Ray Berta’s seven keys: Foothills Riding Club hosts horsemanship clinic


Through ground work, Ray demonstrated Lily relaxed and connected while at liberty.

Written and photographed by Judy Heinrich

The Foothills Riding Club had a full house for its April presentation by California-based trainer Ray Berta. Ray was in town for one of his popular clinics hosted by local dressage trainer and FRC president Jodi Lees, a longtime client and friend of Ray’s.

Jodi first got to know Ray during her own days in California, when she had a mare who remained a difficult loader despite Jodi’s having worked with other trainers on the problem. When someone recommended Ray, Jodi was amazed that he had the mare calmly self-loading within a couple of hours.

“The next day he taught me how to use a rope, which I had never done before,” says Jodi. “The goal was for me to be able to just touch the mare softly with the rope wherever I was aiming, to send her where I wanted her to go. I practiced by using the rope on the fence and I was so clumsy, I kept missing the fence, hitting myself in the head, etc. As we worked on it, I realized that what Ray did for horses was the same thing he was doing for me: making me feel calm, making me feel capable, and making it fun.”

Ray’s Background

Ray grew up on a cattle ranch in Carmel Valley, California. “I learned how to ride in steep, rolling hills and how to work cattle at the same time. My father expected me to be born knowing how to ride and how to work the cows, some of which were pretty wild.”

His father and uncles were great horsemen, Ray said, and they had really good horses that knew how to do their jobs. Later in life he worked with Tom Dorrance, considered the founder of natural horsemanship, who emphasized “feel” of the horse and its responses.

“Tom Dorrance was amazing. He could understand the deepest inner workings of the horse and used creative ways to work with a horse so that it would come around and want to work with a human. It was very inspiring and took my horsemanship to a whole different level.

“Every horse is a unique individual and a unique challenge for every rider. Some trainers and clinicians say, ‘I’m here for the horse.’ That’s a good place to start, but the human is half of the partnership – it all begins with the human. If the human can be coming from the right place, there’s a good chance the horse will get what it needs and do its best.”


Ray’s Seven Keys to Good Horsemanship

Having Seen Ray achieve success with riders in all disciplines, a friend asked him to put together some “keys to good horsemanship.” Following are Ray Berta’s Seven Keys, in his own words and illustrated by some of his own experiences.


1. Work on yourself first.

Everything begins with you. Where are you coming from when you present yourself to the horse? Horses feel where you’re coming from and may have resistance if you’re not in the right place. Are you coming from a place of impatience or being overbearing with the horse, or are you open to understanding what’s going on for the horse and starting from that point?

When I was first starting youngsters, I was working with a really nice Arab/QH cross. I had started him under saddle with tremendous patience and it was going really well.

One day after I’d had a few rides on him we started up a canyon and came to a gate. I reached over and started to open it and he started pulling away from it. We had just done it the day before and he had done beautifully then, but not today.

I was in a mode of “you know how to do this,” but it wasn’t happening. The more I tried, the more he wanted to leave the gate. I got frustrated and could feel anger welling up inside of me, after having been so patient with the horse up to that time. Finally I just stopped the horse and let out a big yell, just to release my pent-up energy.

The horse just stood there and I realized, “That was yesterday, this is today.” So I left the gate, rode back down the canyon to a wider spot, and had the horse move this way, that way, side to side. Then I rode back up to the gate, opened it, stepped through, closed it and rode away.

It was a great learning experience for me. It wasn’t going to work with all the anger I felt so I had to take care of me first – work on myself – before it would work with the horse.


2. Work from where the horse is.

That horse in the first example wasn’t in the same place he had been yesterday. You can’t go by where he was yesterday. Yesterday is great preparation for today but it’s not everything.

Maybe something different is happening in the environment, the horse may be feeling different, the horse may have something else on his mind. Your idea might be to work on flying lead changes but your horse may not be there. You might have to do some other things to get the horse ready.

I had started another young horse under saddle and had ridden him all over the hills; it had gone really well. One day I was riding him up in the hills and he started balking. Something was stopping him. I tried to encourage him but the further we climbed the worse it got.

I stuck to my plan of going further up the hills. On a really steep hill the horse started getting light in the front but I encouraged him to continue climbing and we went over the tipping point. The horse went over backwards and came down on top of me. As I watched him roll down the hill and run off, I was wondering if my hip was broken.

I had to hop down three long, steep hills before I found the horse stopped at a gate. Then I got up in the saddle and he carried me home.

Here’s what I discovered had happened: that young horse didn’t hold a saddle very well so I had fastened a breast collar on that day and went about my riding. I later realized he had been feeling a restriction every time he tried to go forward on those steep hills. He was responding to pressure and stopping, but I didn’t connect with what was happening.

So you have to know where the horse is. If I had stopped and thought about it, the day could have been very different. It’s important to read what your horse is telling you.


3. Prepare your horse for every transition.

This is really important. A lot of horses have problems because they haven’t been prepared for what they’re being asked to do. The rider or handler skipped over some of the foundation, which was necessary to be able to progress. Everything you do with a horse is a transition and you need to get them ready for it.

I work with a couple of horses at a very upscale facility near Carmel. It came to my attention that one of those horses, Bubba, had become difficult to turn out in the pasture and would try to rip away from the handler as the halter was being undone.

I began to work with that handler using something I had already taught the horses. Whenever I took Bubba out for saddling, I always sent him into a grooming bay, had him turn to face me, and I would drop the lead rope and have him ground-tie. Then I would bring the other horse, Danger, out and do the same thing with him in a nearby breezeway. They got so reliable I could go out to the car and they would stay there.

So as I brought the horses out to the pasture for turnout, I sent Bubba over to an area and positioned him to ground-tie. Then I sent Danger to another spot, had him ground-tie, and got them both really soft. I turned Danger loose and went back to Bubba, took his halter off, rubbed him and then sent him. He just stepped over softly and walked away.

The handler learned how to set it up exactly as I demonstrated. He’s been doing it the same way ever since and it’s been working well. That’s because he is using something the horses had already been prepared in and it worked in that new situation.


4. Direct and support the horse as softly as possible.

People are all over the place on this one. A lot of times I see people who just don’t seem to show up: they don’t bring enough input, enough attention, enough discipline into the equation. The horse just goes its own way because there’s nothing of substance there for it to connect with.

I also see the other extreme, where someone comes on so strong that it’s almost abusive.

I like to see a horse working with a soft connection – it doesn’t weigh anything at all. But I’m not going to tell you that there won’t be times when it weighs a lot because of where you are in the process.

Sometimes a horse can be very strong and rigid, just pushing and pulling. It’s up to you to help your horse learn how to get soft. Don’t pull on your horse; direct her as softly as possible, support her as softly as possible. That doesn’t mean abandon your horse. Just change your angle a little bit, work with your horse smarter, not stronger. Help her learn how to give and yield, become a partner and work with you.


5. Encourage your horse to respond and relax.

Horses need encouragement. We have taken them into our world. Why should they want to do all these things we’re asking them to do? We need to appeal to something deeper in them, make it worth their while to respond.

Sometimes a horse is just being made to do things but I want him to feel as if he’s a partner. You can care for them more easily if you understand them. What does a horse like? He likes to be comfortable; he finds comfort in the herd. And you’re their herd when you’re with them.

I was working with a student who was grooming and the horse didn’t like it. She was out there doing a job, which was getting the horse clean. So often a person will try softer and softer brushes but the horse still doesn’t like it.

How do you use a brush? We often put the brush down flat on the horse’s skin, which is like being stuck with 100 bristles. If you lay the brush sideways and then stroke it, the bristles aren’t sticking the horse. It becomes soft.

Your purpose should not be to get the horse clean. It should be to get your horse to like being groomed. If your horse likes being groomed, you will get your horse clean.

6. Allow your horse the freedom to think and move.

Horses are intelligent animals, amazingly intelligent. Give them a chance to search in the right direction. First, what is your intention? What do you want the horse to search for? Let them explore. Keep suggesting something but don’t just confine them and make them do things; it will never be their own. They will never be as expressive in their movement and demeanor as they will if you allow the horse to learn.

A horse doesn’t learn by having things crammed down its throat. If a horse is braced from the neck back to the withers, he can’t move freely. If you want the horse to be moving with free expression, you have to give it the freedom to think and to move.


7. Appreciate and reward your horse’s efforts.

The most important way you can give that to your horse is releasing any pressure, whether mental or physical. When your horse is making a movement in the right direction, let them know it by releasing pressure.

Be In a dialog with your horse.  You’re not the boss, you’re not the alpha, you’re a partner.

You’re the lead partner and that’s an important distinction to make. There are times you can let your horse lead but you are still monitoring. When they can do something in an appropriate way, allow them to do it. That means a lot to a horse.

So first is a release of pressure, but also do a lot more rubbing on the horse, scratching on the horse – not slapping on them. You can be soothing and reassuring to your horse, if you think about what you can do to feel good to your horse.


In closing…

When asked about being with his own horses and riding for pleasure, Ray says he does a lot of trail riding. “I enjoy it tremendously. I want my horses to be part of me. But I do still give direction if it’s a situation like crossing a creek and I see a boulder under the water that they might not see; you need to get your horse to step a certain way.

I like feeling as if the horse’s feet are my feet, and I’m coming up out of the center of the horse with my four feet beneath me. It’s a beautiful thing: when my horse is walking and it’s just like I’m walking. That’s partnership.

            You can learn more about Ray Berta at www.rayberta.com. And you can learn more about membership in FRC, including its clinics and other programs, at www.foothillsridingclub.org.


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