WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #138
THE MAN WHO LISTENS TO HORSES - MONTY ROBERTS
A GREAT BOOK - EVERY HORSEPERSON SHOULD HAVE THIS BOOK - MY BOOK
IS PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPE CANADA - Keith Hunt
There is nothing new under the sun, the saying goes. And
then along comes a man or a woman to remind us that while there
is some truth in those words, they also deny the human
imagination and capacity for change. The relationship between
humans and horses, for example, has been much the same for more
than 6,000 years, but in that particular world there is something
new under the sun, and it comes to us from an extraordinary man
named Monty Roberts.
Dr. William O. Reed, the dean of North American track
veterinarians, may also have thought he had seen it all - until
he and several thousand others watched Monty Roberts work with an
unbroken horse. The demonstration took place in December 1995 at
the annual meeting of the American Association of Equine
Practitioners, or horse veterinarians, in Lexington, Kentucky,
the virtual hub of the world's Thoroughbred horse industry. A New
York-based veterinary surgeon with a Kentucky horse farm of his
own, Dr. Reed has worked during his illustrious career on many of
the finest Thoroughbreds in the world. Ruffian. Northern Dancer.
He vividly remembers that December day. "I thought it was
the greatest communication between man and animal I had ever
seen," he told me. "Monty Roberts is definitely a pioneer. In the
past, horse breaking has been man against horse, checking his
will, dominating him. Monty does something quite different."
Beating a horse into submission is less fashionable now than it
was even a few decades ago, but there have always been infinitely
more men and women inclined to the whip than to the kind word.
"Horse breakers" and "broncobusters" are friendly, even romantic
terms to describe methodical savagery. Breaking horses sometimes
meant breaking bones - the buster's, the bronco's. This was a
cruel and dangerous event in the life of the horse and of the
first human he ever felt on his back.
To the art of gentling a horse, Monty Roberts brings wisdom
and a lifetime of observation, along with a new and quite
exhilarating sense of discovery. Since the beginning of recorded
history, one of humankind's great challenges has been the gulf
that divides humans and animals. How do you communicate with
animals - especially ones that play a part in our daily lives -
when we share no common language? Clearly, it is still a
challenge; it still matters. The longing for kinship with a
horse, for example, is ancient (and, in this highly technical
age, perhaps more powerful than ever).
As this book attests, Monty Roberts has not just set out to
change the way we communicate with animals, but - as a result -
how we communicate with each other. Recently, thousands of
corporate officers - from Disney, Xerox, General Motors, A.T & T,
for example have gone to hear this horseman speak at his farm in
California. It's a tantalizing notion: the horse as teacher. The
lessons Monty Roberts learned from horses may one day influence
the way that managers and workers, parents and children, relate
to each other. What works with horses, he says, also works with
humans. The name of the game is communication, and at that Monty
Roberts is an old pro.
He was only seven years old when he made a remarkable
discovery: that you can communicate with a horse by reading his
body language and sending similar signals back. He would
eventually call this silent tongue "the language of Equus"; he
would codify it, break down its grammar. I count it his greatest
achievement: to show the world that when a horse does this with
his body, it means something quite specific; and that when a
human does that with his body in response, that action also
conveys a particular message to the horse. Now sixty-two, Monty
wonders if another boy in another era ever chanced upon similar
knowledge. (YES, I can say I did when I was 18, 19, 20, [1961 to
63] and breaking wild horses in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada -
"Horses are such good teachers," he says. "There had to be
people before me." Was this other boy rebuffed, as Monty was most
of his life, for trying to learn the language of horses? Or was
he just ignored? You can put a message in a bottle at sea, but
the odds of someone reading it are remote.
To know even a little of traditional horsemanship is to
appreciate the nature and extent of Monty Roberts's achievement.
History has had its gentlers, too, but they have been few and far
between. Three hundred years before the birth of Christ there
lived a Greek cavalry officer called Xenophon (meaning "a person
who speaks strangely"). He wrote a tiny classic called "The Art
of Horsemanship"; educators with the British Horse Society call
Xenophon's observations as relevant today as when written. Be
firm but not harsh, Xenophon urged, and never lose your temper
while dealing with a horse. He wrote: "A fit of passion is a
thing that has no foresight in it, and so we often have to rue
the day when we gave way to it. Consequently, when your horse
shies at an object and is unwilling to go up to it, he should be
shown that there is nothing fearful in it, least of all to a
courageous horse like him; but if this fails, touch the object
yourself that seems so dreadful to him, and lead him up to it
Here was a man training horses for war, warning riders that
aggression (with horses, anyway) does not pay. Close to Monty
Roberts in his thinking but more than two thousand years his
predecessor, Xenophon seems attuned to horse psychology:
"...reward him with kindness when he has done what you wish and
admonish him when he disobeys." On the other hand, "riders who
force their horses by the use of the whip only increase their
fear, for they then associate the pain with the thing that
Such considerate advice would seem only to make sense, but
sense is far from common. Our long association with the horse is
like a road that here moves cleanly forward and there twists
inanely back on itself. The history of horsemanship is less about
sugar than pepper, less about light than dark, less about mindful
kindness than thoughtless cruelty. Horse trainers of the Roman
empire seem not to have read Xenophon. They would force the horse
to the ground, sit on his head, and tie his legs together. The
idea was to demoralize the horse, to break his spirit and will
(and more if necessary). Icelandic sagas from the tenth century
describe how stallions were pitted against each other, much like
cocks and pit bulls are in more recent times. Stallions need
little prodding to spar; it is in their nature. And if it is
human nature to devise sport and entertainment, then what animal
offers more drama and wagering opportunities than the very symbol
of grace, beauty, and power - the horse.
By the sixteenth century, the business of schooling horses
had taken a decidedly harsh turn. England's Thomas Blundeville,
for example, advised that for recalcitrant horses one should take
an iron bar set with prickles and suspended from the horse's
tail. Pass it, he instructed, between the horse's legs and link
it to a cord, so the rider may draw it up and mete out punishment
as required. If this fails, "let a footman stand behind you with
a shrewd cat tied at one end of a long pole with her belly
upwards, so as she may have mouth and claws at liberty. And when
your horse may stay or go backwards, let him thrust the cat
between his legs so as she may scratch and bite him, sometimes by
the thighs, sometimes by the rump and often times by the stones."
The Renaissance, meanwhile, had elevated riding into an art form,
alongside the visual arts, music, and literature. Tactics used to
create "baute ecole" horsemanship may well have been dubious, but
riding became part of every noble person's education. And by the
eighteenth century some equestrians at least appear more
enlightened, more Xenophonic. The Duke of Newcastle, builder of
riding academies in Paris and Brussels wrote:
A boy is a long time before he knows his alphabet, longer
before he has learned to spell, and perhaps several years
before he can read distinctly; and yet there are some people
who, as soon as they get on a young horse, entirely
undressed and untaught, fancy that by beating and spurring
they will make him a dressed horse in one morning only. I
would fain ask such stupid people whether by beating a boy
they would teach him to read without first showing him the
alphabet? Sure, they would beat him to death, before they
would make him read.
Nevertheless, the fate of the horse rested then, as now,
with his owner. Where proper food and lodgings were traded for
equine services rendered, the life of the horse may well have
been decent and long. But the horse in abject servitude, the
horse beaten because his owner knew no alternative or starved
because his master lacked the means: this was the fate of many.
And when not pulling carts or hauling his master over mountains,
the horse was often a fierce instrument of war. The warhorse's
lot can barely be imagined, but best not be misled by those
triumphant equestrian statues or the great paintings of sleek
horses under captains of war, and emperors with field glasses
monitoring distant battlefields on the plains below. The numbers
of horses in battle alone give pause. In 1286 B.C., a battle
between the Hittites and the Egyptians involved 7,000 horses
pulling half that many chariots. At the Battle of Waterloo in
1815, the French and English cavalry numbered 30,000. Napoleon
had twenty horses killed under him in battle, another arresting
In the First World War, the horses used as cavalry and to
move supplies and guns numbered 1.5 million; one-third died.
Heavy guns blasted battlefields into gruel. With grooming
forsaken, mange and parasites spread like a contagion. Against
mange, the army scrubbed and clipped horses, who then shivered in
the cold and rain and snow. Water troughs froze; food supplies
dwindled. Desperate horses choked trying to eat the blankets of
their stablemates; horses chewed ropes, others' manes and tails,
even the epaulets on men's shoulders.
I remember seeing a photograph taken before that war of
Canadian officers buying horses from a farmer. It was a sunny
warm day for horse trading. Those horses went overseas and did
not return; save for a minuscule number of officers' favored
charges, any horses not killed in battle were sent to European
slaughterhouses for human consumption when peace was restored.
Even in peacetime, the commerce in horses was often cruel. In the
nineteenth century it was common practice, and still is today in
some areas, to "fire," or soundly whip, a horse to make him
frisky before a sale. One observer remembers seeing "a poor brute
stone blind, exquisitely shaped, and showing all the marks of
high blood, whom I saw unmercifully cut with a whip a quarter of
an hour before the sale, to bring her to the use of her stiffened
limbs, while the tears were trickling down her cheeks." The
italics were in the original text and clearly constitute
hyperbole: a horse may shed tears from dirt in the eye but does
not weep in the human sense. Countless horses, though, have had
cause to cry.
Horsewhipped. Horse knacker. Horseflesh.
The words conjure a triptych: horse as slave, horse at
slaughterhouse, horse as dinner. Look into a horse's eyes and you
will sometimes see there resignation. I find it sobering to
ponder an individual horse's life, the spirit he was surely born
with, and who or what might have stolen it away.
The most traumatic event in the life of many horses remains
that first ride. A two-legged creature with bad manners enters
the paddock with a long list of commands and the spurs, whip, and
cruel bit to enforce them.
But the gentling philosophy had its practitioners here and
there, now and then. The Indians of the North American plains in
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tended to be firm as
horse breakers but slow and easy. Like many modern gentlers, they
used touch and voice to reassure the horse. Some tribes rode
mustangs into a lake or river; the water helped tire the
thrashing horses and offered a softer landing for tossed riders.
What a clever notion: marry water, horse, and rider. Such
insights about horses are a little like prehistoric insects
locked in amber; if only someone would chance along and turn a
certain rock over, the secrets would be passed on. And it seems
that some were.
During the First World War, a "reclamation camp" was
established in England to deal with "untamable" army horses.
Otherwise slated to be destroyed, the horses were entrusted to
horse-wise young women, the daughters of wealthy country
gentlemen, who had lived around horses from childhood. The ladies
did as Sioux boys had done: they rode into deep water where the
horses soon became docile. It never failed.
Why, I once asked Monty Roberts, do horse trainers cling to
the old way of the whip and the spur? Why did schooling a horse
gently become fashionable at various points in history, only to
be replaced by the iron fist for centuries at a time?
We were in the weight room of his farm in California with
its commanding view of the Santa Ynez Valley, me writing at a
rough-hewn antique table, he lying four feet away on a
white-leather beanbag - the most forgiving chair in the house for
his woeful back. You have to understand, he said, that most
trainers are burdened with the great weight of the male ego.
"You walkin' on the fightin' side of me," he began in a fine west
Texas accent put on for the occasion, "when you say my daddy
didn't know what he was doin'. I got horses - you couldn't get
close to 'em. You admit to me now, that there's a time when a
horse needs a good whippin'."
Imagine that bruised ego when along comes someone who can
enter a fifty-foot round pen with a wild or unbroken horse and by
communicating with the animal win his trust to such an extent
that the horse accepts saddle, bridle, and rider - all within
thirty minutes, with no hand raised or harsh word spoken. Dr.
William O. Reed clearly learned a great deal when he watched
Monty Roberts that day in Lexington. "Let me put it like this,"
he told me. "If I had twentyfive yearlings, I wouldn't school
them any other way. This method is innovative and, from the point
of view of potential injury to the animal, foolproof"
So-called crazy horses are brought to Monty Roberts to be
made sane again, and owners of prize racehorses fly him all over
the world to work with their seemingly irretrievably "damaged"
animals. Monty hates this work with what he calls "remedial
horses," but he loves it, too. When he can, he is happy to save
such horses' lives; but he is frustrated by the persistent human
folly that churns out all these terrified animals. He once
described himself as a marathon runner dealing with weekend
joggers who think they are marathon runners. There exist parents
who freely admit they should never have had children; there exist
horse owners who have no business owning horses. Monty will often
"fix" the horse, address and overcome the horse's fear whether of
starting gates or of being tied to a rope but the owner/trainer,
lacking Monty's patience, will let the horse slide back into old
terrors, then privately slam Monty for a job badly done and
eventually have to kill the animal.
In other instances, trainer and owner may be different
people. The trainer may have failed utterly with the horse and it
is the flustered owner who calls Monty Roberts. The trainer,
then, has a vested interest in seeing the horse fail: "Must be a
crazy horse 'cause I sure couldn't work him." Monty explained
this sad and chronic process to Nicholas Evans while that author
researched his novel "The Horse Wbisperer," and Monty rather
liked the way Evans put it in the book.
Often seen as witches, Evans wrote, horse
whisperers/healers, those with the touch, could see into the
creature's soul and soothe the wounds they found there.... And
those who truly had the gift were wont to guard it wisely, for it
was said that he who drove the devil out might also drive him in.
The owner of a horse you calmed might shake your hand then dance
around the flames while they burned you in the village square.
There are no superstitious bones in Monty's body, only
sentimental ones. He is very clear that he has no magic touch, no
physical genius by virtue of the Cherokee blood that flows in his
veins, that he is simply a man who has spent a watchful life with
horses. Were you or I to spend a year with him he could teach us
everything he knows about horses; with similar patience and skill
we too could then solve the dilemma of horses who dread ropes or
"What I can do with horses," says Monty, "is the result of
long hours observing them in the wild. It's essentially a simple
thing based on common sense. There is something magical about it,
but it's the magic of an undiscovered tongue - primitive,
precise, and easy to read. The silent language uses movements of
the body - "signs" that can be read. I've called it Equus but I
believe this is a universal tongue understood not just by all
wild and domestic horses, ponies, mules, and even donkeys but
also by other "flight" animals such as deer. Once learned, the
language allows a new understanding between human and horse. But
it doesn't need to be, nor is it, exclusive to me." Monty
bristles when people assign him mystical qualities, call him
horse healer and horse whisperer. Diligence taught him all he
knows about the horses he loves.
Monty has "started" (never "broken" - he loathes the word)
some 10,000 horses at his farm in California and all over the
world. These horses are green, absolutely raw - they have never
previously been ridden. Monty calls the process "join-up," and
it's a vivid word to describe what happens. He enters into a
communication with the horse that will result in the horse
voluntarily (a critical distinction from the past) deciding to
work with this human in this new endeavor. Join-up has the feel
of ritual, or a one-act play. The exhilaration Monty displays at
the end is genuine and heartfelt, though the ending is ever the
I have observed this process, and it is both astonishing and
moving to watch. Monty is alone in the round pen (about the size
of a small pond) with the unbroken horse - a powerful,
potentially dangerous animal. When the horse enters the pen,
clearly nervous, Monty flicks a light cotton line at him - but
never actually touches him with it - to send him round and round
the perimeter. "Don't go away a little," he invariably tells the
horse, "go away a lot." The horse soon learns to respect, but not
fear, the tossed line, which he had at first instinctively
perceived as a threat.
The alternative to being "pushed away," the horse will come
to realize, is first a conversation - then a contract - with this
man. The key "signs" then come, one after the other: the horse,
still trotting in a circle, eventually locks one ear on Monty,
later sticks out his tongue and makes chewing motions, and,
finally, lowers his head until it is inches from the ground. "I
want to talk," says the horse, a herd animal now in solitary and
therefore fearful, for to be alone is to be exposed to predators.
His powerful instinct, the herd instinct, is to join another
herd. Maybe Monty's herd. When to face the horse and make eye
contact, when not to, where to touch the horse first, whether to
move slowly or quickly: all this Monty knows, for he has learned
his equine manners and grammar.
The communication has never failed Monty, though doubters
are forever testing him and his methods with cantankerous horses.
His equine language - which he now teaches around the world and
explains in depth in his book - is coupled with an uncommon
sensibility and a richly inventive mind.
When I was at Monty's farm, he was working with a
Thoroughbred called Gospel Hill, owned by a friend of Monty's -
actor John Forsythe (he starred in the television series
"Dynasty"). Unable to break the apparently incorrigible stallion,
another trainer had hoped to calm him by gelding him, but the
horse was still nervous, still impossible.
After a normal join-up with Monty, he and his students,
working slowly and always by degrees over the course of several
months, had Gospel Hill agreeably entering the gate, then
exploding out of it. I (never mind Forsythe) took great joy in
witnessing that event. I have seen many races, but never stood
twenty feet from a starting gate. When the gates clanged open, it
was like watching a great arrow released from a bow. The earth at
my feet shivered, the air divided to let the streaking horse and
Ever the student, Monty a year ago got the idea of
positioning his portable starting gate in the far corner of his
track and facing the barn, not away from it as is the custom. He
was close to giving up on one horse phobic about gates when it
hit him: why make the horse run away from the barn, his comfort?
Why not let him run for home? As he told me the story, Monty
smacked his forehead with the heel of his hand as if to say, How
could I have been so thick? He is an old dog still teaching
himself new tricks about horses.
Curious about the intransigence of horse trainers, I spoke
with John Franks of Shreveport, Louisiana, the only four-time
winner of the Eclipse Award - granted annually to America's
premier Thoroughbred horse owner. ("How many horses do you own?"
I asked him. "Unfortunately," he drawled, then paused. "I have
"Monty's method is outstanding," said Franks, who cottoned
on to it a decade ago. "I don't know why his method isn't the
method for breaking horses." But he does know: "I'm a geologist
and when something new comes along in geology, about drilling for
oil, say, we all jump on it. But the horse world is so
splintered. Everyone goes his own way, and it's hard to change a
trainer who has done it his way all his life. It's like trying to
change the tide."
(Oh boy and that can go for a lot of "western riding stables" who
cannot see that having a nice clean horse barn [with wood chips 6
inches deep] where horses and people must stand, as they wait to
ride out on the trail ride, is a wonderful un-horse-poop smell
and gives a fresh and good looking atmosphere - Keith Hunt)
And yet the tide is turning. To understand how revolutionary
Monty Roberts's way is, only consider the advice that Monty's own
father was offering in his book - a little blue hardcover called
"Horse and Horsemen Training," self-published in 1957 under the
name Marvin E. Roberts. The copy in Monty's possession smells
musty, its contents unnervingly casual. One page displays a
black-and-white photograph of the necessary bits and halters and
ropes, the latter, though new, clearly stained with blood.
For the bucking horse, urged Roberts Sr., fill a burlap sack with
tin cans and attach it to his saddle: a little terror so the
bronc knows who's boss. For the horse ill-inclined to leave the
herd or enter the barn "herd-bound" or "barn-sour"), "put your
left hand on the saddle horn and hit him on the top of the neck
right up between the ears as hard as you can." Where to hit, what
to use, and when ("some colts have to be hit more than others"):
it's all there.
Monty's father - as you will see in the pages that follow -
must also have felt that some sons have to be hit more savagely
than others. But it is important to understand that his thoughts
on curbing the horse were very much in line with most of his
contemporaries. He was not seen as a horse basher; on the
contrary, for the gift of his horsemanship to children, the
grateful citizens of Monterey County, California, named a rodeo
arena after him.
In global terms, little has apparently changed in the way
that horses are taught and disciplined. Some three-quarters are
likely schooled the Marvin E. Roberts way. But in North America,
there has been a dramatic change. A headline in The New York
Times in October 1993 caught the mood: "Broncobusters Try New
Tack: Tenderness." The notable lions in these kinder, gentler
dens are sometimes long in the tooth, suggesting that tenderness
is not necessarily new practice on some ranges. Tom Dorrance,
sometimes dubbed "the horse's lawyer," is eighty-six. Ray Hunt,
his protege, is seventy-something. Both have written books that
stress cooperation and harmony between horse and rider, and the
number of their followers is legion. (And as you can see on this
series on my website, I have written the same, as I learned at
the age of 18 to go slow and kind, gentle, and make the horse
your friend, but still resept you. That is the way to break the
horse to ride - Keith Hunt)
It is almost certain that these modern-day gentlers read, as
children, the novel "My Friend Flicka," written by Mary O'Hara
and published in 1941, in which a boy longs for a young mustang
filly he spots on the range. A Swedish ranch hand calls her
Flicka - "little girl" in Swedish. What struck me as I reread it
recently was how progressive it now seems. The boy's father, Rob,
is a hard-nosed rancher who harbors no sentiments about mustangs,
but he abhors the traditional way of breaking horses. "It ruins a
horse!" he says. "He loses something and never gets it back.
Something goes out of him. He's not a whole horse any more. I
hate the method, waiting until a horse is full grown, all his
habits formed, and then a battle to the death, and the horse
marked with fear and distrust, his disposition damaged - he'll
never have confidence in a man again."
The horse breaker Rob admires most is a woman - his wife,
Nell. She is patient, lets the horse smell her, and then,
significantly, it seems to me now, turns her back to the horse,
just as Monty will do in the round pen. The message to the horse?
I trust you enough to turn my back on you. Trust me, too. Follow
(I do this to the horses on the winter pasture Betty [who owns
and runs the summer camp for children] and I lease. I can go out
and say, "Come on boys and girls"; turn my back to them, and they
follow me, to where I want them; yes I give them a "sweet-feed"
treat" or "hay cubes" - they know I'm a friend whom they can
trust, who is kind and nice to them - Keith Hunt)
"Under the eye of a human being," Mary O'Hara writes, "an
unbroken horse is in terror." When Nell feels the horse nuzzling
her back, she slowly turns and begins talking to her, stroking
her, leans on the saddle and places her knee under the mare's
belly as if to mount, and only when the horse shows no signs of
fear, only then does she rise into the saddle.
Women more than men, Monty told me, are generally receptive
to his thoughts on the nonviolent schooling of horses. He
believes that that is because women and horses share something -
a feeling of vulnerability. "The horse," he says, "is a flight
animal who feels vulnerability twenty-four hours a day. It's the
same vulnerability that a woman may feel when she's alone in an
elevator and a burly man gets on."
"My Friend Flicka" offers just one more reminder that some
people have, in their own way and for a long time, been
"listening" to horses. Monty Roberts would read this novel now
and want to correct a few notions: he would remind the reader,
for example, that the language of the wild horse is a silent
language. But he admires the spirit of the book and how open it
is to the possibilities for horse/human communication. Here is
the rancher teaching his son about the ways of horses, and how
trust will conquer fear:
"Remember, a horse can tell you a lot of things, if you
watch, and expect it to be sensible and intelligent. Pay
attention to all the little signs - the way it moves its body,
the ears, the eyes, the little whinnies - that's its way of
talking. There is the neigh of terror, the scream of rage, the
whinny of nervous impatience (that's a very funny sound), the
nicker of longing or hunger or friendliness or delight or
recognition. She'll talk to you, and it's for you to understand
her. You'll learn her language, and she'll learn yours - never
forget that they can understand everything you say to them."
"Everything Dad?" This was really exciting.
"Everything. And when you once realize that, friendship with
an animal begins to be quite a different thing. Communication,
(Yes indeed, the horse can read you, and you should be able to
read them. It is wonderful to have a horse trust you. I can back-
up my horse Goldie for 50 feet or even more - straight back, that
takes trust on her part that I'm not going to smash her into
something that will hurt her or kill her - Keith Hunt)
It can be somewhat unnerving driving in a car with Monty
Roberts. He wears a national championship rodeo buckle on his
belt and for much of his life competed in the showring. When you
ask him (as I did) to relive some of those moments, competitive
juices bubble in him and then his wife, Pat, will diplomatically
remind him that he is over the speed limit. More disconcerting,
though, is the urgency in her voice when she says on approach to
an intersection. "Monty, the light's red!"
Monty is not just color-blind-born with a confused sense of
color as many men and some women are. He is what an
ophthalmologist would call achromatopic: he sees no color at all,
but a rich array of blacks, whites, and tonal grays. And Monty
wonders now if he ever could have learned the pure, silent
language of horses had he not been born with this so-called
"deficit." The neurologist Oliver Sacks writes, with awe and
wonder, about people with such deficits - deafness, blindness,
autism, bizarre disorders of the brain. He is forever musing on
the silver linings in the dark clouds of pathology.
(A very small percentage of people - one in thirty or forty
thousand--are achromatopic. In his book, "The Island of the
Colorblind" - Dr.Sacks describes an expedition to the remote and
tiny Pacific atoll of Pingelap where, by some extraordinary
coincidence of history and geography, virtually the entire
population is achromatopic, and has learned to inhabit their
world with particular delicacy and subtlety.)
A deaf person who uses sign language - a visual grammar -
sees in a remarkable and unique way: introduce her into a room
and ask her seconds later to recall the objects and their
arrangement and she will typically remember far more than a
hearing person will. It's a kind of spatial genius. What's more,
the owners of deficits feel a terrific allegiance to their
deficit-defined culture. Deaf individuals granted hearing are
sometimes appalled at the cacophony and if possible return to
their familiar silent world.
Monty was once provided with contact lenses that allowed him
to see the world in what we call living color. He, too, was
appalled. The colors screamed at him, distracted and disoriented
him. He parked the lenses in a drawer at home. "Military
camouflage," he told me, "is a confusion of color. It stirs the
eye up so you don't see the shape. The color blind just see the
shape, but it also means we see so much more than the normally
When he was a child, Monty's father used him as a scout on
hunting trips: the boy could spot deer moving on a distant
hillside long before the rifleman, who boasted of his son's
eyesight. The American military heard about Monty's unusual skill
and wanted him to fly as a passenger in a spy plane over enemy
territory during the Korean war: with his eyes he would not be
duped by camouflage. Monty declined.
His color blindness (which he hid, by the way, most of his
life) meant that as a boy of twelve observing wild mustang herds
for weeks at a time in the Nevada desert, he saw patterns of
movement that you or I might have missed. In "The Man Who Listens
to Horses," Monty watches spellbound as a mustang mare
excommunicates an unruly colt from the herd: it is a compelling
story in a book that teems with stories.
But perhaps we would have neither that story, nor this book,
had Monty seen color as most of us do.
When I consider Monty's accomplishments in the world of
horses (the depth and breadth of his personal experience in rodeo
competition, Thoroughbred racing, showjumping, polo, eventing -
may have no equal in the world), I find myself asking, What if?
What if he had not been born color-blind?
What if his Cherokee grandmother had spoken English? "I
understood her body language more than anything," Monty told me.
"She used words, not sentences, with lots of gestures and
sounds." Perhaps that training proved useful when he sought to
understand what horses intended. Only a careful eye could have
deciphered their signals when no one else noticed them, never
mind knew what they meant.
What if Monty had not had the chance to study wild horses?
The first thing I noticed about a wild horse is how wary and
watchful and silent he is. Though a domestic horse is far more
inclined to communicate by nickering, he is also far less
inclined to communicate at all. In a given period of time, says
Monty, a mustang may deliver fifty signals with his body to every
two by his stabled counterpart. (I find it intriguing that a wild
horse domesticated will soon start to nicker like his stallmates,
while a domestic horse gone feral will soon learn about predators
and the wisdom of quiet.) In the deserts of Nevada, then, Monty
was seeing extremely "talkative" horses: the desert as language
(In March 1997, Monty returned to the high desert terrain to
attempt what many said was impossible: to gentle a mustang in the
wild. It was a high stakes gamble, for a documentary film crew
from BBC television was on-site to record his success, or
failure. The afterword to "The Man Who Listens to Horses"
presents my eyewitness account of that bold and memorable
What if his father had not been the kind of person he was? A
man of the old school, Marvin sought to make a true horseman of
Monty--a chip off the old block. But when the son, at seven years
of age, showed no faith in that philosophy and already looked to
be going his own way with horses, the father turned on him. Talk
to Monty for a time, get a little close to him, and he will often
twist conversations back to his father. The wound is still raw.
His father did not beat traditional horsemanship into him; he
beat it out of him. Where Monty was walking, in any case, his
father caused him to run.
Monty Roberts has many stories, and often they made me
Stories about elaborate pranks at the farm, about cowboy
characters named Wendell and Doc, Slim and Slick, about
calamitous cattle roundups that pretty near killed him, but since
he survived, became amusing anecdotes - fodder for a book. He has
deep pockets full of stories about horses, like the well-named
Prince of Darkness who literally ran over Monty several times
while Monty puzzled through the stallion's starting-gate phobia.
About his days as a child prodigy in the showring and on
Hollywood film sets. He draws his life and times with a fine and
detailed pen; his memory for racehorse pedigrees, and for the
character and personality of horses he has known, is staggering.
But many of the stories about his father were gut-wrenching to
bear witness to. The telling sapped him, left him wet-eyed and
trembling. A bear, I thought, in need of a hug.
When I first shook Monty's hand at the airport in Santa
Barbara, mine disappeared in his and I was secretly glad to get
it back. Later that day, I watched as he worked on stretching a
rope, tying one end to an elm tree on his lawn and the other to
his truck, and for all his thick, strong hands, the fingers
nimbly worked the ropes. Monty is squarely built, and, at 240
pounds on a five-foot-ten-inch frame, much heavier than he looks.
He favors checked shirts, blue jeans, and that belt buckle the
diameter of a grapefruit, a brown-and-black oilskin jacket, maybe
a ball cap or straw cowboy hat, cowboy boots. There's a line
across his nose - white above, brown below - that says he always
wears a hat in the sun. When he bends down to pluck something off
the ground, he genuflects like an altar boy. After all the
beatings he took as a child, after all his rodeo days riding
bulls and wrestling steers, his back will have it no other way.
In 1981, he endured lower back surgery so radical that walking
again was offered only as a possibility; his riding days were
over. The surgeons reckoned wrongly. I have not encountered a
tougher specimen of a man (mentally or physically). I wondered if
his bones might be made of mesquite, that notoriously heavy wood
of the Southwest. He is tireless, always relentlessly focused on
the task at hand, and possessed by a deep work ethic. "He was a
worker," Monty once said of a writer friend who had earned the
He is not without a sense of fun, or showmanship for that
On a long train ride, he is someone I would want for
company: smart, thoughtful, passionate and mettlesome, full of
opinions, full, as I say, of stories. But he does seem ruled
overall by a high seriousness and missionary zeal: his calling
has always been to make the world a better place for the horse.
His son, Marty (who once signed a birthday card to his father,
"Your son, Marty R. Roberts"), called his father on the car phone
one day and I heard Monty ask him, "Why are you so somber?" "I'm
always somber," came the reply, and Monty - who loves his son
dearly - laughed as heartily as I ever saw him laugh in all the
time we were together. Sometimes a father sees his son in a
certain light and chuckles at the resemblance.
Key to his health are the fourteen natural supplements he
takes daily to compensate for a lifetime of pain that elevated
his adrenaline levels and damaged his pancreas, spleen, liver,
and kidneys. He takes a natural enzyme to carry oxygen to the
tissues, vitamins C and E, ginseng, magnesium, zinc, and
melatonin, along with a coated aspirin to thin the blood. All
contained in a little black suitcase.
Call it a modern diet. And yet, like many horse people, he
loves tradition and fine old things. Hates plastic and modern
gadgets built to break. Loves wood, admires craft, and surrounds
himself with it. Those six-hundred-year-old church doors in the
stone wall by the house, he says, will still be glorious when his
Lincoln Continental is rust.
"The ladder-back chairs in the living room," he tells me,
"were made by craftsmen who studied their art for years before
ever making a chair. The drawers I keep my clothes in are four
hundred years old, with dovetail corners and hand-sawn boards.
There's beauty in that and you can't find it in modern things."
The patience, love, and care that he admires in the work of
craftsmen are the same values that he brings to his work with
Monty is a proud cook who often uses his great-grandfather's
black cast-iron skillets that hang on one wall of the ample,
sky-lit kitchen. And in the saloon he built by the garage is a
black-and-chrome cookstove from Elmira, Ontario, an old gray
spool-to-spool Royal typewriter that once belonged to John
Steinbeck, and a framed photograph of Geronimo over the chief's
rifle. (Notched into the stock in an inverted Braille - like code
is the Apache chief's name, along with dozens of other dots to
spell the word MEN - each dot a recorded kill.)
When I first saw Monty Roberts, he looked vaguely familiar.
During the 1970s he had been in dozens of commercials - drinking
Coke, driving a Chevy, about to sip a Miller Light. But when you
read his book, it is not his perhaps familiar face you should
have in your head, but the sound of his voice. I have noticed
that people who work around horses and cattle often speak slowly,
as if the pace of a walking steer or quarter horse had come to
guide their speech. And he always speaks distinctly, with more
drawl than I imagined a Californian would ever possess. He is an
educated, articulate man: his schooling is grounded in the
practical world - agribusiness, biology, psychology. When he
speaks, he speaks with great purpose; seldom does he falter in
his phrasing, restart a sentence or story. He will take deep
breaths or pause as necessary, and for comic effect dip into a
repertoire of accents.
I have the sense that Monty Roberts is a reasonably happy
and contented man. His is the joy of someone who knew to follow
his passion when he was seven years old, come hell, come high
water. "Horses," he says, "are my blood, my lifeline." But he
does talk about "a lifetime of rejection." People only began to
heed in recent years what he had been saying for so many: that
you can communicate with horses, win their trust, school them
without whips and spurs.
(Ah yes you bet you can, found it so way way back in the
beginning of the 1960s when I came to Western Canada at age 18
and began to break wild horses - Keith Hunt)
You would not be holding in your hand "The Man Who Listens
to Horses" had Elizabeth 11, Queen of England, not read an
article in a horse magazine about Monty Roberts. He might still
be a minor draw at horse shows, a literal voice in the
wilderness, had Elizabeth 11 not heard about him and invited him
to demonstrate his horsemanship at Windsor Castle in 1989. The
royal stamp of approval - warm endorsement would be more
accurate, because the Queen's horses are now all trained Monty's
way - bestowed immediate and international legitimacy. And by the
way, said Her Majesty, you should write a book about your
Since then, Monty has met with the Queen on twenty other
occasions. He seems as protective of her privacy as he is plainly
delighted by her company. They often converse alone in the palace
garden, sometimes for hours - about horses, people, the
philosophy of education. More than that he will not say; this was
the only time he was ever guarded when I asked him a question.
"It is an amazing relationship," says Monty, who also calls the
Queen Mother "one of the most humane beings ever to walk the face
of the earth."
But Monty Roberts was not the first American horseman to be
summoned to the palace; more than a century ago another gentler,
John Solomon Rarey, took the European horse world by storm just
as Monty did, and he, too, had turned his back on conventional
horse breaking. He also wrote a little book (the copy I read in
the rare books section of the Toronto reference library was four
inches by seven inches): "The Farmer's Friend, Containing Rarey's
Horse Secret, With Other Valuable Receipts and Information."
Rarey's secret? One breathtakingly simple governing principle:
you need not abuse a horse to earn his cooperation. Rarey, I
think, would be astonished at what Monty Roberts and the new
tribe of gentlers can accomplish, but for me the striking thing
about Rarey was how his ideas mirror those of Monty and the
moderns and Xenophon and the ancients.
Rarey had farmed in Ohio and there wisely sought the advice
of old cowpunchers, circus trainers, Indian riders, and any
horseman with answers to his questions. Eventually he devised a
system of training horses that relied on gentleness,
fearlessness, and simple devices (such as soft-leather hobbles)
that worked even on hostile horses. He made a name for himself.
In time, despite several tests put to him by disbelieving
trainers and horsemen, he arrived in England. There he faced a
stallion called "Cruiser," a steeplechaser not ridden in three
years and who wore an eight-pound iron muzzle; his groom always
carried a bludgeon. Cruiser's owner, Lord Dorchester, conceded
that it was "as much as a man's life was worth to attend to him."
But attend to him Rarey did, showing infinite patience,
perseverance, and savvy. He gentled the horse, forced him to lie
down, talked softly to him, and touched him all over. He "set to
work...," as one observer put it, "to tame him limb by limb, and
inch by inch." Any show of hostility would prompt Rarey to lift
the horse's head and shake it, as a father would scold a daughter
by lightly grabbing her chin. Cruiser the crazy horse would be
Rarey taught cavalry officers and riding masters; he
lectured London cabmen on treating horses humanely. Queen
Victoria had Rarey tame one of her more fiery horses, and the
prime minister, Lord Palmerston, sought a word. A contributor to
the Illustrated London News in 1858 predicted (wrongly) of Rarey
that "his name will rank among the great social reformers of the
nineteenth century." Instead, his little book, "The Farmer's
Friend...." was forgotten. But clearly he had sketched there a
kind of gentler's guide to the equine galaxy. Appeal to the
horse's intelligence, he urged, let the laws of his nature rule
your thinking. Use a system, haste makes waste, leave fear and
There is about the Roberts farm an air of quiet solidity.
Fear and anger have no place here. You must ascend a winding road
to achieve the low-slung board-and-batten and adobe house. A
rough-looking mesquite-wood wagon, called a "stone boat" and once
pulled by oxen to haul rocks, is the first thing you see as you
approach the house. Set on an elevated island of lawn surrounded
by a low stone wall, the great wagon - a clear centerpiece - at
night is bathed in floodlight. Ceilings on the house's south side
are all high, and windows there equally high: the honeyed light
from California skies pours in, day after day. From up here one
has a commanding view of many horses in their paddocks below.
If it sounds restful, it is. By day, the light warmed my
northern soul. My first night there, the frogs commenced their
chorus and I admired the fireflies down in the valley. Then Pat
Roberts kindly set me straight. The "fireflies" were the
headlights of cars on the road, their beams broken by the trunks
of thirty-foot cedars that line the edges of "Flag Is Up Farms."
The blinking lights are like a pulse. "We don't run the farm,"
Monty and Pat's daughter Laurel once told me on the fly. "The
farm runs us." When the farm office shuts down after business
hours, calls are routed to the house and start every morning at
The patio and terraced lawns overlooking the valley are
protected by an Alamo - like wall on the west, with inset doors
that open to let in sea breezes and a view of the sun as it drops
below the mountains. In that wall, in its own grotto, is a statue
of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.
Monty smiled when I asked him about the statue. A good
choice, he conceded, but not one picked with any solemnity. A
stone Dr. Doolittle might also have done the trick. Perhaps
Monty's greatest gift to us will be his heartfelt plea that we
all can and should "talk" to the animals. On that lawn where St.
Francis, bird in hand, casts his gaze, Monty learned - using
precisely the methods he used to communicate with horses - to
"talk" to wild deer. Even does and newborn fawns, once he has
made his introduction, abide his close proximity.
Monty's work with deer began in 1977 when he was riding in
the hills overlooking the farm and chanced upon an old wounded
doe being attacked by coyotes. That rescue of the deer he would
call "Grandma" paid handsome dividends. Monty devotes an entire
chapter to his experience with deer: in part, because deer use
the same body language as horses, and they taught him many
surprising subtleties. You may finish that fascinating section in
the book, as I did, with a new respect and appreciation for
Grandma and her kin.
When I was at the farm a young antlered male called "Cyrus"
came up the hill every morning to have his neck rubbed. Doors
must be closed when he is about, for he will now wander inside
the house as if it were his. Simply put, Monty communicates with
deer by deploying an advance-and-retreat, hello-and-good-bye
system that draws on most animals' conflicting tendencies - first
to flee an apparent threat, then, out of curiosity, to
investigate it. A horse, for example, feels security in numbers.
Isolate him and he will want to "join up" with another creature,
even a human (any port in a storm), if the trust is there. While
fly-fishing (his favorite pastime is to go fly-fishing in
northern British Columbia, always catch-and-release), Monty
noticed that fish, like deer and horses, initially fled him and
then circled back in the stream. You can talk to the animals. And
we do. A recent study at the University of Pennsylvania found
that ninety-eight perc ent of pet owners talk to their animals,
as if to a sympathetic friend. Convinced there is more there than
meets the eye, those of us who own dogs or cats or horses have
grown increasingly fascinated with the inner lives of these and
How else to explain the extraordinary success of "When
Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals" by Jeffrey
Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy, or "The Hidden Life of
Dogs" by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, or "The Intelligence of Dogs"
by Stanley Coren? Nicholas Evans's novel, "The Horse Whisperer,"
was one of the memorable publishing successes in the mid-1990s.
The story in a nutshell: a magazine editor from New York embarks
on a quest to Montana where she desperately hopes a "horse
whisperer" can heal her teenage daughter's horse, crazed and
badly scarred after a highway accident. Somehow, the mother
intuits, healing the horse is the key to healing her distraught
and now partially disabled daughter, even to healing herself.
The whisperer is a character inspired by Evans's long
conversations with Monty Roberts, Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Buck
Brannaman, and others. "The Horse Whisperer" is a novel about
hope, but mostly it's a novel about horses, and connecting with
horses. "I don't do it for the people," the whisperer explains.
"I do it for the horse." Sift through the words of actual
gentlers and you hear echoes: gentlers talk, not about people
with horse problems, but about horses with people problems. About
the horse as teacher, about the slow way with horses as the
quickest way. This is a horse-centered worldview that gentlers
say offers a nice spinoff. It makes humans more humane. Horses,
creatures of flight, are so sensitive and aware; humans, more
inclined to fight, have lost that acuity. The horse has much to
teach humans about listening.
In the span of human/animal interaction, our position -
until quite recently - has been either utilitarian (How can I
exploit this animal?) or egomaniacal (Don't I look handsome
tall,/successful on this fine gray horse?). Up until ten or
twenty years ago, most doctors believed that newborn infants
neither felt nor remembered pain; no need, then, to use
analgesics for painful, invasive procedures. And if we dismissed
babies as sentient beings, then doubly did we dismiss animals.
In the 1950s, when Monty Roberts went to California Polytechnic
State University, San Luis Obispo, and wanted to study animal
behavior, no such course existed. The countless books written
about horses throughout history make repeated references to "our
dumb companions" and "the noble brutes." And while some writers
of the Old West took an interest in mustangs, no one until fairly
recently observed the herds as a biologist would in a field
study. We already knew about the horse, didn't we? Barely a
ripple was raised earlier this century when some two million wild
horses on the American plains were wiped out - mostly for pet
For most of human history, a strict hierarchy put God at the
top and humankind below, with animals near the bottom. Man, says
the Book of Genesis, would have "dominion over... every creeping
creature that moveth upon the earth." Most cultures gave little
thought to whether the animals they were busy hunting and bossing
also remembered, felt, feared, or sorrowed.
Many of us no longer think that way. The rising tide of
vegetarianism, especially among young people, suggests a
startling new awareness of animal consciousness. In academic
circles, many thinkers - among them Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence, a
former veterinarian and now cultural anthropologist who has
written widely on the connection between horses and humans, and
Edmund O. Wilson, a world-renowned and specialist and the only
two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize are among those advancing a
philosophy they call biophilia.
Biophilia contends that as we come to understand other
organisms - how a herd of horses interacts in a pasture, the
various social tasks of insects in the jungle, the mood of your
dog walking ahead of you during your evening constitutional - we
value them, and ourselves, more. The reward is in observing
nature, not in controlling it.
Monty Roberts, in "The Man Who Listens to Horses," describes
a fellow and highly successful horse trainer named Greg Ward.
What should amaze trainers of the old school is how he eases
young horses into work: for the first twenty days that a rider is
on their backs, the horses call all the shots. If the horse wants
to graze, trot, roll - the wish is granted. There is no chance
for resentments or neuroses to form.
"A new beginning in the relationship between man and horse,"
Monty calls it. Generous praise. But if anyone has ushered in a
new relationship, it is Monty Roberts himself - the man who heeds
and understands horses like no one else before him.
One of the patriarchs of Thoroughbred racing in North
America is Joe Taylor, seventy-three years old when I talked to
him early in 1997.
At his Taylor Made Farms in Lexington, Kentucky, are stabled
550 horses. Fifteen years ago he had gone to a round pen in an
open field near his farm where a man was going to demonstrate
breaking a horse in a new and different way. A great many farm
managers had been invited, but none came. Only Joe Taylor.
"I couldn't believe it," said Taylor of what he saw Monty
Roberts do that day. "I've been around horses all my life, but I
had no concept that horses had their own language. I would love
to have known about this when I was a kid. The old way - putting
a horse in a corral, lassoing him, tying him to a post and then
getting on him with a pair of spurs - unbelievable. Now we use
round pens, we teach the horse that we're not going to hurt him,
that we're his friend."
"Twenty years from now," Taylor predicts, "everybody will be
using Monty Roberts's methods. We've got to. It's the right
My sense is that the name Monty Roberts will have an
enduring currency. He will be remembered as the horseman who
learned the language of horses; as the author of a sophisticated
yet simple system of bringing the horse amiably to that first
rider; and as an animal psychologist who bade us ground the
schooling of the horse in the very nature of the horse. He is a
wise teacher, a man of unyielding principles and uncommon
courage, and one of the best friends the equine species ever had.
My hope is that he is the one to lead us, for good this
time, into a gentler and deeper connection with horses.
Lawrence Scanlan April 1997
YES EVERY PERSON WHO LOVES, OWNS, OR WORKS WITH HORSES
SHOULD HAVE THIS BOOK. THIS BOOK SHOULD BE A MUST TO
HAVE IN YOUR HORSE BOOK LIBRARY. IT'S TIME, IT'S CORRECT,
IT'S THE TRUE WAY, TO BE PATIENT, KIND, GENTLE, FIRM IN
THE RIGHT WAY WHEN NEEDED, AND TO TALK TO YOUR HORSE,
AS FRIEND TO FRIEND.
To be continued with more horse articles