Written by Sylvana Smith
Being Worthy of the Horse—
Thoughts on Humility in Horsemanship
A Five-Part Report on Ray Hunt’s Colt-Starting and Horsemanship Clinic
Hosted by Linda Hoover and Karen Miller
Southern Pines, NC – October 23-26, 1999
Dominance, force, punishment, and “alpha” status are popular themes in horsemanship. Yet profound results are achieved when the human stops perceiving himself as superior to the horse, and explores partnership instead of dominance, willing cooperation instead of force, guidance instead of punishment, and mutual respect instead of “alpha” status.
Sound impossible or improbable? Every year hundreds of horses and riders prove the possibilities at Ray Hunt’s horsemanship clinics throughout the US., Canada, Australia, and Europe. In the last 30 years, Ray has started more than 10,000 colts without gimmicks or sorcery, and encouraged countless more humans to rethink their model of horse-human interaction.
I was privileged to get to start a friend’s lovely two-year-old filly at Ray Hunt’s clinic weekend before last-four glorious days on the Carolina Horse Farm in North Carolina’s Sandhills horse country. The clinic, hosted by Linda Hoover and Karen Miller, included a colt-starting session in the morning and horsemanship session for riding horses in the afternoon.
Since I had ridden in several horsemanship clinics in recent weeks—and it had been a few years since I’d started a youngster—I wanted to do something different. My youngest homebred is eight this year (I started her under saddle at Buck Brannaman’s colt-starting clinic six years ago), so I didn’t have a youngster of my own. But in Southern Pines horse country, it wasn’t too hard to find and borrow a 2-year-old to take to the colt-starting clinic!
So, on Friday afternoon I met my young charge, a very nice cutting-bred AQHA filly by Smoking Gun Johnnie by Mr. Gunsmoke. The filly and I had an hour or so together on the farm to get acquainted and work on basic groundwork and trailer-loading, then she and I set off to the clinic site to get settled in for four days of intensive quality time together.
If you’re planning on heading to a clinic with Ray, let me forewarn you as my friends forewarned me. Check your ego at the door. Ray makes it no secret he’s there for the benefit of the horse, not to amuse or flatter the humans. He also makes it no secret he views the horse as superior to the humans in a multitude of ways, and claims he’s only known one man equal to the horse.
I gathered he meant no equal in generosity of spirit, awareness, sensitivity, and good character. But Ray would go further than that: “Horses are so smart. Smarter than the human. I wish I could brag more on the human, but I can’t,” he’s fond of saying.
And if you’re planning on going to one of his clinics, don’t plan on pretending to be anything you’re not”. The horse is a mirror, it goes deep into the body,” Ray said. “When I see your horse I see you too. It shows me everything you are, everything about the horse.”
Gulp. What will my new equine friend say about me? Should I have had a T-shirt printed up that said, “She’s not my horse! I just met her!” But the filly was such a gem that no T-shirt was necessary.
So, the challenge is laid before us during the opening lecture on Day One: to try to become worthy of this noble animal on the other end of the halter rope.
Now, some folks might bristle at the implication that the horse deserves our humility. Or that he’s a sensitive, thinking, feeling, decision-making animal. But anyone willing to hear that message will surely admit that the horse is a fine teacher indeed, when he is allowed to participate in the conversation.
“When the horse is in trouble and the human doesn’t know how to help him, the human lets his pride get in the way and the first thing you know – it’s a contest,” Ray told the group. “The human makes it a win or lose situation, and if you’re not real careful, the horse comes out the winner. The horse doesn’t know what win or lose is, or what a contest is, until the human shows it to him,”
That meant we were constantly encouraged, lectured, even berated, to remember that we have to improve ourselves if we intend to “improve” the horse.
“The human is so busy working on the horse, that he doesn’t allow the horse to learn,” Ray said. “They need to quit working on the horse and start working on themselves. They might get it done, but they don’t get it done with the horse in the right frame of mind. The horse usually gets the job done in spite of us, not because of us.”
“You don’t make him learn, you set it up to allow him to learn. Set it up so he can figure it out. You have to give him that dignity., Once you start giving, you won’t believe how much you get back.”
Thoughts on Humility in Horsemanship—Part Two
DAY ONE, Ray Hunt Colt-Starting Clinic—Preparatory Groundwork and Saddling
Day One started with a lecture and question-and-answer session to clarify the fundamental concept of humility that is so central to the horse-human irteraction—the notion that to get to the essence of what’s inside the horse, you have to put your ego aside. Gala from California phrased it well in a post on the rec.equestrian discussion group:
“I see horse training theory as a continuum with 1) “breaking the horse’s spirit” on the one end, 2) what most folks do in the middle, and 3) the “connection” that Dorrance and Hunt talk about on the other end. Line up this continuum alongside one that addresses human ego: 1) total ego involvement, 2) pretty ego involved, and 3) humble.
When Dorrance [and Hunt] talk about working on yourself, this is what they mean, that you can’t truly connect with a horse if you can’t be humble. When I hear people blame a horse for their (the person’s) mistakes, when I hear people espouse “their” way as the only way, I know they haven’t reached #3 on either continuum. “
So, how does this theory translate into action? In practical terms, it meant a lot of things that we would be exploring in the next four days, for instance: setting up training encounters such that the horse has a chance to invest in the process. “Don’t try to make him learn,” Ray told the group repeatedly. “Set it up so he can work it out for himself. Let him work at it. Make the wrong thing difficult, and the right thing easy”.
“Learn to forgive mistakes. Eventually, wrong things will fade into the background and good, new things will come forward. Its like playing music by ear. There are some good notes and some sorry ones. You try to get by the sorry notes to the good ones and build on them.”
“When things don’t work out as you’d like them to, then back off and don’t let pride and ego get in the way. The horse doesn’t know how to do what you’re asking. The human labels it, ‘He doesn’t WANT to,’ Do not put a time limit on it. Encourage what you’re asking to become his idea.”
Ray also told us to acknowledge the innate sensitivity and awareness of the horse.” The horse is very sensitive. He can feel a fly land on him. I know you all know this, because you put fly spray on your horses. He can feel a fly land on him, yet you’re tugging on him, pulling on him like he weighs a million pounds. You’re not working with what nature gave you; you’re destroying what nature gave you.”
Now, I’d been forewarned that Ray could be gruff, even fierce, so I turned generalized criticisms such as this over in my mind as helpful advice, not necessarily directed at anyone in particular, or at everyone. “If the shoe fits, wear it,” Ray told us several times. “If it doesn’t, I wasn’t talking to you anyway.”
So, armed with some introductory ideas about the value of manners, the importance of approaching the horse with awareness, the absolute requirement for humility, and more, we went into the round pen one by one to saddle our colts. Ray worked with each colt from his saddle horse, checking things out before handing it back to the owner to saddle. Since most of the clinic participants had done preparatory work, and a few of the horses had been even ridden a bit, this process moved along pretty quickly.
Now. as an English rider, I’m not overly handy with those heavy Western saddles, with all that debris hanging off ’em, so I pictured I’d be the one whose breast-strap and cinch and latigo and halter-rope became one big tangle while my filly leapt around me. But a kindly cowboy at ringside took pity on my haphazard set-up and showed me how to neatly fold the latigo, secure up the cinch and breast collar, and have a tidy package to swing over my filly’s back for her first saddling experience.
She was no problem at all, seemed nonchalant about her first-ever saddling, even when I cinched up to Ray’s specifications, much snugger than I would have done on my own. But the colts were soon to be turned loose, as a group, to be flagged in the arena. It was imperative that no saddles slide under young bellies!
One by one, the 13 colts were saddled and turned loose to experiment with carrying their new tack. Some, like Dove Bar, were more concerned about grazing. Some delighted in the opportunity for carousing with new buds. Some tried dislodging their distasteful burdens and discovered that they might as well get over it.
When all the colts had been saddled and turned loose, Ray flagged them as a group, looking for soft, non-impulsive upward transitions, soft expressions, and a general sense that they were getting comfortable about carrying their saddles. Humans then took a lunch break while the horses pondered their new circumstances, wearing their saddles and socializing in the big arena.
After lunch, we worked through basic halter-rope exercises, such as (1) circles with the horse light in hand and volunteering the appropriate lateral bend, (2) taking up the halter rope and stepping in toward the horse’s haunches to step the hindquarters laterally across, (3) yielding the forequarters across, (4) backing with a soft feel on the halter, (5) tossing the rope lightly over the saddle, (6) leading the horse by the halter rope wrapped around one pasten, (6) flipping the lead rope to the other side, completely around his haunches, and swiveling him laterally away from us, and more.
My filly was laterally fairy soft, and untroubled about ropes being swung and wrapped anywhere around her body, so I focused more on the exercises she needed most: backing, dropping her head, and stepping the forequarters laterally away from me. She’d had a little experience crowding while being led, and these exercises worked magic for restoring that nice bubble of personal space between horse and human.
Finishing the day with daylight to spare, I drove to Dove Bar’s home, saddled up the owner’s lovely 4-year-old Thoroughbred mare, and enjoyed a glorious trail ride in the Foundation with their daughter riding my intrepid pony, Roadie.
Thoughts on Humility in Horsemanship—Part Three
DAY TWO, Ray Hunt Colt-Starting Clinic—Riding with the Halter and Halter Rope
Day Two started early for Dove Bar and me, as did every day of the clinic. Each day I’d plan on getting to the clinic site to have her in the round pen by 8:00am for a little one-on-one time. We’d work on “hooking on,” a deceptively simple yet powerful exercise done with the horse at liberty.
In a nutshell: I’d drive her with alert or forward-moving body language when she was hollow, distracted, unconnected—and lure her with soft, semi-retreating body language when she showed signs of starting to connect: an ear flipped back, the bulge in her neck and jaw diminishing, a glance in my direction, tipping her head in my direction, or stretching her topline down and round.
This was actually an easy process each morning, almost a formality, since the filly has been lovingly home-raised by knowledgeable horse-folks. She needed a few moments to stretch out playfully after a night in the stall, a few moments to check out the surroundings and distractions, and within 10 minutes or so she would soften and step her hindquarters across, the horse’s way of saying, “I’m ready to be with you now.”
As each day went by, we built on the exercise to improve her driving. I’d not only look for her to come in to me softly, but to move on out through all upward transitions softly. On Day One, she was sticky moving out into the walk, resistant moving into the trot, and snaked her head with pinned ears at each request to move up into a lope. But the round pen work is a charm; with only 10 minutes each morning, these things had all smoothed out by Day Four.
So, a total of 40 minutes in the round pen to achieve the little goals I had set out for us. Shouldn’t I have stuck with it for 40 minutes on Day One and be done with it? Nope, Ray said, answering my question about his choice to leave off with another colt at a point that didn’t look really-really soft, I thought. “Are you the sort of person who would expect everything to be perfect on Day One?” I shook my head no, but I don’t think Ray believed me. “You would expect everything to be perfect on the first day, but in trying that, you’d just make it worse. It’s better than it was. That’s good enough.”
“As time goes on, all the little things will fall into line. We should be adjusting to fit the horse. Fix it up and let it work. You can’t make it happen and you can’t put a time limit on it. You can just set it up to enable him to learn. Sometimes the slower you go, the faster you learn.”
That philosophy at first seems counterintuitive, but it works so darned well that it’s hard to argue. Notice and reward little changes, be willing to give a little, and soon the horse is giving you more than you expected.
“You need to notice the horse making little changes for the better. Expression is extremely important. The horse has body expression and mental expression. You must learn to read the horse’s expression. The horse has multitudes of actions and reactions.”
On Day Two we saddled our colts and turned them loose in the big arena by 9:00 am. Ray flagged them a bit, checking out the way they moved through upward and downward transitions and carried their saddles. Then one by one, we went into the round pen to mount up, under Ray’s watchful eye and with our halter-rope in his hands.
We were to swing up close to the horse (so as not to pull him off-balance), lean over the saddle, and check out his reaction to swinging the fender of the off-side stirrup. If this went quietly, we could gently swing the right leg over and settle into the saddle, and Ray would lead us in a short pony ride while we did nothing but stroke our colts on the neck and go with them.
At this point, our mounts were wearing their knotted rope halters, no bridles, and we had only one halter rope to use as a rein. Reach way out and pull to the left to tip his head left. Flip the rope over his head and pull right to tip his head right. But at first we weren’t supposed to be guiding anyway, just showing the colts that they can move their feet with these big nervous humans on their backs. ;-)
This scene is pretty comical when 14 horses are packed into one small round pen, and only one of us has any substantive control! It looks like a bumper car ride at the amusement park, pretty unorthodox, but the horses seem to be comforted by this chaotic scene.
On this first day, we walked and jogged en masse in the round pen. It would be nice to set a course, but in reality, the ride is a weebly-wobbly meander as we try to flip the halter ropes over our horses’ heads.., and get them snagged on ears, draped around muzzles and hooked on each other.
But that’s okay, because the objective of the first day’s ride is to get the colts used to all this, and not to over-guide them and inhibit their forwardness, and certainly NOT to clamp up on them with two reins. The wiggly lines soften and relax the horses, and the absurdity of our situation seems to make the riders less worried about the fact that they’re actually RIDING their youngsters, most of them for the first time.
One by one, Ray flagged our colts from his saddle horse to ask them to yield the hindquarter and forequarter, and that done, we were dismissed to meander and wriggle our way around the big arena, still with only one halter rope that we were to flip over the horse’s head every time we wanted to change course.
It sounds simple, but it’s a trick to feed out enough rope to clear the horse’s face, then gather up enough rope to guide when needed, anticipate the moves of the young wiggle-worms beneath us, and do it all in a brisk wind that foiled many of my throws! I yearned for my snaffle bit and mecate set-up, and not until Day Three did we get to make that leap.
Thoughts on Humility in Horsemanship—Part Four
DAY THREE, Ray Hunt Colt-Starting Clinic—Riding with the Snaffle Bit and Mecate
For English riders who aren’t familiar with the gear recommended in Ray Hunt’s clinics, the mecate is a length of pliable rope (mecate just means “rope” in Spanish) looped through leather straps known as “slobber straps” hanging from the bit. The result is a continuous rein from one side of the bit to the other, plus a convenient built-in lead rope (which has a leather popper on the end that makes it a handy built-in energizer, if necessary). The weight of the rope, combined with the slobber straps on the bit, make it possible to cue the horse without actually taking up the slack in the reins, an ideal to work toward.
On Day One and Day Two, we had been getting our colts accustomed to having us feel around their muzzles, slip a finger between their lips, run the halter rope into their mouths. So by Day Three, when invited to introduce the bit, the colts didn’t make too a big deal out of it.
Dove Bar mouthed the bit actively for a while, so I was advised to snug the bit up a little more than usual to reduce the chance that she’d discover how to get her tongue over the bit. By the second day with the bridle, her mouth was quiet, and on her third ride with the bridle, I dropped the bit down a hole on each side.
On this Day Three of the clinic, we started the day saddled up, bridled up very soon thereafter, and had nearly two hours to ride in a group in the arena at a walk and jog, coast into downward transitions with weight of seat or perhaps a light feel on one rein (not two reins yet), and ride gentle wavy lines or sweeping half-circles to change direction.
Again, we were cautioned against over-guiding them, reminded to NOT pick up on two reins yet, urged to have patience and not expect too much, and to support our youngsters as much as possible as they explored their new jobs.
“Sit down and melt into the saddle to stop. The horse feels the human. Energy translates to the horse—as does lack of it,” Ray told the group. “Work on moving those feet around, the hind end, the front end.” … “Always look for small changes when working the horse. These are tries. Give an immediate release.” … “These changes of expression mean that the horse is getting softer” .. “You’re directing the life in the body to the feet, drawing the mind.” .. “You may have to do something to get some changes, but don’t do enough to get them afraid. You don’t want them afraid.”
By keeping things busy without being frenetic, the colts settled and focused. On Day Three our group ride may have looked a little inelegant but also not dramatic!
That evening, our clinic hosts had arranged a party at a family restaurant in Raeford, which turned out to be great fun. The food was surprisingly good for being such an unassuming place, the company was the BEST… kindred spirits all.
After dinner we played an interesting party game where one person is the “trainer,” one person is the “horse,” the emcee selects a task-like stand on your left foot, or hug the plastic tree. The trainer has to guide the horse to do the task only by saying, “good,” when the horse is making a try in the right direction.
It was an interesting dramatization of how frustrating it must be for the horse to search for what we want, not knowing the desired result, and often being told “good” a second or two too late, just enough off-timing to really confuse the issue. I stretched the rules a bit, by subtly leading my “horse” to the desired response, in addition to saying “good,” but heck, that’s what I’d do with a horse, right?
Thoughts on Humility in Horsemanship—Part Five
DAY FOUR, Ray Hunt Colt-Starting Clinic—Horsemanship Exercises
Day Four started crisp and breezy, with all the colts saddled up and turned loose in the big arena, while Ray shared more of his philosophy and strategy on a number of subjects.
On how long it takes to become a “horseman”..
“To understand the horse you’ll find that you’re going to have to work on yourself. This is life, this is reality, there is no rulebook on this and it’s damn hard to grasp because it comes from deep down inside. I’ve been trying my whole life, and I’m still working at it. I hope you get there before me, ’cause then you can help me out. But I owe it to the horse to work this hard.” … “It’s a hard thing to teach people, because you have to feel it,” . “It takes a lifetime to learn how to live a lifetime” “The first thing you need to know is the last thing you’ll learn.”
On what to do about “misbehaviors”..
“After a horse makes a move that you don’t want, don’t do anything about it. Just start over and know what he’ll do wrong the next time and catch it before it happens. He’s made an arrangement to do it, so then use it to fix it. Encourage the things you want. Discourage the things you don’t want.”
“This isn’t about making the horse learn, it’s about allowing him to learn. He maybe has to go through some troubled times in order to learn. They’re going to make mistakes while they learn. If you get too critical about mistakes, then they stop trying to work at figuring it out. Don’t worry if he doesn’t get it right at first. He just doesn’t know.”
“Don’t present things that are too hard to learn, don’t be arrogant. Allow the horse to learn his own way. Don’t worry, he’ll teach you if you let him, fix it up and let it work.”
On how much to do with youngsters…
“The lady asks when to start working with your colts? Well, I’d wait until their momma is done licking them off, for sure,” Ray said with a wry smile. “But then you can rub on ’em, pet on ’em, get ’em gentle. A month or two after they’ve been weaned, you might want to get them to where these horses are, pick up their feet, get them more gentle. I wouldn’t ride him a lot at two; a Iotta people are going too much with horses too young, it breaks them down.”
“Take it from where the horse is, not from where you want to be. I’ve worked with two-year-olds that had the mind of a five-year-old. And five-year-olds that had the mind of a two-year-old. The horse will let you know what he’s ready for.”
On pride and machismo..
“I’d rather help a horse that’s been worked by a woman than one that’s been worked by a man. Women tend to do not quite enough, but men, they try to do too much, make it a contest, and end up with a much bigger knot to undo.”
“The horse is a thinking, feeling, decision making animal…but the human always acts superior. He thinks he’s smarter; he always wants to have things his way and right now. He wants to be boss. If trouble comes up, he turns it into a contest with the horse. What I’m talking about developing with the horse is not dominating by fear, but more like dancing with a partner… the kind of dancing where his body and your body become one.”
After a half-hour of lecture, followed by question-and-answer session, we caught our colts, bridled up and mounted for a morning ride in the arena. Today, the challenges were coming up fast, and by the end of the morning the colts had done many of the same exercises that the afternoon Horsemanship group was doing.
Walking wavy lines, straight lines, half circles without losing the marching cadence. Soft halts cued by the rider’s weight settling into the saddle, or by picking up lightly on one rein. Bringing the forequarters across. Stepping the hindquarters across. Backing one step. Walking forward a designated number of steps, then back one step. Jogging in straight lines, wavy lines, sweeping half-circles without losing the energy.
“Don’t do too much at one time. Do a little bit olden,” Ray told, as he orchestrated a ride that mixed up the exercises frequently to keep the horses and riders fresh, alert, interested.
When this was going well, Ray make things even more interesting: had every other rider reverse direction, so half the group would be traveling clockwise and half the group going counter-clockwise. Then we walked and trotted, passing left shoulder to left shoulder. Then weaving in and out of the oncoming riders—to the left of one rider and the right of the next one—while everybody rode a wavy track.
Remember that we all had rudimentary turning at this point (and were riding youngsters who were sometimes alarmed at oncoming horses), so this exercise looked a little comical when the whole group got trotting! But that’s okay, because the exposure, the lateral movement, the group experience, were really the point here. Our group of two- and three-year-olds wasn’t trying out for the Royal Canadian Mounties drill team. Not yet, anyway.
Toward the end of the morning, Ray invited anyone who wanted, to “crowd the trot a little” and ease into a lope, not expecting the colts to hold the lope for any length of time, just carry a transition. I discovered that my filly had a delightfully smooth lope—just another virtue among many that she shared in that four-day clinic. She should be a joy as ridding horse.
At the end of the last day of the clinic, I took my little bay darling home to her owners and rode her in the Foundation with their daughter ridding my Roadie. It was gratifying to think that four days earlier, the two-year-old filly had gone away to camp as a blank slate, and that afternoon she was nonchalantly taking me for a walk-trot-canter trail ride.
I am most grateful to Dove Bar’s owners for giving me the clinic experience and allowing me the pleasure of their darling filly, I felt guilty accepting all their generosity, though, because as you might have guessed, it was a joy working with my little bay friend.
They’ve invited me to keep riding her (yippee), and to do whatever I want to try with her… cutting, team penning, hunter paces, hunter shows, eventing, whatever. Later, of course, as she’s only two, and not that I have all that much time to spare, what with five horses of my own, but it’s a terrific opportunity. ‘They’ve already picked out the long yearlings they want me to take to next year’s clinics.
Ray Hunt quotes
“Working with the horse is a way of life for me. He’s my livelihood, my hobby, my passion. If given a little thought, a little understanding, and a little common sense, the horse gives back in full measure. If the human can give 5%, the horse will come from the other side with 95%. The horse never ceases to amaze me with what he can get done with very little help from the human.”
“When the horse is in trouble and the human doesn’t know how to help him, the human lets his pride get in the way and the first thing you know – it’s a contest. The human makes it a win or lose situation, and if you’re not real careful, the horse comes out the winner. The horse doesn’t know what win or lose is, or what a contest is, until the human shows it to him.”
“I’d like help the human understand how much less he can use and how much more he can get done. The human is so busy working on the horse, that he doesn’t allow the horse to learn. They need to quit working on the horse and start working on themselves. They might get it done, but they don’t get it done with the horse in the right frame of mind. The horse usually gets the job done in spite of us, not because of us.”
“You need to notice the horse making changes for the better. Expression is extremely important. The horse has body expression and mental expression. You must learn to read the horse’s expression. The horse has multitudes of actions and reactions. They are all separate, yet inseparable. The horse will always tell you the facts. The horse is very honest. We can teach him to cheat by not filling in the blank spaces for him, but that comes from the human, not the horse.”
“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. We need to be more disciplined within ourselves so that we can present our objective to the horse in a way that he can understand. Allow them to learn; allow them to work at things; allow them to figure things out. Make the wrong thing difficult, the right thing easy.”
“As time goes on, all the little things will fall into line. A lot of times, it is darkest before the dawn. Sometimes the horse might get a little worse before it gets better. We should be adjusting to fit the horse. Fix it up and let it work. You can’t make it happen and you can’t put a time limit on it. Sometimes the slower you go, the faster you learn.”