Ray Hunt: The Cowboy Sage

Ray Hunt is an American sage, a cowboy who teaches riding as a path for both human and animal to realize their true nature.

Gretel Ehrlich
1 July 1998

Ray Hunt changed the relationship between rider and horse from a battle for dominance to a dance of gentleness, communication and mutual trust. Gretel Ehrlich profiles an American sage, a cowboy who teaches riding as a path for both human and animal to realize their true nature.

They are all young horses, two- and three-year-olds, untouched, unjaded, incomparably strong and innocent as they mill around a high-sided round pen on a ranch made of big fleshy hills with morning frost on the grass and a breeze strong enough to lift the sun up over the ridge. There’s a blue roan, a bay, and two sorrels, all quarter horses, and they’re snorting, sniffing, flicking their ears, trying to understand what is going to happen to them.

“They’re a little troubled, see, and when their minds are troubled then it shows in the body,” Ray Hunt says as he rides into a pen. “A horse will tell you what he understands and what he thinks about it. He’s telling you all the time, but you just don’t see it, you’re just not willing to go that far in his direction. That’s okay, but you’re not going to get too much back. To have a willing communication with a horse, you’ll find that first, you have to develop awareness and discipline within yourself so that you can have it with your horse later.”

Tall, raw-boned, leathery, Ray was raised on an Idaho farm with a father who used draft horses to plow, plant, and cut hay. He grew up the hard way and at various times, he picked fruit, hoed beets, and drove heavy equipment, anything to make money. But the work he was born to was cowboying: he rode the rough stock, the wild, untrained horses, on big outfits in northern Nevada where it was common to ride fifty miles a day. Now sixty-eight years old, he has given up the dream of owning his own ranch and devotes his days to teaching humans how to handle a horse, what used to be called “breaking colts.”

At some point in the year you can find a Ray Hunt clinic in Montana, California, Alberta, Texas, or on a remote cattle station in Australia. A clinic lasts five days. Mornings are for green colts, young, unridden horses; afternoons are called horsemanship classes, for people with horses that have been ridden fifteen or twenty times or so. Within a very short period of time an untouched colt will accept being caught, haltered, led, saddled and bridled (snaffle bits only) and ridden, and will learn the rudiments of backing smoothly, sliding to a stop, turning on a dime, and changing leads, in an atmosphere so quiet and unhurried it’s hard to believe anything has happened at all. When I asked Ray how he made this happen he smiled and said, “Oh, I just work with the mind.”

What Ray teaches has nothing to do with breaking, riding styles, horseshow events, or communing with nature. He’s so self-effacing, he’ll hardly admit that the best-selling book, The Horse Whisperer, and also the movie of that name, were based on Ray’s work with horses, as well as his student, Buck Brannaman, and the elder statesman of horse training, Tom Dorrance.

You only have to look at Ray to see that he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. “This isn’t just some commercial thing,” Ray says. “I wouldn’t do it. This is life. This is reality. There’s no rulebook on this and it’s damned hard to grasp because it comes from deep down inside. I’ve been trying my whole life and I’m still working at it. But when you do get it, pretty soon it starts coming back to you directly from the horse, and from then on it’s a continuous thing. There’s no end to what you can learn.”

Ray leans over and strokes a colt’s face with a big, gentle hand, then does the same to another horse, every gesture soft, but never sentimental. He moves easily between the animals, neither slow nor fast but with an even keenness that tells you everything about Ray and what he thinks a proper relationship between humans and animals should be. A toothpick rolls from one side of his mouth to the other. “To understand the horse you’ll find that you’re going to have to work on yourself,” he says matter of factly, in the same voice he might tell someone to pick up a bale of hay.

At the heart of Ray’s teaching are lessons about giving, discipline, awareness, compassion, stillness, concentration, and intelligence, the Buddhist paramitas spoken in a western dialect. But how did a rough-hewn cowboy learn these things? Ray answers: “It didn’t come easy. I didn’t just scrape off the top and there it was. I dug and dug and tore my hair out. But I owe it to the horse to work this hard, because I used to do things the true grit way. Not out of meanness. Just ignorance. I guess I saw too many Charlie Russell paintings. I didn’t know there was another way.”

The true grit way looked like this: a green horse was roped out of the remuda, led struggling into a round corral, and tied hard and fast to a snubbing post from which he struggled to get free. Then his front feet were hobbled, and a cowboy would come at him with two or three gunny sacks, waving them in his face. More terror and struggling, then a saddle was thrown on, cinched up tight. The line to the snubbing post was cut loose and the rider climbed on fast. Around and around they went, bucking and snorting, the cowboy pulling hard on the halter rope which only made the horse buck more. “That word ‘break’ wasn’t used innocently. To break the wild, snotty, swift, flamboyant spirit of the horse, that was the whole idea.” Domination and submission was the horseman’s goal.

A horse named Hondo made it necessary for Ray to change his ways. Hondo made it clear that Ray could be broken, but he, the horse, could not.

“Everything I know now started with that horse,” Ray said. “Hondo was a sticking, biting, kicking, bucking tough colt who might have killed me. Hondo would tell me, ‘Come on and try to break me, and I’ll break in YOU again.’ And he would have. But I had all winter to work on him. He was my only horse; without him, I was afoot. It was just him and me and I tried to put myself in his place. How did he get so afraid? What could I do to make him trust me? A horse that’s had trouble can’t believe a human will quit hurting them. I felt sorry for that horse who had to hold up his defense. You can’t blame him. I worked on him some and we got so I could get near him, then get on him. I’m not saying it was all love and kisses. You better believe it. Things could get pretty physical, pretty western. I’d go to bed at night and think about that horse, dream about him, then go back to work with him the next day.”

In the middle of the winter of 1960-61, Ray took Hondo to Tom Dorrance. “He’s a little old bow-legged cowboy, he’s the brain of it all. He can fix a horse so fast you never knew what happened. And who taught Tom? He says it was the horse. As soon as Tom came around me, Hondo would act like a lamb. And as soon as he left, I’d be riding a tiger again. I couldn’t understand. Something was going on but I couldn’t find it.

“See, I was too forceful. The timing was good but the mental feel of how it could be wasn’t there. I couldn’t visualize it and the yielding wasn’t there. The horse was afraid of me. I thought I had to hurt him to get him rideable.” Ray runs his wide hand down the neck of the horse he’s riding. “I knew it wasn’t right. And pretty soon, I learned that to get respect, I had to give respect.

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out because a horse is so big and strong, but there’s a difference between firm and forceful. And there’s a spot in there, inside the horse, an opening where there is no fear or resistance, and that’s what I began looking for.” By the end of the year Hondo was gentle, smooth, athletic, and kind to be around, a horse the grandkids could ride.

“You see,” Ray says, sorting through horses until just one remains in the pen. “You’re not working with just a machine, you’re working with a mind. The horse is a thinking, feeling, decision-making animal, and each one has a distinct personality. 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. But if you do that, watch out. You just may lose,” Ray says, his horse moving so nimbly through the pen, it looks like he’s floating.

“What I’m talking about developing with the horse is not dominating with fear, but more like dancing with a partner. It’s all balance, timing, rhythm, the kind of dancing where your body and his body become one.”Day One, Ray Hunt Clinic. Early morning. Steam floats off the creek that runs by as Ray works a young colt in the round pen. She is loose, no bridle, no saddle, no halter. Never tied up or restrained, she moves smoothly, trotting first one way, then the other. He wants her to loosen up first, to travel freely. Then he’ll get the mare to turn off the rail, stop, face the middle, look, and come to him.

“I’m doing some things now that will let the horse accept being caught. It’s awful hard to ride them if you can’t catch them first,” he says, grinning. The colt breaks into a lope, stops, tries to turn the other way, as a way of escaping, but Ray insists she keep going to the right. “See, I’m making the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy,” he says, watching her. “A horse gets sure and unsure, scared and bold; she says maybe, all right, I don’t know… But I’m going to show her that things can be all right.” Terror increases. The horse pokes her head over the top rail of the round pen, trying to jump out. Again, Ray urges her to keep moving. “All I do is operate the life in the body, through the legs to the feet, through the mind,” he says, never taking his eyes off her.

“Pretty soon she’ll come off that rail, she’ll turn loose and stop trying to escape.” As soon as he speaks, the horse stops, moves her hindquarters around and points her ears at Ray. “There’s a change,” he says, meaning she’s beginning to relax with things as they are.

The young mare resumes trotting for a few minutes, and again she stops, turns, and looks. Ray walks toward her. “I’ll see if she’ll let me pet her.” She stands as he strokes her head once, then she leaves. “That’s okay. I’m not going to make her stay. She’s still afraid I might hurt her and she needs to know she can escape. She’s telling me that she’s not quite ready for anything more.”

The colt moves off, traveling in the other direction. Her muscles are more relaxed and she has a calmer look on her face. “Pretty soon she’ll find out that things are going to be all right with me in here,” he says, and, as if by magic, the horse stops, pricks her ears, and walks calmly to Ray: sanctuary.

Ray doesn’t talk to horses, he makes each action count. He says, “It helps some people to talk to the horse but it doesn’t help the horse. The horse is already whoa, and easy, that’s a boy, so why talk about it? She feels it. It’s all feel.” When she gets frightened of his lariat as he puts a loop over her neck, Ray rubs her neck. Though he doesn’t talk to them, he does talk for them: “She’s saying, ‘I’m a little unsure about you touching my ears,’ so I’ll do it a few more times just so she’ll know nothing bad comes of it.”

Then she’s out on the rail again and trots around the pen, obviously bothered by the rope hanging around her neck: “She was born with her mane and tail, so she’s not afraid of it, but she’s afraid of this rope,” Ray says. Holding onto the coils, he slowly pulls on the rope to bring the colt to him. “It’s not a fighting pull, but a steady one.” She lunges at Ray and strikes at him with her front feet. Ray faces her and steps back quietly, keeping the pressure on the rope firm. “I’m teaching her to yield to pressure,” Ray explains. Not the brutal kind, but more like a telegraph that’s saying, Hey, come over here. The rope is taut, then she gives in. Her neck and shoulder muscles relax and, as she steps toward him, Ray throws slack in the loop. “Now she’ll see that it’s easier to walk over to me.” He strokes her head and her nose drops down onto his arm. Ray smiles.

For the next half hour he places the rope on different parts of her body, the rump, under the tail, around one front leg, around a back leg. She kicks, bucks, and squirms. “She can’t find any good thing about the human right now,” he says, patiently. “She’s allowing these things to happen, but she’s still not sure and I don’t blame her.” Very quickly the mare accepts the rope.

With the loop loosely around her neck, Ray bends her neck around, strokes her head, bends it the other way, pets her, moves her hindquarters until her front feet follow through, backs her a few steps, leads her forward. “This is so she’ll yield and be flexible and I’ll move with her. You see, a horse is much stronger than I am, but if I prepare her for dancing, not fighting, I may survive.”

He gets off his horse and gets a saddle blanket. He lets the horse see it, sniff it; he rubs her neck with it, under her belly, then puts it on her back. Next comes the saddle, not thrown on, but laid quietly on the horse’s back. “I don’t sneak my outfit on the horse, I put it on respectfully,” he says, tightening the cinch smoothly. The horse is turned loose in the pen. “It might take her a few minutes to get used to that saddle,” Ray says, his face and bearing unruffled when she lets out a few bucks, then lunges, strikes, bucks again, snorting each time. Ray watches calmly. “There’s a change,” he says, as she walks toward him working her mouth, a sign of relaxation in the horse.

“I give them a place where they can come to me. They see it in my body. But if they don’t, I let them go by, because they’re not ready for it yet.” The horse stops, thinks about leaving. Ray watches her. “That’s good with the mind, now here come the feet,” he says, and she “turns loose,” coming to him and standing quietly. He turns to the students watching him. “See, she had to check out a lot of things first. That doesn’t make her wrong. You wouldn’t punish a child for being afraid. She’s a thinking, feeling, decision-making animal. She knows my mind and I try to understand her and she knows I’m her friend.”

All morning he works in this way with six colts. Some are hard and resisting, spooky and fearful; others are quick to accept the rope, the human hands, the blanket and saddle, but have a more dulled sensibility. Ray picks up their feet, runs his hands over and under their bellies, moves them this way and that. Watching them, you begin to see that there is no “good or bad” behavior, and Ray is never critical. “I just keep trying to fix it up for them so they can find their way,” Ray says.

By the end of the first day Ray has worked with each colt. He has taught them something about trust by getting them to accept what is being offered to them; about how to be caught by making it uncomfortable to run away; about yielding to pressure, which means surrendering pride; about how to find sanctuary with the human.Day Two. Boisterous thunder in the morning and smoke-like clouds streaming off mountain peaks: it’s the scary day, the day to get on the colts and ride. Ray comes into the round pen on his gray mare and gathers his students around for a pep talk. His voice is deep, gravelly, slow.

“The horse knows. He knows the human twenty to one. It’s amazing how much he’ll get out of things, how he’ll fill in for as little as the human knows about him. How that horse can handle it has always been a mystery to me. Put yourself in his shoes to live your whole life where no one knows who you really are. Well, I haven’t met a human yet who compares to a horse,” Ray says. “A human couldn’t take it. See, you can get a horse to do something if you’re tough enough, just like you can with a human. But a willing communication is a different matter. You fix it so the horse can try, then you allow him to work it out. You have to give him that dignity. You make your idea his idea.

“I believe these colts, I trust them. I always trust they can buck too. Don’t think they won’t…. Just keep fixing it up and let them find it. Don’t try to make it happen. Prepare to position for the transition. The transition is the last thing that happens. And don’t try to be boss.”

Ray works with each colt much as he did the day before, bending them, showing them how to turn loose by applying a firm pressure and holding them there until he releases. The horses are calmer in his presence. He ropes a sorrel colt by the hind foot; the horse kicks and kicks. “Pretty soon, he’ll stay put,” Ray says, and the horse stops and pricks his ears. Ray throws slack in the rope. Releases him to go both ways. Where Ray finds resistance, he works with the colt until the body becomes untroubled.

“I don’t have a time limit on this. It might take a minute, it might take five years. Sometimes you have to keep offering different things. You don’t want to drag it out of them and kill their desire and grit; you just turn it around, you turn it into life,” he says as the young sorrel stops bracing against Ray and turns smoothly. “There he goes,” Ray says, making sure the students see the change.

Now he lays the rope over the horse’s rump. The horse kicks again. “He can live with that, he doesn’t think so, but he can, because it’s not hurting him.” Ray makes the horse go, then stops him. “Let him explore the end of the rope for a second, it’s part of the dance, and I’m leading.” Again he throws the rope on the sorrel’s rump; this time, no kicking.

Soon the colt is ready to ride. What makes Ray Hunt Clinics exciting is that the first day, the colts are ridden with no bridle. “It keeps you humble to ride a colt with nothing on their head,” Ray says. “It forbids you to try to control the horse and the horse feels that, boy does he feel it, and that’s the beginning of trust.”

The owner of the sorrel gelding, Jim, comes into the pen, catches halters, and saddles the horse. He stands in the stirrup. “If the horse can’t take it yet, step off, then step on, and pet him on the neck. He likes that, he wants to know everything is all right and I’ll bet you do too,” Ray says, grinning.

Jim finally throws his leg all the way over. Ray advises him: “You can pull that mane and tail out but don’t pick up on that halter rope…” The horse stands with his front legs apart, bewildered by the man on his back. “There you go, good luck,” Ray says, laughing. Then the colt blows up, jumping and snorting. The halter rein is flopping loose.

“If you pull on that rein, you’ve got a contest going,” Ray says, “and boy, you’ll be teaching that young innocent horse how to buck every time you get on. This way, he’ll get tired in a minute and find out it’s easier to be quiet.” Suddenly, the horse stops, trots for a moment, then hangs his head. Ray smiles.

The others start to get on their horses. “He says he’s ready,” Ray says, speaking for the horse, and hands a young woman the halter rope. A few crowhops, a half-hearted buck, then a slow trot over to the other horses. They stand placidly. “Is everyone fixed okay?” Ray asks. Everyone nods tentatively. He smiles, then turns them out into a big arena. The same rule applies: no using the halter rope for control. A few buck once, others hop, one runs to the end and trots back, others won’t move at all. “That’s looking good,” Ray says. Discipline, trust, tolerance, and respect have been put into practice. “Get them used to you, and they’ll accept you on their backs. You want to be just like the mane and tail.”

He rides down to the far end of the arena where the colts have congregated and begins to work on giving and vitality, the dana and virya paramitas, asking the riders to pick up the halter rope, bend the head one way, pet them, then bend the head the other way, and pet them again. “That softness is in there, it goes through the body, down the legs, to the feet, and back into the mind. It’s there and you just have to bring it out,” he says. “Get your colts to move now,” Ray instructs them. “Have a lively feel in your body and they’ll get one in theirs too.” The colts trot, lope, walk, then stop, as amazed as what has happened to them as the riders are. “That’s enough for one day. You want to stop in a good frame of mind, not after they’ve failed.”

At the end of the morning Ray gathers everyone around to tell a story: “A guy said, ‘There’s no use going to those Ray Hunt clinics, all he does is work with the mind.’ Well what the hell else is there? I like to think it’s 80% mind. You might have to do quite a bit physically, but once the mind is in tune, it takes almost nothing at all.

“What we’re doing with these horses isn’t a miracle. It’s just there and you have to bring it out. I don’t know how you are in your heart and your guts and your mind, but that’s where this comes from. Some of these colts had quite a bit of resistance in them. They had some hard spots and it was probably the human who put them there. You have to be patient. Do you know what that means? Respect and understanding. And sometimes you have to look deep inside the animal to see where the harmony is.

“Day Three. On this day the colts are ridden with snaffle bits. As Ray watches the students put the bridles on, he gives help here and there. “Here, warm that bit up a little, it’s like an ice cube,” he says, grasping the snaffle in his wide hand. He reminds them that although they now have a bridle on the horse’s head, it is not meant for control, only to send messages. “You’ve got to be precise. You have to have something in mind before you pick up on those bridle reins,” he warns them. The horses move out around the arena, first at a walk, then a trot with the bridle reins flopping. “Feel of the horse and for the horse,” he says as the riders whiz by. Develop compassion.

Then he begins working on dhyana and upaya, concentration and skillful means: “The reins should feel like silk in your hands,” he says. “There should be a float in them. You should feel weightless.” Horses and riders go around and around. He asks them to walk, trot, lope, stop, back, turn, do a snake, weaving in and out. “See how little you can do,” he keeps saying. “Bring the horse to a walk without using the reins. It should be in your body. See how slow and soft life can be without letting things die,” he says.

Horses trot by. “Now pick up a feel and speed them up. Don’t sit there like a gut shot bird,” he says to one rider. Laughter. “Your legs are more important than your hands,” he says, moving his own horse into a trot to demonstrate. He hardly moves in the saddle, yet the horse turns one way, then another, slows down, speeds up, stops. “When I’m on this horse he becomes my body, feet and legs. The reins are really hooked onto my feet and the horse is between my legs, arms, and hands. Don’t brace in the stirrups or he’ll brace back, and there’s a buck in his brace ….”

He continues to watch intently. “When I move my horse the impulsion comes from behind. Try to understand how important it is to know what is going on behind you, as well as what is going on in front of you. Ride the horse all the way through!” He lopes his horse forward, then around in a circle. The horse clamps her tail down as if she’s ready to buck. Ray grabs some mane, never the reins, and gives her something to do: ten figure eights, one way, then the other way, horse and man moving like a powerful engine. He stops her in the middle of the arena and she stands. “See she had something else on her mind so I took those ideas and turned them into something else without punishing her.”

Things in the arena get slightly chaotic but Ray has eyes in the back of his head. He knows where everyone is and what each horse is thinking. He asks the riders to count cadence, to tell him where each foot is as they trot by, and the dance begins. “It’s one mind and one body,” Ray yells out. A horse and rider pass behind him: “That’s right,” he says. But how could he have seen that horse and rider suddenly feel in harmony? She comes around in front of him: each rein seems to lift a foot and the horse’s legs drive through the center of the rider’s body like pistons, pumping up and down. They move as one.

Last Day. Ray gives us a farewell talk. He is stolid and straight in the saddle and his voice is raspy from dust and fatigue. He speaks pointedly, passionately, looking at every horse and every rider: “The horse is a mirror. It goes deep into the body. When I see your horse I see you too. It shows me everything you are, everything about the horse. I try to face life for what it is. There’s heartache, but it’s a good thing. I’m trying to save the horse’s life and your life too. The human is so good at war. He knows how to fight. But making peace, boy, that’s the hardest thing for a human. But once you start giving, you won’t believe how much you get back.”

He looks down, wipes dust from his eye. Giving, discipline, generosity, patience, compassion, skillful means, wisdom, harmony, that’s what Ray has been teaching. He continues:

“Don’t present things that are too hard to learn, don’t be arrogant. Allow the horse to learn in his own way. This takes discipline and maybe that will be the hardest thing for you. When you’re riding, try to do more by doing less and less. You have to be on the spot every moment because that’s where the horse is. Don’t worry, he’ll teach you if you let him. Fix it up and let it work. Turning loose means that when you reach for him, he softens. That goes for you too. It should be like silk all the way,” he says, then turns his horse to go. He pauses. “It’s hard to teach what I’ve been talking about all week because the first thing you need to know is the last thing you’ll learn. But I can tell you this: when you get to square ten, all of square one will be in it.”

Gretel Ehrlich

Gretel Ehrlich

Gretel Ehrlich is an world renowned nature writer. After being struck by lightning, Ehrlich wrote “A Match to the Heart” about the experience. It was published in 1994.