Great Reading

  • "Think Harmony with Horses" by Ray Hunt
  • "Ground Work" by Buck Brannaman
  • "Cowboy Logic" by Ray Hunt


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ray Hunt 1929-2009

I have shed a lot of tears. I don't mean to, Ray wouldn't like it. They are the kind that just sneak up on you, well up in your eyes and roll down your cheeks. They are the tears that come up from a deep place of real regret, loss and sorrow.

I had been working on my next post about teachers and the difference between coaches, teachers and "horse trainers". Ray's passing on March 12 changed things just a bit. Ray is a teacher. A teacher of horses and humans. He said once that he knew if he didn't get through to the human, he could never help the horse. Ray was all about the horse. If you had ever ridden with him, he would say that he was there for the horse first, then him and we could have whatever was left over. There was a whole lot left over. Way more for one person to digest in 4 short days. Way more for one person to digest in a lifetime. It was that way with Ray.

I would leave a clinic with my mind just spinning. There was so much in just the simple things, not to mention the big stuff. I would try and write it down. Even that process took a while. Ray's clinics, those wonderful times I had to just talk to him and listen to him are for some strange and wonderful reason, perfectly clear in my mind. I call on the information and conversations every day. What Ray shared is critical to me as a person and as a horsewoman. His passing leaves a void that can never be filled.

I met Ray and Carolyn for the first time in Eugene, Oregon in the late 90's. I was invited to go and watch by a friend that was showing Quarter Horse with me. She had adopted a very pretty but troubled Appaloosa horse and was told that this old cowboy had a real way with horses. She was going to ride her App and wanted me to come and watch. I did. I spent a good portion of the day chatting with Carolyn in the parking lot talking about construction and contractors we would like to kill. I had no idea what I was missing just a few steps away. Carolyn finally said I should go on in and watch. What I saw was impressive, and I didn't quite know why, it just had a good feel to it.

The Appaloosa horse was indeed troubled. Ray said that for some horses, the kindest thing we can do for them is to put them down. Harsh words from someone that I thought was a horse lover. I didn't understand the extent of caring Ray really had for the horse that day. I did however finally figure it out. He saw the suffering in the horse. He knew what the human wanted of that very pretty gelding. Ray new the horse had had enough. The silver lining was that the new owners took Ray's words to heart, allowed the App a home in their pasture and never even thought of a show career for him again. Amen.

My first ride with Ray was in 2003. Jet was three and Ricky had started him for me. Four good rides from Ricky and we were off and running! I hadn't had a lot of time with the colt. We were still living in San Jose and only coming home on weekends. Some friends let me know that Ray was going to be doing a clinic in Hillsboro, and I was on it! I signed up, paid my money and then checked my calendar and vapor locked. It was the same weekend as the Area 7 Young Riders clinic that Nicki was riding in. I had also agreed to house all of the coaches that were teaching. They were luminaries in Three Day Eventing. Peter Gray and Paul Delbrooke were the co-captains of the Canadian Three Day Olympic team, Major Jeremy Beal was the youngest man to have ever won Burghley and a dressage legend. Jon Elliott had just gone 12th at Rolex and was a rising talent. And they were all staying with us for the next eight days.

I had a few days to prepare. I let everyone know what had happened. Peter was a complete gentleman and let me know he was a very apt cook, so breakfast would be no trouble. Major Beal, in his very British way, said to enjoy my "cowboy" experience. Nicki couldn't believe I was leaving, even for a minute and would miss her rides just to hang out with some old cow dog. I must admit, I was really having my doubts. I had agreed to drive up and back every day. It was two and a half hours each way. No big deal. I could pull this off.

The first day was clear and hot. Amid the good natured jibes, some yee-haws and the like, I loaded Jet and hit the road. The barn was a dump. Falling down fences, cluttered equipment, stalls doors held up with concrete blocks, I was appalled. The colt class was in the morning and I had missed it. It was lunch break and I was doing my best to saddle a very uncooperative three year old. I was nervous and it sure influenced my horse. I had to just keep bringing him back, redirecting his feet. It was sort of like saddling a baby octopus! I finally got it done and to my surprise, a very nice gentleman hopped out of his semi-truck, walked over and told me I did a real nice job saddling my colt. It was Ray. His truck was parked right behind my trailer and I had been providing lunch time entertainment. I didn't understand what he thought was so good about it. It had taken 20 minutes to saddle one horse. I just didn't get it.

Jet and I walked, carefully, over to the arena, trying to avoid all of the hazards on the way. I especially liked the set of discs parked in the alley way to the arena. I started to do what little ground work I knew as the class participants started to filter in. I was getting worried. There was a man on a very scared bay mare, a lady in daisy-dukes and flip-flops riding a very "happy" pinto stallion that was screaming, two women on gated horses riding side by side, one had twine reins, and a younger guy on a buckskin colt that had bucked him off twice in under ten minutes. I had gone to horsey hell.

I was standing sort of in the center at one end of the arena looking around and thinking "this just can't be right". I saw Ray come in and walked up to him and said, "Excuse me, but I think I'm in the wrong class". Ray looked back, smiled and flipped on his mic. "This lady thinks she is in the wrong class, but you just put your snaffle bit on, and it'll be all right." It was at that point I realized that I was so scared at what I was seeing that my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth and I didn't even have enough spit to swallow. I put Jet's snaffle bit on and got in the saddle. This was not like anything I had ever seen or done at any sort of professional clinic. There were horses bolting, some bucking, the stallion trying to mount anything that was close, the gated horses glued to each other, it was a nightmare and I was in the middle of it. Ray talked for a bit. Tried to get the lady on the pinto stud to listen and then sent us out. I was thinking I could make it. No big deal. Then he had us split up. "Half of ya are going to the right and half are going to the left" was the order. "Ya look like a can of worms out there!" Ray was booming. Such a simple thing to have go so terribly wrong. We were just walking and trotting and what a disaster. The round pen was still set up at one end of the area and it was our job to space ourselves in order to go on the back side of it and stay on the rail. Sounds simple. The walker sisters, still glued to each other came into the gap in front of me and plugged my escape, the bolting bay mare was coming up from behind and headed right for us. We got t-boned. Luckily, Jet, even then was a big boy and the bay was small. She knocked me completely out of the saddle. I sort of landed on my feet running backward and crashed in a pile of semi fresh cow poo. It was all over. Up my back, in my pants, on my leg. The clinic sponsor, seeing what had happened, thought it necessary to scream, "rider down, rider down!" That alone was incentive enough to get back in the saddle fast, and I did!

Jet was shaking and so was I. I couldn't do much to help him and he felt like a little volcano, ready to blow. It didn't take long for the eruption. With horses in front of us the bolting bay, and "happy" pinto behind, Jet had had enough. I was no help or support to him and the pressure of leaving him trapped was too much. He bucked. Just one really big one. Enough to launch me straight up. I was airborne. I had blown both stirrups, but was still hanging on to my mecate. I clearly remember looking down at my saddle and really having no thoughts at all. I got lucky. The horses in front kept Jet from going forward. Actually they shut him down long enough for gravity to do it's job. I came right back down from where I started. It was painful. The Aussie guy that was traveling with Ray was to my left and gave me an loud "good on ya!" and a thumbs up. I however was on tilt.

Nothing much registered with me after that. Anger had kicked in. It was probably a good thing. I got the heck out of the mess. I rode for salvation alone, and then it was over. Good thing too. I was done. Ray had us circle up and asked each rider how things were going. Everyone had a comment or two and I was fuming. When it was my turn, Ray said "how are things working for you"? Well, I said, not good. I think I have done a huge disservice to me and my horse. I thought we were both going to die. I was waiting for the apology. I was waiting for a refund! Ray simply nodded and went right on to the next person. I popped a cork. All I wanted was out. Just to put my horse in the trailer and get home. This was a mess. I was convinced I would never be able to show Jet for the damage that was done that day. I had left real horsemen at home to drive all the way here just to wreck my horse. I felt like an idiot and someone was going to pay. I left. I went back to my trailer vowing that refund or not, I was never coming back. The same "friends" that told me about this mess were at the trailer trying to talk me off the ledge. It wasn't working. Jet was unsaddled ready to jump into his trailer when Ray trotted up, eyes sparkling. I'll never forget the look on his face. "Trouble?" The word just bounced out of him. I didn't answer. Gretchen, said " Yup! Trouble with a capital T!" Ray looked over at me and said "I tell ya what, you come back tomorrow and ride in the colts. We'll get things fixed up" I never looked up, acknowledged, nothing. Ray trotted off.

Everyone was SO supportive and encouraging me to come back, don't give up, hang in there...All I heard was bla, bla, bla. I was done. I cried all the way home. It had been so stressful. I was going to hear major crap when I got back home and the day had been a disaster. I was never going back, I was sure of it. I cried all the way to Hillsboro the next day.

The colt class was heaven. There were at least 10 of us packed into the round pen and it felt great. Ray was in control. I was sitting on my colt, but Ray was riding him. There was a huge change in Jet. Better yet there was a huge change in me. I felt good. It all felt just right. We rode out of the round pen. Horses and riders confident, secure. It wasn't really us. It was that feel following a feel. It was how Ray had changed us all in the round pen. Ray exuded presence, confidence, comfort and security. It was enough for all of us, horse and human. That class went all to quickly. As bad as I had felt the day before, that is how good I was feeling on day 2. Heaven.

I unsaddled, rubbed my colt, put him up and and went to lunch. I could eat. It was going to be a hoot being able to watch that afternoon class from the safety of the stands. I couldn't wait. I wanted to see what day two was going to bring with the bolting bay, mounting pinto, walker sisters, and the bucking buckskin. It was going to be entertaining, or so I thought. We had all settled into our seats when Ray on his little chestnut mare flipped on his mic and started combing thought the audience. "Where is that lady with the big bay colt?" He announced. My heart sank as all of my former friends pointed me out. "You go get your colt and come in here" Ray said. I felt sick. I had to walk my own Green mile. I went out, saddled Jet and dragged us both back to the arena or as I was still calling it, Hell. Ray was right there. "Now when you feel things are getting to be too much, you come stand by me or Carolyn, all right. You just keep yourself clear."

That afternoon was a whole new show. I rode for my horse. I kept him clear. I found the good spots and I avoided the wrecks. I really understood for the first time what is was to RIDE my horse. It was so simple it was complicated. I listened to Ray's voice alone. I did exactly what he said. I absorbed every last molecule of information because it meant the difference between success and disaster. That arena was no longer Hell. It was just me and my horse. It was what Ray wanted to prove to me. It was the lesson he knew I needed. He got to the human. He saved the horse.

The rest of the clinic was pure joy. That horsemanship class was never Heaven. It was however a slice of real life. It was a lesson in what creating a partnership was really all about. My horse and I really had to rely on each other. He had to listen to me and I had to listen to him. We had to work things out, we had to do better because there was no "just getting by". It really was so simple it was complicated. Ray didn't spoon feed us. I had to drown a little. He said we would have to. We might have to go down a time or two and really struggle for air, but we wouldn't drown completely. He would help us out before we went down for the very last time. A drowning person really cherishes a life vest. Ray was there to throw us one. All we had to do was put it on. The changes in the horses and people at that clinic will stay with me forever. I have ridden in lots of clinics with Ray since then. But that one was special. I think it was seeing things for the first time. Being so close to the edge of the cliff and learning that you didn't have to tip over. Having Ray tell you just in the nick of time, " How about going this way".

Ray was a real teacher. He allowed you to search, struggle, drown if that is what it took. But, he was also there to support, comfort, guide and yes, in my case pamper just a little. He was a teacher. He knew what his students needed to find success. He knew that if he could get to us, he could indeed make it better for our horses. I asked Carolyn last year about Ray and traveling. She said something profound that I will never forget. She said that Ray just knows that the very next horse at the very next clinic will teach him so much. Isn't that amazing. A true teacher is always driven to learn. A true teacher is also the best student. Ray was a student of the horse. We were blessed having him as a teacher.

Teachers, true teachers are selfless. They give much more than they take. They thrive on giving and sharing. I asked Ray once about retirement and he said "Nope, this is where I want to die". At the time he was leaning on a fence outside a dusty corral, helping people with their horses. Having a student that really listened and did what Ray was asking was the true gift to him. Knowing that he made a difference and that what he was giving as a teacher was being learned, applied and used was the reward. I hope Ray finds Tom in heaven. I hope they get to ride good horses. I hope they find good students to teach that listen and do their best. I hope I was a good student. I hope I made it clear to Ray that he made a difference to me. He was my best teacher. I will try and honor his memory by doing right by my horses and to Whistle, Grin and Ride.

Thank you, Ray.


  1. OH, Denise... you said it all. Just beautifully.


  2. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.