The Evolution Of Modern Horsemanship

A few years ago I heard Ray Hunt say at a clinic that he was still working on understanding and training horses to be a better horseman and suggested that maybe some of the people at the clinic would get it before he did. That’s not a precise quote, but the message is the same.


I’m going to talk about the evolution of horsemanship in the past 200 years. It won’t be comprehensive or complete, but I have a point to make so please be patient.


John Rarey (1827-1866) from Ohio, USA became one of the best-known “horse whisperers” in modern folklore. He was the perhaps the first trainer that I heard about that had taken the “backyard” craft of training horses into the wider public arena and it became showmanship to both amuse and educate the public.


A little later, Jesse Beery (1861-1945) also from Ohio, USA took what Rarey had done and refined both his horsemanship and his marketing to start the first widely accepted training system that could be learned by correspondence – something that many trainers are doing today with the help of the internet. He even gave himself the honorary title of Professor JS Beery. Beery was famous throughout the world and took his horsemanship across North America and Europe. He was doing pretty much the same thing as Rarey, but he had tweaked and refined many of the methods Rarey has used.


To jump ahead a lot, the world then discovered Tom Dorrance (1910-2003) from Oregon, USA. It is almost by accident that everybody in the horse world knows the name Tom Dorrance because it was thanks to Ray Hunt and his marketing/PR machine that Tom was ever heard about outside of the immediate vicinity of where he lived in America. Many of Tom’s techniques are derived from Rarey and Beery, but Tom added something that these other trainers didn’t. Tom added an understanding that a horse’s emotions determine its thoughts and the thoughts determine its behaviour. Up until this point, most training (I’m sure there were exceptions) entailed forcing submission and obedience on a horse through repetition and equipment. Tom approached it somewhat differently and had great success working with those horses that would not succumb to the old methods.


This brought him to the attention of the horseman he worked with on ranches but no further, until finally, he met Ray Hunt (1929-2009, Idaho, USA). This was pivotal to what was to come. Their meeting changed the entire world of modern horsemanship. Ray met Tom at just the right time because Ray was soon to become one of the most successful and influential names in the business. It was the beginning of the era of the horsemanship clinician.


Ray Hunt learned a lot about the inside of the horse from Tom Dorrance, but what he did with that was very different. While Tom’s work focused on the horse and the training, Ray modified it more specifically for the working ranch horse. Ray’s background was working on cattle ranches (as was Tom’s) so Ray figured out a way to apply the principles that he learned from Tom to the skills he needed in a ranch horse. This took Ray in a very different direction to Tom.


Ray started teaching clinics with 30 plus people at one time in the arena. He began teaching 3 and 4-day horse starting clinics with 15 or more horses in the round yard at one time. Ray turned teaching and horse training into a mass production system. And he made a lot of money doing it as well as obtaining a lot of fame and influence. He brought Tom’s principles to the masses by taking them into an almost opposite direction. It still amuses me that people talk about Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt in the same sentence as if they were almost the same person when in fact they were very different horsemen.


The outcome of Ray’s success has been that the world is full of Ray Hunt disciples and mimics. But in my view, most are still stuck in the 1980s when Ray was at his peak. The principles and practices that Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance were teaching were excellent, but there has been little advance since the 1980s. It’s largely the same stuff over and over again despite advancements in our understanding of horse behaviour, biomechanics, equine medicine, nutrition etc.


Fortunately, there have been a small number of horse people that have taken what Tom and Ray had to teach and moved beyond copycat repetition. Most easily that comes to my mind is Harry Whitney. Much of Harry’s work stems from Tom and Ray, but Harry has developed a deeper understanding and become a better horseman than Ray Hunt was at his peak. I believe this is because unlike Ray, Harry has not focused on producing working ranch horses like Ray did. Instead, like Tom, Harry has focused on the horse itself and not on the job. This has allowed him the freedom to come at horse training from different angles and more importantly from different fields of expertise. He has avoided the limitations that training for a job placed on the ability of Ray and many that have followed him, to innovate. Because Harry was not focused on teaching a specific job is offered an opportunity to add an intellectual view on how horses operate and training influences the behaviour. Furthermore, Harry developed good teaching skills – something that Ray appeared to have almost zero ability or interest in doing.


Both Harry and I and many of the Ray Hunt students are now in the “old farts” category of horse trainers. So I sometimes wonder if there is a new generation of innovators on the horizon or are we all just teaching people to be copies of us? I mean innovation and advancement came about from people standing on the shoulders of those that came before them. Horse people like myself can trace their influences much further back than Rarey. We may not have actually worked together, but we have all been influenced by the previous generation of trainers either by osmosis or third party filtering of knowledge. So where to from here?


I am super happy to report that I see a few horse people in the newer generation who I believe are capable of taking the principles and practices of the present generation and making them even better. I can think of young trainers I know at home and in the USA that are smart, thinking, curious, talented and hungry for more. I want them to be better than the present generation of teachers. I want to go to their clinics one day and discover something about horses and training that I never thought about before. I hope desperately for future generations of horses and horse people that what we have now is not as good as it is ever going to be.


When the young trainers have joined the “old farts” club I hope they will look at the next generation and see young trainers who are capable of taking their ideas to higher heights.


If we all stand on the shoulders of the teachers that came before us then it is our responsibility to reach higher than they did. I really want to believe that the best horse trainers the world will ever know have not been born yet.


Photo: John Rarey (1827-1866)

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