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Wrangling on the Range #140

Monty Roberts - and the British Royal Family





The Invitation That Changed My Life

     One December evening in 1988, when I was fifty-three years
old, my longtime friend and neighbor, John Bowles, called me.
"Monty," he said in his unmistakable southern accent, "guess
what? The Queen of England wants to meet you." Her Majesty, he
said, was intrigued by my claims of being able to communicate
with horses.
     John Bowles is not above playing a practical joke or two. I
asked why he, plain John Bowles, was carrying royal messages.
He replied that an English friend of his, a certain Sir John
Miller, the Queen's former equerry-her horse manager-had
instructed him to locate me. Her Majesty had noticed articles in
The Blood Horse and Florida Horse (she is an avid reader of these
and many other equestrian magazines) about demonstrations I had
     Not long afterward, Sir John Miller came to the farm for a
demonstration and was excited by what he saw. On the way back to
the house, he listed particular dates during the following
year--Her Majesty's itinerary. It began to sink in that he was
fitting me into the royal schedule. Some weeks later, I received
a formal letter of invitation from Buckingham Palace: in April
1989 I was to spend a week at Windsor Castle.

     "I wonder," Sir John had asked me in his upper-class accent,
giving every syllable its due, "if a demonstration such as I've
just seen could be accomplished for Her Majesty in the mews?"
I had no idea what a mews was, but I nevertheless assured him
that we could make it work somehow. If the Queen was convinced
that my work was worthwhile, said Sir John, she would arrange for
me to tour several British towns and cities. Most important, she
would want Newmarket (home of the largest racing community in
Britain) and Gleneagles (site of a large equestrian center) to be
part of that itinerary.
     After the better part of a lifetime concealing from the
world what I knew about horses, the interest of the Queen offered
the prospect of a door opening wide. If I could prove to Her
Majesty's satisfaction that my work was credible and important, I
could bring my methods to the broadest possible audience.
On April 5, 1989, 1 was met at Heathrow Airport by Sir John. We
drove directly to Windsor Castle, a distance of only ten or
fifteen miles. Parked there were vehicles that looked more like
Sherman tanks than passenger cars. I was told the Queen was
having lunch with Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev and his
wife, Raisa, and they had shipped in their own cars for the
     The interior of the castle was a revelation. Behind these
doorways and in these corridors, great affairs of state had been
conducted for hundreds of years. The royal family had owned
racehorses for hundreds more years than my own country had
existed. Walking past tapestries and huge paintings, I had the
feeling that a country boy from California was going as far up in
the world as it was possible to go.
     Sir John took me down to a meadow in front of the castle,
where he showed me fifteen horses of all colors, shapes and
sizes. In a separate paddock was a Thoroughbred filly, making a
total of sixteen horses, none of which had been ridden. All green
and raw but halter-broken, these were the horses I would
communicate with during my weeklong series of demonstrations
     Then Sir John took me to the stable area on one side of the
castle. This, I understood at last, was the mews. Next we toured
the indoor riding school. It had the look of a chapel, with
Gothic-style windows and a high, vaulted ceiling. At one end,
fronted with glass and wood, was a balcony-a soundproof viewing
stand for the royal family. In the center of the riding school
was a fifty-foot wire-mesh round pen that Sir John and I had
arranged to be delivered and set up.
     I had never demonstrated my techniques in such a pen before,
and I was unsure how the horses would react. They would be able
to see through the wire to the outside, which would reduce their
focus on me. There was, however, no other option.
     The Queen had apparently invited up to 200 people to watch
me during the coming week. She herself would spend only an hour
with me on the Monday morning-prior commitments would allow no
more time than that-but she would probably watch the days' events
on video in the evenings.
     After our tour, Sir John and I walked back to Windsor
Castle. The Gorbachevs were set to leave. It was an eerie feeling
watching the Russian guards mingling with British security
officers, men carrying machine guns around the ramparts of the
castle. Some small upset occurred between the two factions and,
as I watched, a senior British officer-clearly a master grudge
holder-turned away muttering loudly, "By God, we stopped them in
the Crimea and we'll stop them at Windsor Castle."
     At nine o'clock the next morning, we were back at the castle
so I could introduce the horses to the round pen. Experience has
taught me that my demonstrations work more effectively when the
horse is not overly distracted by his surroundings. When I
arrived, I immediately sensed a cold feeling from the grooms; the
head groom, in particular, seemed to think I was treading on his
     I had asked several times for assistance in shepherding
these horses, one at time, into the pen. While I tried to muster
aid, a lady dressed in impeccable riding clothes walked through
the riding hall and started talking to Sir John. She was an
erect, obviously self-assured woman with a commanding walk and
demeanor. His transformation was remarkable: suddenly his stance,
even the tone of his voice, changed.
     He was talking with the Queen of England.
     For some days I had pondered the proper salutation to use,
should I meet her. And should I bow, or was a handshake the order
of the day?

     Now she was coming toward me. Far from home, the guest of a
foreign nation, I wanted to do the right thing. But the Queen
made it easy for me by offering her hand. I shook it and said,
"Your Majesty," and let it go at that. She was quick to put me at
my ease. "Come, Mr. Roberts," she said, "and show me this lions'
cage in the center of the riding hall. I want you to tell me
about it."
     Together we walked into the riding hall and looked at the
wiremesh round pen. "It appears," she said, "to be the sort of
thing you should enter with a whip and a chair." I agreed with
her, although the similarity only then occurred to me, and I
worried that it would strike the horses as equally forbidding. I
gave her a summary of what I intended to do the following
morning. I was pleased that she wanted to know as much as
possible beforehand. Then she was gone.
     I hoped I had at least made a good start. The relationship
between us was now relatively informal, and I had the impression
of a straightforward woman who was making happen what she wanted
to happen.
     At midday on the Sunday, reinforcements arrived: Pat, my
son, Marty, and my rider Sean McCarthy, came directly to Windsor
Castle. Working with me in the round pen for nine years, Sean has
been that first rider for more than 1,400 horses. Now, he and I
went over our equipment in the round pen; then I showed him the
horses in the field. He was surprised at the diverse range of
animals. Standing in the separate paddock were two or three
mostly Thoroughbred horses; the one filly was a registered
Thoroughbred. There were two large Shire Piebalds who would go on
to be drum horses in the ceremonial division of the royal
stables, a few warm-blood crosses, a few other large horses, and
some smaller types right down to the Fell and Haflinger ponies. I
was reasonably confident that none would kill me.
     Our preparation done, we spent the evening at Sir John's
home, Shotover House, near Oxford, which has been in his family
for more than a century. Together with Major Dick Hearn-who was
Her Majesty's racehorse trainer for many years-and his wife,
Sheila, we enjoyed a fine dinner that evening that went a long
way toward steadying my nerves for the following day. The next
morning, at nine o'clock, we were due to meet the Queen, Prince
Philip, and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, at the riding

     Once they arrived, the event took on official, even
ceremonial, overtones. The woman in riding clothes was now the
Queen of England attending an engagement. She and her party were
surrounded by security personnel and subject to rules of
protocol. Sir John Miller introduced us as though she and I had
not spoken the day before, and he again pointed to the glassed-in
viewing gallery from which the royal party would view the
demonstration, as if no discussion of all of this had taken
place. The event began to take on a life of its own.
     I was, I admit, nervous. As a rule I am a relaxed person; my
work requires it. How disconcerting, then, to feel my pulse rate
soar and my concentration falter. The royal family, accompanied
by Pat and Marty, moved to the gallery and took their seats.
I was charged first of all with "breaking in" the young
Thoroughbred filly - owned by the Queen Mother herself, who would
be watching intently. As I entered the round pen, it occurred to
me that unless I relaxed I would not be able to communicate with
the horse as I normally do. The filly would then not be receptive
and this could become the most embarrassing and humiliating day
of my life. As I closed the gate, a sense of terror engulfed me.
The filly-adolescent, skittish, and wide-eyed with fear-was
brought in by her handler and released. I recognized a raw young
creature more frightened than I was and needing my comfort and
assistance. The instant I saw this, my nerves settled and I got
down to work.
     In minutes, I could feel things come right. The filly gave
me the signals I was looking for and behaved exactly as I would
have predicted. She was following me around the ring within seven
minutes. In her predicament, she trusted me. I was her comfort.
Within fifteen minutes, this high-strung Thoroughbred stood
steady as a rock while I fixed her first saddle on her. After
just twentyfive minutes, she quietly accepted the bridle and
snaffle bit, and Sean was on her back riding around the ring. It
was as if she had been looking forward to this all her life.
Finally, Sean dismounted and she was led away.
     As I left the round pen, the Queen, Prince Philip, and the
Queen Mother rose from their seats to come down and join me. The
Queen was the first to emerge from the door of the viewing
gallery. With a smile on her face, she put out her hand to shake
mine and said, "That was beautiful." She told me she was amazed
how the filly had responded, that I should feel proud of the work
I was doing.
     How long I had waited to hear someone say just that. For
most of my life, my ideas on schooling horses had been scorned
and rejected, my work done in virtual seclusion because no one
was ready to see it. To have no less a person than the Queen of
England, a woman who knows and cares for horses and is herself a
leading expert on horses, praise my work in such warm and genuine
language marked a profound and deeply satisfying turnaround, and
I cherish it to this day.
     Shortly afterward, Prince Philip shook hands and asked me if
I could work with the young men who were "breaking in" some of
his Fell ponies that week. I was delighted by these responses to
my demonstration, but I confess I was waiting especially for a
reaction from the filly's owner, the Queen Mother. Then she too
appeared, and I was bowled over by the warmest appreciation I
could have hoped for. With tears in her eyes, she quietly and
firmly said, "That was one of the most wonderful things I've ever
seen in my life." She was visibly moved by what she had seen her
filly do, and by witnessing what communication is possible
between human and horse.
     Seeing her emotional reaction, I was caught up in the moment
and I forgot who she was and where we were. It felt right to put
my arms out and give her a gentle hug. The security guards
stiffened with surprise and stepped forward. It hit me that no
one was supposed to touch the royal family in this intimate way:
I dropped my arms and stepped back a full stride.
However, the Queen Mother did not seem in the least offended.
Still talking in a soft voice, she told me she hoped I would
continue my work and bring about a different, more humane
relationship between humans and horses. I think back on her
reaction as being the one that would satisfy me for the rest of
my life.
     Imagine the impact of all this. It was as though I was
finally allowed out into the daylight, blinking a bit in the
fierce glare of publicity, but with my work recognized as valid
and genuine. The Queen, one of the most important figures in the
horse world, would actively promote public demonstrations of my
work. But if I needed the royal seal of approval, so did some
other doubting Thomases still need convincing.
     After the first demonstration, we went with Sir John and
twelve others, most of them journalists, to the Savile Gardens
Restaurant in Windsor Park. During lunch, Sir John changed
positions several times in order to have conversations on his
radio phone. On the way back to the castle to continue our
demonstrations, he mentioned to me that the stable staff were
making an unscheduled stop to pick up two new horses.
     Much later, I would learn that some members of the Queen's
staff had suggested to her that I had done something underhanded
with the horses as I took them through the ring to acclimatize
them. In short, they suspected skulduggery. The Queen had not
agreed with their judgment. What, she asked them, would convince
them? They had suggested a stiffer test, one they doubted I would
pass. A truck would be sent over to Hampton Court to pick up two
large, three-year-old piebald stallions that were very raw and
had barely been handled.
     Sir John wanted me to start these horses without
acclimatizing them to the ring. Because my working methods were
new to him, it did not strike him as much of a request. It meant
that the horses, however, faced a double and coincidental threat:
the most traumatic experience of their lives to that point in a
frightening new environment.
     This new plan concerned me; there was enough pressure on the
event, and on the horses, already. Back at the Windsor mews, a
small van was parked with the two piebald stallions shoehorned
into it. They were sweating and banging around. When the first
was taken off, the other screamed fiercely and the first one
called loudly back. They had been kept together in a field at
Hampton Court, and were obviously deeply attached.
     Meanwhile, a hundred guests had come to see the
demonstration that afternoon. The stable staff were lined up
against the wall, some of them smiling, there to watch me fail
and my work be judged as fraudulent. Sir John took the microphone
and stepped into the round pen to introduce me. The huge colt
came charging toward him and slapped his big front feet on the
ground, displaying his anger. Sir John stepped quickly back
outside the gate and made the introduction from there. One could
hardly blame him.
     I was not happy about these new circumstances, which were
both unfair and dangerous. The aggressive colt was still
distracted by the other horse calling him from just outside the
building. Suddenly, everyone stood up; the Queen had walked in.
She was not scheduled to be here, but she obviously wanted to see
the outcome of this new test. From an area behind the seats, she
gestured to everyone that they might sit down. Sir John continued
with his introduction and explained what they were about to see.
I stepped through the gate into the round pen, picked up my line
and began. The colt circled me, acting with an all-male
arrogance. I pressed him a touch harder to go away, and he did
just that. As he left me and went to work, cantering a good
circle against the fence, he forgot about his partner outside and
tuned in to my presence and what I was doing. He was working hard
for me. After three or four circles of the round pen, I was
getting a good response from him and my voice rose a few decibels
in volume.
     "I'm looking to have the same conversation with him as I'm
having with you. And I can assure you, he will talk to me. Watch
out for the inside ear. The licking and chewing. The head down,
skating a couple of inches above the ground. Great! There he
     I wanted to drive it home-to the stable crew especially-that
this was a legitimate process, that this horse was communicating
with me. Indeed, I felt a good deal more comfortable conversing
with this horse than I did with the skeptics in the royal stable.
This unruly colt, after all, believed me within two minutes and
trusted me after seven.
     Sean rode him without difficulty and well before the
thirty-minute mark. It was a perfect demonstration, and the
Queen's reaction was one of pleasure and satisfaction. Her
confidence in my work had been well-founded. As I waited for the
big colt's companion, the stable hands started to filter back to
their work areas. I politely asked them to come back and watch me
start both horses from Hampton Court, not just one.
     They returned to their old positions against the wall, but
perhaps with slightly more open minds now. I started the second
horse, and the demonstration went equally smoothly. For the rest
of the week, I continued with demonstrations before different
audiences. The doubt I had originally encountered was either
gone, or had at least dissipated.
     The Queen and others, most of them involved with royal
horses, continued to ask guests to come to see what I could do.
Each day brought audiences of 200 people. On the Tuesday morning,
the Queen again arrived unexpectedly to watch the horses work.
She returned on Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday morning, Wednesday
afternoon, all day Thursday and Friday morning. It was an
exhilarating feeling to have won her commitment to the extent
that she changed her itinerary.
     We share a genuine fascination with horses and it was a
great pleasure to talk with her about them. As her support
continued, my respect and feelings of warmth for her grew
     At one point, my neighbor John Bowles arrived from
California. When he entered the stable area, I was speaking with
the Queen. John walked up behind her, off to one side and stuck
his hand out with a big smile, ready to greet me. When he
realized I was conversing with the Queen, a look of consternation
fell across his face.
     I had spent so much time with so many Sir Johns and Lady
Armes by this point that when along came plain John Bowles, a
good old boy from the deep South if ever there was one, I shook
his hand and confidently said, "Your Majesty, this is Sir John
Bowles." I had bestowed instant knighthood on an old friend for
services rendered.
     That week we started sixteen of the Queen's horses, four
ponies for Prince Philip, the Queen Mother's filly and one
show-jumping prospect owned by a friend of the Queen's-a total of
twenty-two horses during the five days.
     In addition, we decided to ride the Queen Mother's
Thoroughbred filly each day and bring her on a bit, so that
before we left the Queen Mother could watch her ridden in the
open parkland surrounding Windsor Castle. There was the risk of
embarrassment because a young horse going outside for the first
time can do silly things, no matter how well started. I would
take the risk.
     That Friday in mid-April 1989 must be written in the record
books as one of the most glorious, sunny days that England ever
experienced. Only occasionally did billowy white clouds sail
across those brilliant skies. Windsor, and England, looked as
beautiful and civilized as only England can.
     The Queen Mother was chauffeured in, and I stepped to an
area near the car to greet her. Before the car had even stopped
rolling, she opened the rear door with a big smile on her face
and greeted me as though she had known me all her life. She gave
her filly a rub on the nose and spoke with Sean, then greeted
head groom Roger Oliver, Sir John and Pat.
     With Roger leading on an experienced horse, Sean followed
into the magnificent gardens on the filly and elegantly put her
through her paces. On that day, in that setting, man and horse
together seemed a thing of rare beauty, a scene that might have
been taken straight from a fairy tale.
     The Queen herself had an important engagement but she had
asked to be informed when the filly was ridden in case she could
slip away to see her. As we walked back up the hill toward the
castle, we saw the Queen coming out of her apartments, dressed
for her engagement. She greeted us with a warm smile and was
generous in her praise of the filly on her first outdoor ride.
Thanking me for spending the week at Windsor Castle, she went on
to outline the plans she had for the countrywide tour on which I
was due to embark. This day, this week, had been among the most
rewarding in my life. The pressure had vanished, and our visit
had been a success. For myself, my family, and for Sean, it had
been a storybook week......





Keith Hunt

To be continued with more horse articles

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