Charley tells about the first time he met the legendary Ray Hunt — and the ongoing influence that Ray had on Charley’s life and his work with horses.
MEETING RAY HUNT
For the next ten years, until the 1980’s, Charley worked cattle ranches near Miles City, MT. During that season, his attitude hardened towards horses. They went from being his friend to simply a tool that he used to get the job done.
Then, he met Ray Hunt. Reputed to be Tom Dorrance’s best student, Ray Hunt was, at that time, well on his way to establishing himself as highly respected horse trainer and clinician.
My brother-in-law had taken a four-year old stud to Ray. He came back from that clinic full of praise, telling me about the amazing things that Ray had done. In my pride and arrogance, I responded, ‘I can do that.’ Well, I soon learned that I couldn’t.
A man had brought me this 16H, 1300-pound mare that never had a hand laid on her. Well, I proceeded to try what I had heard Ray had done with that mare but it wasn’t working. In fact, I was pretty much wrecking the horse.
Right about that time, another guy brought me a two-year old colt that could really buck. When I found out how hard the colt could buck, I knew he was beyond me. So, putting two and two together, I realized, ‘Maybe I better look this Hunt guy up.’ Fortunately, Ray was doing clinics near where I lived in Montana.
So I took both of those horses to the first of what would turn out to be many of Ray’s clinics that I would attend. Immediately, I was awestruck with the man. Never in my life had I ever seen anyone like Ray Hunt and what he could accomplish with a horse. In less than an hour’s time, Ray had horses that were pretty snotty eating out of his hand and even saddled.
Ray had such an incredible gift. Horses would get so fine around him that they would act like they had discovered their best friend in the herd. He could walk into a corral full of horses and they would all turn around to look at him. There was just something that emanated from him. No doubt about it. I was completely taken by Ray. Just totally.
What struck me the most about Ray was his passion for the horse. Today, in most of what is called ‘natural horsemanship,’ the attitude of the human towards the horse is often focused on getting a horse to do what you wanted it to do. This is why you will see people work a horse in a round pen, running him around and around, until the horse basically gives up. In deals like that, people were not offering the horse any real chance to think about what he would like to do or even something that he could understand. They are simply operating out of a control mindset.
Ray wasn’t like that at all. Oh no. He would always start his clinics by saying some thing that amounted to, ‘I am here for this thing (meaning the horse). And me. And you can have what’s left over.’
You see, early on in his life, Ray had been pretty tough on horses but, after being with Tom Dorrance, he realized that there was a much better way to work with these animals.
Although many people perceived Ray as a hard man, my take on him is that he had such a passion for his message. He just wanted a better deal for the horse. That was all he cared about. And I think that is why he was so successful.
In his clinics, he would ask, ‘What do you have to offer the horse?’ What he meant was what could you, as the human, offer — whether it was kindness, reassurance or firmness – that would help the horse find a place of peace and stay out of trouble. Said another way, Ray was about helping us approach a horse from the horse’s perspective. If a horse doesn’t want to be with you, then what could you offer that horse that would let him start to think, ‘Well, now, maybe it’s okay to be with that human being?’
Two entirely different mindsets here. One mindset is based upon controlling or forcing the horse to do what you want. The other way, Ray’s way, was that you set or fix up the situation such that, through directing a horse’s thought processes, you give the horse the opportunity to find what you are asking him to do. Ray’s approach put you into the role as the horse’s educator for the purpose of helping the horse find a place of peace when he was with you.
Personally, I think that horses, like all creation, simply want to get along with human beings, that they don’t want to be in an adversarial place of fighting with us. So, if you have some things to offer to a horse so that he can be in that peaceful place around you, then some great things can happen.
I have worked a lot with what people call, ‘troubled horses.’ However, 99% of the time, I have found that these so called troubled horses have gotten this way through the actions of human beings who, usually out of ignorance, did not offer the horse the right opportunities and boundaries. Now, even if you have a truly troubled horse, if you do what Ray taught, meaning guiding a horse’s thought process, then it will behave differently because the is always looking for the place of safety with a human being.
Sometimes I get asked, ‘What did Ray mean by fix it up and let the horse find it?’ Well, first you have to recognize that a horse is a living thing that is capable of making decisions. Although horses do not think the way humans do, they do make decisions. So, your work is to fix it up, meaning setting up a process whereby the horse will search for what you are intending, so that he finds a place of respect and trust towards you.
For example, let’s say you have a horse in a round pen that is keeps thinking about what is going on outside the pen. Well, you might throw a little rock at his feet to stop him focusing on what is going on ‘out there.’ In this, you are directing his thoughts by making it difficult for him to think about something other than what you want him to search out.
To direct a horse’s thought process successfully requires some skills at observation. Ray would often say, ‘Notice the smallest change, the slightest try.’ So, again, be aware. When you ask the horse to do something, seek to notice even the smallest flicker of response to that request. Sometimes, I get just an ear movement. And I respond to it. Okay. Good. The next time I ask, I will get a little more.
Unless a horse has been handled so badly that they have completely shut people out, I have found that, every time you pick up your lead rope or bridle rein, the horse will try to find what is going on and what you want. When you fix it up for the horse, enabling your idea to become the horse’s idea, they can do about anything you ask.
Case in point. If a rider consistently pulls on the horse’s bridle rein and nothing happens, the horse will often be called ‘hard mouthed.’ Usually, though, the horse is actually not hard mouthed. Rather, he has simply shut the human being out of his mind. They are masters at doing that. Truth be told, it doesn’t take but five minutes to prove that those so-called ‘hard mouthed’ horses are not hard mouthed. It is simply a mental thing.
When the horse has learned to block humans out due to what they have done, sometimes you have to do things with that horse that can appear very unkind in order to get the horse thinking differently. ‘Nice horsey’ simply doesn’t work sometimes. Again, the goal here is not abuse or control. Rather it is to help the horse to think differently as efficiently as you can.
This kind of horsemanship is much like parenting. While some parents would like to be best buddies with their children, it is not in the best interest of a child for you to be his or her best friend. Instead you need to be a parent, the one person in their lives who educates and guides them with boundaries, discipline and kindness so that they will grow up to have a good, successful life. However, if you have done your part properly, when the child matures, as a parent you can still be dear friends.
Now, way back at that first clinic I attended, Ray worked with my two-year colt by first softening him up. Then he saddled the colt and then opened the gate to the big arena. When Ray let him out, that thing started bucking, oh I tell you, oh my land oh mighty, I tell you. All the cowboys laughed, saying, ‘Who is going to ride that sonofabitch?’
‘I guess it will be me,’ I answered. To tell you the truth, I was wishing it would be someone else.
Back in the round corral with all the other colts, Ray proceeded to rope him and told me pull the cinch tight. Then Ray had me get on and, without a halter or anything, he led the colt with me on his back until, after a few steps, he took off the catch rope. That’s when Ray said to me, ‘Just ride him. Go with him wherever he wants to go. Whatever you do, don’t get tight because he won’t disappoint you.’
Right then and there, I made a major shift right in my thinking. Instead of being scared, I took a deep breath and said, ‘Okay here we go.’ What happened next was incredible. I was on that colt without anything on his head and he wasn’t bucking. Yes. Something was working.
This was the first of many lessons I would learn from Ray. Another one was about finding the feel of the horse through going with him where ever he wanted to go. More than once, Ray would say to me, ‘Snell, where are you going with that horse?’
‘Any damn place he wants to go,’ would be my answer. Whether the horse ran, bucked or did whatever his little old heart desired, you just rode along.
It became clear to me that, as humans, we actually have no control over a horse. A horse is able to do anything to you that he wants. Truth be known, it is the horse that lets us ‘control’ him. Along this line, I often say to others, ‘To the degree that you do not have his feet in your hands is the degree that you are at his mercy.’ To be successful with horses, you have to have the heart to try to get along with them. If you have a bad heart, you had better hope that he is merciful. It is actually rather incredible to me that these amazing animals actually let us into their lives.
Again, through Ray, I came to understand that horses think and, in order to work well with them, I had to help direct their thought process in a way that offered them a peaceful relationship with me. So now, when I work with a horse, I assume a childlike attitude, meaning that I approach the horse with a clean slate and open perspective. I don’t assume that I know what to do. I let things unfold as they seem to want to unfold. A lot of times I start working with a horse and even have some concern about how it could turn out. I hope it will turn out okay; sometimes it doesn’t. Again, bottom line, I do not approach any horse as if I know it all.
One thing I admired about Ray was that he never put himself above other people. He said to me once, ‘The only difference between you and me is that I start four hundred horses a year.’
And I thought, ‘Yeah, right.’ What Ray meant was that experience itself was a good teacher. If you only rode one horse in your life, you probably were not going to learn a whole lot.
My first clinic with Ray was life changing. ‘This is a good way to go,’ I realized and I knew that I would be pursuing this way of working with horses for the rest of my life.
Over the next five years, I went to about twenty-five of Ray’s clinics. He always managed to transfer something good to a horse and, if you had half a brain yourself, it would come through to you too.
RAY’S CONTINUING INFLUENCE
Married with children and working as a cowboy for wages, Charley still sought to get to any of Ray’s clinics that were within striking distance of home.
Sometimes after a clinic, Ray would talk with us for quite awhile, telling us stories and answering questions. Around us cowboys, he was sure friendly and, as I look back on it now, I believe it was because he was dealing with men who made their living on a horse. I think he gave much of himself to those who were making their livelihood that way.
As a man and horseman, Ray had a lot of influence with us. I will never forget the clinic where I was having trouble in the arena catching the horse I had brought. I have having so much trouble that, in fact, I was holding up the entire clinic and you can imagine how I was feeling. Pretty embarrassed and humiliated.
Then, I heard Ray’s voice from outside the arena. ‘Charley, can I offer you some help?’
Within minutes, Ray had that horse calmed down and caught. Handing me the halter rope, he said quietly, ‘You are going to make it, Charley.’ To this day, I remember those encouraging words as if it was yesterday. Those were the right words at the right time in my life.
Another thing I admired about Ray was his great capacity to listen. Whenever you talked with him, he made you feel like you were the only person that mattered. I will never forget the afternoon my family and I were driving through Broadus, MT and saw a gathering of horse trailers in a field. ‘Ray’s in the country,’ I realized. ‘By golly, let’s stop.’
Sure enough, Ray was working some cows. After a couple of hours of watching, my seven-year-old son, Wiley asked, ‘Can I meet him, Dad?’
‘Well, sure,’ I answered, ‘Come on.’
So, we walked over to Ray and I introduced my son to him. Wiley had some question he wanted to ask Ray but, to this day, I don’t recall what it was. However, what I will never forget is that, after a few minutes of talking with Ray, Wiley came up to me up lit up like a Christmas tree, saying ‘Dad, he really listened to me.’
That was my son’s take on the man. ‘He really listened to me.’ Of course, several months later, Ray had to dang near give my son a spanking for something but, you know, it was all right because he had it coming.
Ray was this way with a lot of people. He had such a strong ability to impart things to you, almost like a father. When you were around him, you wanted to make a difference and, for those who would try, Ray would go to quite some lengths to help you. However, if you didn’t have ‘the try’ in you, he would be just like the cowboys of long ago. He wouldn’t waste much time on ya.
FIX IT UP
Because of Ray’s clinics, Charley and other cowboys began to implement Ray’s way of working with horses.
Suddenly, we thought were better than the rest because we could do things that others couldn’t. So we started telling everybody, ‘You need to do this or that with your horse…’ Well, word soon got back to Ray. He said to us, in no uncertain terms, ‘Do not say anything. Keep your mouth shut. Go ride your horse. If they see something they like, they will hunt you up. But if they don’t, leave it alone. All you are going to do is make people mad.’
As we we’re trying to work with this new way of working with our horses while trying to get the work done for the boss on the ranch it would oftentimes create some friction. Ray would say, ‘You do what the boss wants. Don’t worry about your horse. Get the job done. He is paying your wages and you owe it to him to get the work done. It may not look pretty, but get the job done. To get your horse better either get up earlier or work with your horse after the days work is done.’ Now that is a concept that would be almost totally foreign in in the horsey set today.
‘What wisdom. What wisdom.’
Because of Ray, I had new meaning and awareness with regards to working with horses. As I did what he taught, I began to experience the things he said could really happen with a horse. So many times, working on my own, I would realize, ‘So that was what he was talking about,’ and it would make me want to find out even more what was really ticking inside that horse.
Again, Ray had this influence that I can only describe as ‘impartation’ even through second-hand stories! For example, Ray was competing in a reining contest and, as I understand the story, he did such a superb job that he received a standing ovation from the crowd. However when the score came down from the judges, goose egg. So Ray rode over and asked the judges, ‘What was the problem?’ They answered, ‘Ray, you run the pattern backwards.’ Ray’s response was ‘Well, I be damned’ and never gave it another thought.
Well, that story imparted something to me. Ray didn’t take issue with the judges. He didn’t cuss himself out. He just said, ‘Oh well. Nothing I can do about.’ He just let the whole thing go. Hearing that story alone simply changed me. I can now shrug off things a lot more easily than I could before.
More than any kind of facts or technique, I probably learned a lot more things through Ray’s impartation than anything else. In this light, I will never forget another story that Ray told me once. A man had paid for Ray to come to Mexico to do a demo with a very dangerous horse. This horse was handled the way they handle the fighting bulls. After the bull fight this horse was run into a round pen made of chicken wire.
As the story goes, Ray got the horse saddled but when he went to get on, it blew up on him. ‘In my best day,’ Ray said later, ‘I could not have rode one side of it. He could buck.’ Ray got things to working better, got aboard and rode him in the chicken wire pen and then out in the arena. When it began to look like Ray was not going to get in a wreck and get hurt the crowd left the arena. After some time, Ray got off and handed the horse back to the man.
‘What do I tell my vaqueros to do,’ he asked.
‘Tell them to do the same thing that I did.’ And Ray walked off.
Telling me the story, Ray said, ‘I found no way to fight with him.’ Now, years after working with horses, I have some understanding of what Ray was accomplishing by not doing anything that would have put that horse into a defensive manner. No matter the horse, even one that would want to strike out at him, Ray would not engage a horse in a confrontational manner; he always found a way to direct a horse’s thoughts.
Ray would present himself so that the horse could understand that he was not about doing something to him, that it would know that he could be safe and comfortable around Ray. He wanted to show the horse that it could move around and that it would be okay. This is a vastly different from the way that most riders or horse trainers approach and handle horses.
His words stick to my spirit even to this day.