The HORSE WHISPERER
An Interview with Monty Roberts
A sense of the sacredness of all life is evident in the work of Monty Roberts, whose empathic understanding of horses has led him to develop compass-ionate methods of training them to accept a rider. His scientific approach to communicating with horses suggests a common connection between all life forms. Roberts is a tireless advocate of nonviolence and trust as essential values for the world’s future, not only with regard to treatment of horses but for everyone, especially children. He is not a “mind reader,” he insists, communicating through specific body gestures and movements, but he does serve as a spiritual healer through his dedication to and practice of principles of cooperation, respect, and gentleness.
Monty Roberts, author of The Man Who Listens to Horses and his new book Shy Boy, grew up in Salinas, California, working with and loving horses. During his formative years he was on the road much of the time showing horses profess-ionally, competing in rodeos, and working in the motion picture business as a stunt double. Roberts holds degrees in Animal Husbandry, Biological Science, and Farm Management, and he owns and operates, with his wife, Pat, an accomplished sculp-tor, The Flag Is Up Farms in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, a world-class horse farm that he designed and built. A real-life “horse whisperer,” he uses gentle methods of training horses, specializing in rehabilitating ones that have been mistreated.
Roberts also teaches corporate clients how to apply the principles he uses in the corporate workplace to train managers. His clients include Disney, Xerox, GM, and AT&T. Roberts has received the highest honor that the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals can give, its Founder’s Award.
SCIENCE of MIND: What was the pivotal factor that led to your developing a gentler way to train horses than the traditional methods?
Monty Roberts: My father, who managed an equestrian center during my child-hood, taught me by example how not to treat animals. His confrontational way of training horses was accepted at that time but it struck me as being damaging to the horse’s spirit as well as its body. “You hurt them first, or they’ll hurt you” was my father’s philosophy, both toward horses and his own children. The cruelty that resulted from that philosophy instilled in me a lifelong commitment to practice nonviolence in working with horses. I refused to break their spirits, and all too often, even their bones. I knew there was a much gentler way.
The approach I eventually developed got its start from the many summers I spent alone in the high desert, where I would watch wild horses with my binoculars for hours at a time. Patiently striving to understand the ways of the mustang, I felt intuitively that I had happened upon something very important.
I didn’t realize then that what I was learning would affect my whole life, but I did know even at the young age of thirteen that these were very special beings, these wild horses, and deserved to be treated with respect.
Violence was a part of your own upbringing?
Yes, it was. I wrote about that in my book because my feeling is that by bringing it out in the open I may be able to help other families and other fathers. I couldn’t help writing about it, it just rolled out, then my decision was whether to leave it in the book. I thought it needed to be brought into the open. But the use the techni-ques designed to main message of my work and also of my book is that there is a better way to treat horses than to hurt or frighten them into submission.
When you listen to horses, what are you hearing?
It’s a silent language that involves noticing subtle ear, eye. nose, and head move-ments. I have found that a horse’s body language communicates in a very clear way. By paying attention to its gestures, I can respond with my own movements. Through these motions I establish rapport with horses. They speak a silent gram-mar I call “Equus.” This language makes use of the horse’s whole body.
For example, I especially recall a dun mare, clearly the matriarch of the herd, disciplining an unruly young colt who had been roughing up foals and mares. She squar-ed up to him, her eyes on his eyes, her spine rigid, her head pointed like an arrow. He knew exactly what she meant. As far as three hundred yards from the herd, the outcast colt knew by her body position when he could return to the fold. She would be eyeing him straight on in a way that predators do but then when he stopped misbehaving, she would angle her body in such a way that suggests forgiveness.
Do these body signals comprise a universal language among horses?
I think so. It’s my belief that this equine body language is genetically ingrained in the memory of all horses and that we can make friends even with wild mustangs by mimicking their language. Learning the language of Equus has enabled me to transform any horse, no matter how primal it is, from a free-roaming steed into a trusting and cooperative mount, and to do so painlessly.
Your emphasis in on doing this in a way that is humane and gentle, not cruel?
Absolutely. It’s amazing how effective touch can be when there is an attitude of caring and respect. Too many horses have been mistreated during the training process, and they are afraid. They have learned the flight response to avoid pain. The use of communication is a humane alternative to the harsh treatment of horses and one that I would like to see serve as a model to lessen the abuse we often inflict on animals and our fellow humans. This applies not just to horses but to all creatures. The cycle of violence in our society must stop. As someone who has both experienced and witnessed violence in my life, I feel strongly that we can accomp-lish nothing worthwhile through that approach. If the trainer is nervous—or, worse, cruel—this is conveyed to the horse and it reacts. Then, someone, either man or horse, ends up getting hurt. I want to see this cycle stopped.
So calling attention to and ending violence has been the primary emphasis of your work with horses?
Yes. My ultimate aim through the work I do is to leave the world a better place than I found it for both horses and people. The principle theme of my life is that violence is never the answer. None of us is born with the right to say, “You must, or I will hurt you” to any creature, human or animal. This is why I have spent many years learning to persuade an unbroken horse, straight from the wild, to accept a saddle, bridle, and rider—all in less than thirty minutes. This nonviolent use of communication rather than force is a process that avoids weeks of struggle between man and animal. It also eliminates the need for the often painful techniques used to subdue a horse’s natural response to fear. Unlike traditional methods of breaking horses, my approach involves using a special nonverbal language to establish a bond of trust and cooperation. The horse makes a voluntary decision on his own to accept the saddle, bridle, and rider. I call this “joining up” or “starting.” I don’t like to use words like breaking or taming. These are traditional terms for a process that has frequently been quite harsh. My way is gentle. It happens through a scientifically proven and effective means of communication. When the horse moves in a certain way, it means something specific, and thathorse reads the response back to it also in a very specific way.
Do you believe a kind of connection happens between the horse and the person?
Definitely, but I don’t think of the interaction as mystical in nature. I do feel, though, that there is something magical about it. It’s the magic of an undiscovered tongue, one that is primitive, precise, scientific, and easy to read, It’s a universal language that uses body movement or signs in place of words. Humans have always been faced with a difficult challenge in our efforts to learn to communicate with animals. Understanding this primitive language seems to be a key factor in meeting that challenge. When a horse voluntarily decides to work with the human, there is a rapport that is genuine and heartfelt. A conversation begins to happen when the horse becomes accustomed to the presence of the human and senses there is no threat. A horse becomes nervous when alone, feeling especially vulnerable to predators, so it turns willingly toward the person in the pen with it, if there is some sign that the person can be trusted. This herd instinct is very powerful. So as long as a person is not afraid of horses and believes this method will work, anyone can do it.
What do you look for in a horse to present to an audience when you are on tour?
I like to work with ones that are as squarely in the normal range as I can find, so that the highest number of people in the audience can benefit from watching the technique. Also, I choose ones that reflect the kind of horse that are typically being raised in that geographical area. It helps if I can get horses that demonstrate to the audience that they are raw, that they have never been ridden before. Geldings and colts work better than fillies. In terms of remedial horses, I prefer not to work with ones that have been too beaten down, because they are already looking for a buddy and that doesn’t allow me to demonstrate how the flight response is converted through trust.
Your new book tells the story of how Shy Boy learned to trust you.
Can you cay a bit about that experience?
Shy Boy is a bay mustang I started a couple of years ago out in the open country. A film crew was there. We were demonstrating the joining up technique . When the horse, who was very shy—in fact, we later named him Shy Boy—was first mounted, it was a very emotional moment for me. He stayed with us for nearly a year, then after being ridden in a roundup, he was released back into the wild, where the herd accepted him after all that time. The next day, though, he returned to our camp and allowed me to halter him. This is a good example of how mutual trust, once developed, is enduring.
How have you applied your techniques in other contexts?
One way is that my wife, Pat, and I have taken in forty-seven foster children, most of whom came from dysfunctional homes. In addition, we raised the three who were born to us. The way we disciplined all of them was to create together a consequence list. If a chore is not done, then there is an already agreed upon consequence that the child experiences. It’s a mutual thing, rather than an act of domin-ation by the parent simply because the parent has the advantage of being stronger and bigger. This approach has also proven to be very effective as a way for managers to train workers. Several major corporations have sent their employees to The Flag Is Up Farms to observe our join-up technique, which fosters cooperation and trust. The key thing, whether in parenting, penal systems, or in management of employees, is to create an environment in which people feel safe. This is the only way they can learn.
So you have found applications in human organizations for the con cept you use in working with horses?
Yes, I have. This particular insight into the need to feel safe in order to learn came to me years ago at the school I attended. One of the nuns believed that there is no such thing as teaching, only learning. She felt that no one can push information into an unwilling brain. The word “teach” connotes pushing information into someone, not causing that information to be learned by a student. Through their flight response, the horses are trying to tell us the same thing. To me they are saying to stop with all of the intimidation, to slow down and wait a minute, to request instead of demand. The horse who performs best and relates well to people is the one who is completely free of fear. A frightened animal flees. It’s the same with human beings. If we can break the chain of violence, there willbe much more cooperation and communication in the world, and this is what creates peace. But humans are still threatening one another, still using force and intimidation. I believe we’re ready to take the step toward trust, or I wouldn’t be getting such a favorable respon-se to the work I’m doing. It is gratifying to feel that what I have achieved will continue to expand in future generations.
What is the future direction of your work?
My vision now is for The Flag Is Up Farms to become a mecca for horse gentlers, where they will learn to work harmoniously with the horses and will pass along a body of knowledge to others. As a youngster I didn’t know about fight or flight, nonverbal communication, or any of that stuff . It was only after my work with horses that I put the scientific aspects together and came up with the technique of listening to and starting a horse rather than breaking it. My dream is that in the future we won’t have to keep repeating the old ways. We are ready to pass beyond fear and cruelty and violence. And this applies to more than just horses. By helping people learn to listen to horses, I’m hopeful I will encourage them also to learn to listen to one another.
Science of MIND
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October 1999. Vol. 72, No. 10
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© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993