Tuesday, March 17, 2009

We've Lost Another Great One


America's Horse, March 12, 2009 -- Editor’s Note: The name Ray Hunt is legendary. He took the mantle of natural horsemanship from the Dorrance brothers and spread it to a larger audience. He, in fact, was the first traveling clinician, taking his teaching methods on the road more than 30 years ago and continuing to teach through 2009 when he had a spring workshop scheduled at his Texas ranch. Today, however, we mourn the loss of a legend. Ray Hunt, in his late 70s, passed away March 12.

The best way to describe Hunt is to let his words speak for themselves. What follows is an excerpt of a story published in the May 2002 American Quarter Horse Racing Journal:

Ray Hunt has shared his equine philosophy and techniques around the world. In 2002, he presented a two-day clinic at New Mexico’s Sunland Park Racetrack and Frontera Training Center, focusing on gate-training young horses and correcting problem behavior in older runners. But whether it deals with racehorses or ranch horses, the advice was vintage Hunt.

“We’ve got to look at things a little more from the horse’s point of view,” Hunt said. “We’ve got to try to help him to learn to reach our goals.”

Hunt worked with – instead of against – the horse’s natural sensitivities to pressure. He often pointed out that a horse can feel a single fly land on its body - so whips and chains aren’t necessary. He urged people to combine their knowledge and understanding of horses to create situations that increase the likelihood of the desired results.

“Make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy,” Hunt said.

Before a horse is even asked to enter the starting gate, Hunt established boundaries with the animal. While facing the horse, he applied slight pressure with the lead rope (enough to take out the slack) to encourage the horse to step forward. Hunt wasn’t talking about walking off – he was looking for the slightest clue that the horse was willing to move its foot. As soon as the horse shifted its body weight, Hunt released the pressure.

“Think about controlling the feet and shifting the weight,” he said. “If you get the horse to move his weight, he has got to shift his feet, but I bet he doesn’t move his feet first. He shifts his weight, then moves his feet. He prepares his position, and then there’s a transition. Don’t try to get the horse to go without getting it ready.”

If the horse stepped as Hunt wanted, he was rewarded with a rub on the forehead. If the horse didn’t step forward, the pressure was applied again, but never in a tug-of-war fashion. This wasn’t a contest.

“The horse doesn’t know what a contest is – what win or lose is – but the human does,” Hunt explained. “The first thing you know, you’ve got the horse contesting you – and don’t be surprised if he’s the winner. The horse doesn’t have any pride or ego – the two things that really get in a human’s way.”

If the horse stepped back, Hunt stepped back also, keeping the pressure steady but not increasing it. Hunt wanted to make the wrong thing difficult, not necessarily impossible. He stressed that the horse had a choice – he could do the right thing the easy way or do the wrong thing and face difficult consequences. In this case, the easy option was for the horse to simply take a step forward. But if he stepped back, Hunt went with him – if Hunt had stood his ground, when the horse hit the end of the line, the man would probably have had a fight on his hands.

To get a horse in a starting gate – or to do anything else – he has to be prepared, to be ready to do it. The horse’s body gives all the clues to his readiness. Hunt compared the unprepared horse to a steel rod. Tense muscles, wide eyes and planted feet are signs of excitement that show the horse needs more time to relax.

Most horses that are not ready to accept the gate will walk up to the open stall, stop and shift their hindquarters out of line, making a smooth entrance into the gate impossible.

Hunt suggested supporting the horse by twirling the end of the lead rope near or even tapping the horse’s hip to get the horse to line up. Then back the horse and approach the gate again to gauge the horse’s willingness. Don’t be surprised if you have to do this several times. As Hunt said, “It’ll probably take more than once but less than a million times.”

Other pearls of wisdom from Hunt:

“Notice the smallest changes and the slightest tries.”
“You direct the life in the horse’s body through the legs to the feet to the mind.”
“Slow down so you can hurry up. In the end, it’s a good way. Speed ahead of accuracy is no good.”
“You think you’ve got to hold the horse, but you don’t have to,” Hunt said. “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.”
“There has to be firmness and discipline. I’m responsible for running the show, and the horse is going to work for me. He’s going to go where I want him, but he’s not a slave. You make him want to do it. First thing you know, he’s your partner.”
Hunt compared 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 said. “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.”
“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.”
"Keep in mind what you are working toward,” Hunt said. “You might not get him in (the starting gate) 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 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.”
-- Excerpted from “Hunting for Help” by Jennifer K. Hancock in the May and June 2002 issues of The American Quarter Horse Racing Journal.

No comments: