Ray Hunt , one of the most renowned horse trainers the world has ever known, passed away March 12, 2009. In a career that spans several decades, Ray's teachings have influenced people from every kind of riding discipline. At the same time, his message can be elusive, and he is sometimes misunderstood, especially by those who have had just a brief look at part of a clinic, or have simply heard of him from someone who tried to sum up what Ray's about. As far as I know, no one's ever been able to do that, because no matter how accurately his message is told, there's always something more. Ray Hunt's life has touched to many many lives, and he has quite literally transformed the world of horsemanship.
I remember the first time I saw Ray Hunt, back in 1993. He was standing against a pickup, surrounded by a growing crowd of folks who had questions for him. He stood there, unimposing in his jeans and worn chaps, speaking in axioms with an old-timer's kind of country twang that rang a comfortable familiarity in me, like the aroma of bacon frying and black coffee brewing just before dawn. "You see, the horse knows." He paused, his blue eyes twinkling. "He knows that you know. And he knows that you know that he knows." There was a hush through the crowd, a kind of natural reverence like at night the way frogs go silent when a coyote howls. The people there were dressed variously, with Stetsons, baseball caps, and even a couple of beach-straws; but each eye carried the same look of longing and deep passion for what could be possible if this man's truth were true. "The horse - he's is a living, feeling, decision-making animal. He's willing to learn, but you've got to show him. So you make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy. You just fix it up, and let him find it. Notice the smallest change and the slightest try." These words would echo again each time I met Ray, and yet each time they would bring a new and deeper meaning.
I took Ray's colt class, and on the second day I rode a little colt who had bucked me off twice prior to the clinic. Here with Ray, riding him worked out fine, although he didn't get the lope when the others did. "I just can't seem to make him lope," I asked. Ray shook his head. "You've gotta watch out for that word make," I had no idea what he meant. "You don't make him lope; you let him find the lope. You offer it to the horse so that it becomes his idea. You always give the horse a way out, so that it's his choice to do it." His answer had nothing to do with technique, with how I was asking for the lope, but he was suggesting that I change my attitude so that I looked at what I was asking of the horse as something I was offering, as "fixing things" to make it easy for him to find it. This way, I was helping my horse. Gradually, something started to unravel inside me.
What was most compelling about Ray was the easy relationship he had with his horse. He called it respect, but when Ray spoke of respect, it brought a new dimension to the word -- an awareness that the human was no better than the horse, just different. And the horse was no better than the human. Like apples and tomatoes -- you can't really say one is more important than the other. If you're a hamburger, you may like tomatoes better, or if you're a fruit salad, you may like apples better. But that doesn't mean that one is better than the other. Each one is just uniquely what it is.
What he was getting at, I knew was true, but did I really believe it? Did I really believe that I was no better than the horse? No doubt that I was in love with the horse, they were my joy and my passion, and I'd rather ride them than do just about anything else. But had I looked at the horse as an equal whose wants and desires, pain and suffering were no more or no less important than mine? Or was I still influenced by a deeply rooted belief system learned subconsciously in childhood from perhaps nothing more than an offhand remark implying that the horse has no feelings, or a heredity genetic code centuries old that says "No, he's only just a horse"? If I really believed that I was no better than the horse, then I'd see that the projects and agendas we humans have, really have no more or no less importance than the horse's agenda of chewing through the fence boards to get to fresh grass. Of course, it may not be appropriate for him to chew down the fence, so it's up to me to let him know by making that real difficult for him. And if I'm going to survive riding him, it won't work for him to step on me or kick me or buck me off or crawl on top of me. On the other hand, I'm not going to ask him for something that would put his life in danger. Once we know that about each other, we can get along. According to Ray, "It's live and let live."
Ray was on foot, working with a little colt to get him used to a rope. The colt had started out to be real troubled by the rope, but within a short time, he began to take on a look of serene contentment that said Its okay just to be here and hang out. There were questions from the crowd, and Ray began his answers, "The horse is honest, you see. He can kick you and buck you off and that's an honest approach. The human - that's something else. But the horse -- he's straight. And he'll come through, if you allow it. You've got to allow him to learn. Just keep fixing it up, and let him show you what he can do. Notice the smallest change, and the slightest try. You make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy. Adjust to fit the situation. It's feel, timing, and balance. That's about all there is to it." He paused. "Except there's one other thing in there that makes it all work. And I don't know what that is." Ray's words kinda soaked into the crowd, and then a silence melted over us, indistinguishable from the penetrating rays of the noonday sun. Something that was clearly nameless and indescribable that no question could reach was that one thing that we were all after. Ray gave a little pat to the colt, who stood there relaxed and motionless with his head dropped and his lips soft and full. "Let's get some lunch," Ray said.
A group of us went to a nearby restaurant. I was thinking how glad I was that the one thing couldn't be packaged and put on a menu and ordered up like some brand of beer. It was real though; and it could be known, but only in the moment. It was something to watch for, like a meteor, or, with enough feel, timing and balance, perhaps a meteor shower. The important thing was to keep watching. The waiter saw that I was far away and patiently asked me again what I wanted. I looked over to where Ray was, and gestured. "I'll have what he's having," I told him, making a private little joke to myself. And then I made myself a promise -- that the next time Ray Hunt came to town, I would be there!
Photos by O'Brien (805) 649-1121