good Looking and Green Rider trotted by me, a man with over 30 years experience on a horse! The horse's eyes were loving this Green Rider as he trotted right by me. They were a team, a horse with a Green Rider on a mission of peace with the human, and both were handsome and Good Looking!

My 30+ years of experience with horses paled on this wonderful day. I had met a Horseman!

To this day, the first day with Ray: the first few hours

Raymond Hunt, that very first day I ever met him, made me reach into myself and change years of my way of thinking with a horse and all life. He made us all understand in one morning that Ugly could be very Good Looking, and gave us a lesson for all life!

The rest of this incredible day was full of much more. We knew then that this was the Greatest Horseman ever in the history of the world! Ray spent the rest of his life making sure that none of us could ever forget Good Looking, a most amazing horse.

Today, the first anniversary of Ray Hunt’s passing

Ray Hunt: August 31, 1929 – March 12, 2009 - The Greatest Horseman That Ever Lived!

I finished this story today, March 12, 2010, one year after the Greatest Horseman that ever lived passed away. It's a story that can never be finished, a story of tens of thousands of horses and thousands of humans whose lives were changed forever.

I know in my whole being that the "Ugly and Good Looking" story has been repeated tens of thousands of times, up till Ray Hunt’s last day. That day, when Carolyn picked him up at the Denton, Texas Hospital, he was in wonderful spirits, ready to get back to his Clinic which had temporarily been managed by my, and our, friend, Buck Brannaman. Ray was happy to be going to what he treasured most, the Clinic.

Ray did not get to the Clinic. Two blocks from hospital, with dear Carolyn driving, there was a brief final moment and then Ray rode on. It seems he had a Clinic somewhere else that none of us knew about. Maybe he caught up with Good Looking, along with Tom and Bill. Oh what a reunion!

Thanks, Ray

Thanks for what you gave to the horse and thus you gave to all of us: Horsemanship, Lifemanship and a lot of Friendships with all life; a real Kinship with All Life!

Your Pard,
Mike (Thomas)


Last night I went over this story with my pardner, T.J. Vietor, and I kept saying, "Something is missing, I don’t know what it is. I know there is something that I am missing." T.J. t-mailed me this morning after thinking about it all night, and here is a brief version of what she (Herself) had to say...

She reminded me that over 30 years ago, we could not understand what we were seeing. She reminded me of what Ray said so long ago: "Why does it take a lifetime to learn how to live a lifetime?" She reminded me that we had to get old and gray to understand what we saw back then, after riding so many horses, caring for so many cattle, on so many ranches of life for so many years, and now, still, we can find wisdom only if we can work together. She reminded me, in her own way, that it takes a lifetime to appreciate what we were given by Ray!

She also reminded me that the loss we have experienced is our new opportunity, to honor what Ray stood for, and always did, even when we could not see it. Now we do. Now we can see. "Now we can understand, Mike - now we can THINK!" That was the only thing Ray ever asked us to do, except for one other thing: “TRY!”

That is why Ugly turned into Good Looking!

Thanks, dear T.J.,

Mike (Himself)