How and Why Did Popular Natural Horsemanship Get So Far From Its Roots?

Ray Hunt changed the relationship between rider and horse from a battle for dominance to a dance of gentleness, communication and mutual trust. He taught riding as a path for both human and animal to realize their true nature.

Ray Hunt and his horse Hondo

Ray Hunt and his horse Hondo

The recent death of Ray Hunt has got me to thinking. With the assistance of reader Shoshin, I have been learning anew of the basic roots of Natural Horsemanship and finding that it was once quite different from the style practiced today by such popular trainers as Clinton Anderson. What seems to have filtered out through the horses and the years is the fundamental application of mindfulness.

An article in Shambala Sun, a Buddhist publication called Ray Hunt, The Cowboy Sage, by Gretel Ehrlich, follows Hunt through a clinic and explores the Buddhist roots of his work with horses. Hunt may not have agreed with that characterization, but there are some strong parallels between the way Hunt approached horse training and the way a Buddhist approaches life: “giving, discipline, generosity, patience, compassion, skillful means, wisdom, harmony, that’s what Ray has been teaching.”

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.”

When asked how he made this happen, he answered, “Oh, I just work with the mind.”

Hunt often gathered trainees around at the end of a clinic 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.

Inherent in Hunt’s “working with the mind” is an awareness, a stillness of his human agenda that would ordinarily cause a trainer to rush to achievement, to push the horse to accept more and more intrusions from the human world. In Hunt’s case, he remained still. He didn’t force an agenda.

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.

I am reminded of a basic Tellington TTouch® tenet, don’t force your agenda. When working on the basic body exploration of a horse, or when working to relax the body and the mind, it doesn’t pay to have a specific goal in mind. Erasing what you’d like to accomplish from your mind and being open to what actually occurs leaves open a huge window for success. You just have to be mindful enough to see when it occurs. A lick, a chew, a subtle drop of the head. The lowering of the eyelid. A sigh. Slowing respiration, cocking a leg. All the signs a massage therapist or skillful trainer looks for when waiting for a release. These are the proof that relaxation and acceptance have occurred.

I’m wondering how this attitude and Hunt’s transformed into the thinly veiled dominance and force based on “equine body language” one sees on RFD TV today.

In a training last week at Cedar Creek Stables and RIDE WITH PRIDE, there was a horse who would not allow any work on his right side. He would barely allow a person to approach him from that side. He had a history of injury to a right front leg, and this was causing difficulty going to the right, making it difficult to work in the arena as a therapy horse. Many current NH trainers might say, “I’m going to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing very hard for you,” which is a politically correct way of saying, “I’m going to force you to move to the right using these handy-dandy natural horsemanship steps.”

In last week’s training, a participant unwittingly demonstrated this tenet. At first she expressed frustration at not being able to work on the horse’s right side. Sandy Rakowitz assured her that all things come in time, and left it at that. The lady stopped trying to get to his right side and continued with the next steps in the clinic. Toward the end of the day, she reached over the horse’s back and began to TTouch him from the left side. She slowly worked his right withers from a non-threatening place at his left side. She noticed two things.
1) He allowed it, even seeming to enjoy it, and
2) his muscles, which had been extremely tight and tense in the early part of the day, had relaxed with all the work that had been done on him during the course of the day.

This isn't a really great photo, but it shows the clinic participant reaching over the back of the horse, TTouching the withers on the right side. You can see that the area has undergone some stress in the past because there are areas where hair is missing and others where the hair has turned white. The musculature beneath was very tight.

This was a perfect illustration of the cumulative effect of Tellington TTouch and the fact that if you allow yourself to let go of an agenda (getting to that right side come hell or high water), you just might achieve it at some point. It also reveals how beneficial it is to try something different. Sticking to dogma rarely produces those serendipitous results.

I am again reminded of a story Linda once told me about a training in Europe. Someone brought her a horse who refused to be saddled without resorting to extreme measures. They had tried everything. What could Linda add to the mix that might allow them to saddle this horse without suffering grievous bodily harm? Linda took the saddle, walked to the off (right) side, and carefully placed it on the horse’s back, and attached the girth. No muss, no fuss. A simple demonstration of the benefits of doing things another way. It wasn’t some magical training dogma. Linda had no idea whether this was going to work. if it hadn’t, she would have had to come up with another idea. Her flexibility in dealing with the issue was the magic. Her observation of the horse’s issues with being worked on the left side was the magic. The mindful observation of the horse. Her willingness to open herself to the horse in front of her without a particular “fix” in mind.

“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.

I am puzzled by how the horsemanship world has moved away from this revolutionary method of horsemanship to a more results-driven approach that subtly encourages dominance. Is it expediency? is it a fundamental character of human nature? Are we just lazy and in a hurry? I am very interested in your take on how and why natural horsemanship has changed over the years and across the continents.

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