Written by Jennifer K. Hancock
This article appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.7
Reprinted from the June 2002 issue of The American Quarter Horse Racing Journal. Ray Hunt offers more help for horses that are having problems with their people and their environment.
As the beautifully conformed sorrel stallion steps from the barn, you can tell by the way he struts that he’s a descendant of Quarter Horse racing’s royalty. A possible pin-up, he just looks the part-he looks fast.
Two years earlier, TR Dasher’s racing career had started with such promise-in his first out, he daylighted the field by 1 1/2 lengths. He qualified to eventual champion Dashing Knud’s Ed Burke Futurity (G1)-but finished ninth after bobbling the break-and ended his freshman campaign earning black type by winning the Mr Jet Moore Handicap.
As a 3-year-old, he ran third in the El Primero del Ano Derby (G2). After winning his Governor’s Cup Derby (RG1) trial, he veered at the start of the final and finished eighth. Just $41 shy of the $50,000 mark and after qualifying to several graded stakes, it’s safe to say that TR Dasher has not lived up to his fullest potential.
Flash forward to 2002 and Frontera Training Center in Sunland Park, New Mexico. Muscles bulging, head held high and feet prancing, the son of First Down Dash was about as far from relaxed as the Atlantic Ocean is from New Mexico.
Now he’s coming out of the barn, speed potential oozing from his very being. But so is a dominant will. Invading the space of his handler-no matter the size-the stallion is not at ease in the follower’s role. Oddly enough, he isn’t at peace as the leader either. He needs the security that a handler often provides, but obviously doesn’t feel safe enough to let his guard down.
At the end of the lead line, trainer John Stinebaugh, who recently welcomed the horse to his barn, explains that once in the starting gate the horse attempts to lie down and thrash about, which is not the best way to utilize all those speed genes.
TR Dasher is by no means alone. The starting gate is a menacing, confining, scary place for many racehorses. From champions to claimers, the unforgiving steel of the race portal, combined with the excitement of the impending sprint, causes fear and misbehavior in many racers. One bad experience-a false break, a horse flipping in the next stall or painful treatment from an assistant starter-can nearly ruin a racehorse’s career and the hopes of the connections.
Enter Ray Hunt
At the AQHA Starters Workshop at Sunland Park, the noted horseman offered a simple-in theory at least-solution for problem gate horses: Return to basics.
In TR Dasher’s case, Hunt suggests that the horse’s woes are related to his dominant nature and that returning to step one-re-establishing ground rules-would help the horse regain his confidence and overcome his fears. While this might seem a paradox, it gets back to the nature of a horse: Horses are herd animals and naturally defer to a strong leader.
Preparing the Horse
The horse does not display aggressive, unruly stallion behavior such as pawing or biting, but he is trying to manipulate his handlers by encroaching in their space, making them walk in circles and change course in attempts to control him and his movements.
“He’s not a mean horse, he’s gentle,” Hunt says of TR Dasher. “You talk about desire to do things-a lot of that is working against us and him. But it isn’t because he’s lazy. He doesn’t know how to put it to work for him. It all works against him.
“I don’t want to kill that desire to get something done, but you’ve got to make something useful out of it,” Hunt continues. “You don’t kill it, or he’ll just care less. You try to turn it into desire and make something worthwhile out of it. You want that determination, that grit.”
Hunt makes the point that horses need to be prepared for their jobs. Being easily handled does not take away a horse’s speed. Preparing a horse to load into the starting gate and relax, enables him to perform his job-running fast.
Hunt suggests that the simple act of taking the horse back to the barn after a workout or bath affects his attitude and ultimately his performance.
“Make sure you lead him and that he doesn’t lead you,” Hunt says. “When you let him lead, it encourages him to take over. Make him stand back. It might take five or ten minutes longer, but that’s all right. I’m taking the horse to the barn, the horse is not taking me. If you go with him when he is tugging, you teach him to lean on you and go. You mean well by it, but you are reinforcing his bad habits. It’s little teeny things that make all the difference in the world.”
Spend a minute on the backside and you are sure to see handlers with death grips on the leads, applying constant pressure to their horses that are about to walk all over them.
“You shouldn’t have to hold him,” Hunt says of the horse, even racehorses. “You should only need to put a halter rope on him to bring him in. Just snap the rope in the halter and let the rope swing loosely when you are walking.”
Every team needs a leader, including the human-equine team. The handler should fill this leadership role. Hunt emphasizes that the horse is not a slave, but that the human is the boss and if you are going to accomplish anything together, the human must lead. And that means setting boundaries and standards.
The horse that is allowed to run over the handler going back to the barn will soon transfer that dominant behavior to other areas of his life.
“You think you’ve got to hold the horse, but you don’t have to,” Hunt explains. “You’ve got to have a feel-a feel following a feel, not pressure against pressure. That’s what happens in the starting gate, pressure against pressure. We don’t really think about it in that manner, but the horse does because he learns what he lives. He learned it the way he lived it.”
Hunt says that horses have memories second only to elephants. Luckily, he quickly adds, they are also one of the most forgiving animals. Past mistakes can be overcome, although not instantly.
Dancing With Horses
Hunt compares the human-equine relationship to a dance between a man and a woman.
“If I was going to dance with a lady, I wouldn’t just grab her and say we’re going-I’d get slapped,” Hunt reasons. “A lot of people don’t understand that you are trying to get the horse to turn loose in the same way. There’s a place in there where he turns loose and then you give. I feel of him, I feel for him, and we both feel together.
“It’s the preparation to the position for the transition,” he continues. “I’m trying to get my idea to become the horse’s idea. It’s not like turning a dial that is going to work today. It’s what led up to today that you need to change. It’s the little things that make the difference.”
After first meeting TR Dasher, Hunt begins to show the stallion a few new dance moves. Hunt fashions a halter out of his rope so that the horse will be better able to feel the pressure and release.
He begins to re-establish ground rules by asking the horse to back up, step forward and perform other simple tasks. This is the first step in forming trust with the horse.
Although the horse shows his anxiety about being near the gate by rearing, Hunt never reprimands or strikes the horse for the behavior. He does make the wrong behavior difficult, though, by applying pressure to the halter. When the horse calms and stands still, the pressure is released. Striking the horse most likely would reinforce the horse’s fear.
“You can work with the horse, where the horse is at that moment, at that second,” he says. “That’s adjusting to fit a situation. That’s where the human has trouble-adjusting. Those situations can be every split second, not just every other day. Every split second can be different, and we need to understand how to work with it.”
While not worrying about the amount of time that it takes, Hunt allows TR Dasher to examine the gate and work through some of his fears.
“We’re breaking the ice,” he says. “It’s basics again. When the horse builds confidence in himself, the first thing that you know, you just offer it and he says, ‘I can handle this.’ Build confidence, don’t tear it out. In a human being-or anything with a mind-when you go to forcing them, you’re going to lose. You direct and support, but you don’t push.”
Once in the starting gate, the stallion-with nervous muscles quivering-reverts to his learned behavior and attempts to lie down. With the back gate left open, the horse is allowed to exit the chute. On a subsequent loading, Hunt has seminar participants rub the horse’s back, hips and head to desensitize the horse to the environment and help him relax.
“The human will let the horse down by putting a time limit on it,” Hunt warns. “Taking extra time is a shortcut in the long run.”
The following day, TR Dasher and Hunt meet in the round pen-far from the obvious problems of the starting gate. Hunt plans to address the underlying issues of the dominant behavior.
Early in the session, the horse streaks around the round pen and tries to be as far from Hunt as physically possible. Hunt patiently waits for the horse to release some of his energy and excitement before beginning work.
With his head held high, TR Dasher appears to not even acknowledge Hunt’s presence, but yet with every move that Hunt makes the horse responds.
Hunt is careful to never make a move or ask the horse for something that he is not prepared to back up. If he wants to make the horse change direction by turning to the outside, he sets TR Dasher up for success by positioning his body closer to the wall so that the horse’s instincts would drive him to turn away from Hunt and toward the center of the pen.
Reasoning that the horse was reacting negatively to his body touching the sides of the starting gate, Hunt used his lariat to help the horse work through the mental anxiety of something touching-i.e., putting pressure-on his body.
“He needs to find out there’s not anything in that gate to be alarmed by and that the gate is not going to hurt him,” Hunt says. “He thought that rope was going to hurt him, but it didn’t and he accepted it. We didn’t make him accept it. We had to work at it, and he was working pretty hard. I could have done too much and made it worse.
“All I was doing was making the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy,” he states. “I was making it difficult for him not to accept the rope. I wasn’t going to make him accept it. Sometimes I had to do quite a bit because if I let him run on by, then he would learn to take over. Backing off encourages a horse, a dog or a child to do what you don’t want.”
Easy versus difficult is the key: Give the horse a choice, but be sure to create situations that let him know what you want him to do is the best choice for him. As Hunt stresses continually, make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.
And always-always-reward the horse for trying. Especially at first, you are not looking for the horse to do everything you want and everything right. Let him know that you recognize and appreciate effort in the right direction.
“You’re not going to turn a dial on them and get it today, but you can get some changes,” Hunt says. “The more he changes, the more he likes it, the more he looks for it and pretty quick he’s hunting it up. Fix it and let him find it.
“Keep in mind what you are working toward-getting him in the starting gate,” Hunt suggests. “You might not get him in today, but when you feel he tries-which is a plus toward that-you can put him away. Quit on pluses, don’t quit on minuses. That’s negative, always quit on positives. He will never forget about it. Build on positive things. When he finally wants to do things for you, that’s building confidence in him. By doing too much you can take that confidence out. You’ve got to work from the horse’s point of view.”
In the beginning, the tall round pen walls were barely strong enough to hold TR Dasher and his desire to escape Hunt’s presence. In the end, with absolutely no strings-or ropes-attached, TR Dasher couldn’t get close enough to the man who had gained his trust and built back his confidence.
Workshop For Starters
Prompted by a classified ad seeking an assistant starter—no experience necessary—AQHA created the Starters Workshop.
Starters from tracks in Arizona, Wyoming, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas and New York, as well as racing commissioners, stewards, track officials and industry representatives participated in the inaugural event March 27-28. Held at New Mexico’s Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino and Frontera Training Center, the two-day seminar featured master horseman Ray Hunt and was endorsed by the Association of Racing Commissioners International and the North American Pari-Mutuel Regulators Association.
Both days, Hunt displayed his methods during schooling hours at the track and worked one-on-one in the afternoon with horses and horsemen at Frontera. On the second day, representatives from Arizona’s True Center Gate Company demonstrated a laser positioning system to accurately place the starting gate during time trials, and a roundtable discussion allowed participants to share ideas and concerns.
Frank Lamb, executive director of the North American Pari-Mutuel Regulators Association, started a colt at a Ray Hunt clinic three years ago.
“I had to pay $500 to attend, and I had to ride my own horse,” Lamb remembers. “I thought, How dumb am I? But after I got done, I said that it is the best $500 that I have ever spent in my life.”
Lamb’s early career included time on the gates.
“When I was 20 years old, you couldn’t have told me that I didn’t know how to lead a horse, but I’m just now learning,” he continues.
“The more people that begin thinking this way, the better off we are going to be. If I d had known when I was working on the gate that there was another way, my life would have been a lot easier and it would have been a lot easier on the horses I was working with. I m thrilled that Ray has taken the time to do this. I think that it is real important for the horses and this business. It can’t be business as usual.”
The dialogue began in New Mexico and will continue in Oklahoma.
Following the success of the first seminar, AQHA teamed with the Oklahoma Quarter Horse Racing Association to present another Starters’ Workshop May 7-8 at Remington Park in Oklahoma City. Bob Duncan—the starter at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga in New York, who schooled with Ray Hunt in Fort Worth—will be the featured speaker in Oklahoma.
This article appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.7