Man talks to horses in language he calls "Equus"
hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Sep 29 14:41:10 UTC 2007
From The Times
September 29, 2007
One man and his faith in horse power The horse whisperer Monty Roberts,
back on tour in Britain, says wild ponies and unruly children can be tamed
in the same way. But is that the whole story, asks John Naish
Monty Roberts, in his big hat and blouson jacket, walks over to greet me in
true saddle-sore cowboy style. His assistant offers us tea. "Tea's the only
thing they will let me drink nowadays. I'm on antiinflammatories every day
of my life," he says. But Roberts, 72, is still riding.
He's at the start of his latest stadium tour of Britain, displaying his
amazing ability to tame horses through a "horse whispering" language he
calls Equus. It coincides with the publication of his new equine advice
book, *Ask Monty*. He is also here to discuss his methods for training
schoolchildren. His gentle approach works just as brilliantly with kids, he
Roberts first came to public attention here when he worked for the Royal
Family in 1989. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was reportedly reduced to
tears after he tamed her wildest filly. In his touring demonstrations he
uses a complex interplay of body and eye movements to charm unbiddable
horses, moving in and out of their personal space to engage their
inquisitiveness and trust until they are happily cantering under his
command. He says that as a youth he learnt his technique, which he calls
Join-Up, by studying the body language of wild mustangs and by observing a
mare discipline an obstreperous colt. He says that he can get an unridden
horse to accept a rider in 30 minutes instead of the usual two weeks of
whips and cajoling. He has been the subject of two BBC documentaries and is
widely thought to be the inspiration for Nicholas Evans's bestselling novel
and film *The Horse Whisperer*.
Roberts was born into a Californian horse-training family but rejected his
father's methods, which he says were cruel. When he is not touring the world
giving demonstrations and talks, he lives in California with Pat, his wife
of 53 years, on a horse-training ranch in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley
that he runs as a nonprofitmaking trust. He's short and a little heavy set,
but from what I can see, he's in good shape for his age, though the cowboy
hat stays pulled down and the brown jacket zipped up throughout our
encounter in a stuffy hotel.
*"Some of my body parts don't match up"*
As soon as we settle, he embarks on the story of his fairytale emergence
from years of child abuse to become a world-renowned horseman. "At the age
of 4, I did my first acting in a B-movie and shoed my first horse," he says,
in his endearing drawl. "That year my father got upset about my empathy with
horses and beat me fiercely, to the extent that some guys came and pulled
him off of me. The beatings continued regularly until I was 11 or 12. He was
brutal to his horses, too." He fixes his rheumy blue-eyed gaze on mine: "In
1981, when CAT scans came to California, I was examined and they found 71
broken bones I'd sustained before I was 16. Some of my body parts don't
match up, it's been awful painful." Hence the daily antiinflammatories. That
suffering, he says, inspired him to develop his nonviolent method of horse
training and the educational approach that parallels it.
Not everyone agrees with Roberts's account, told in his bestselling 1996
autobiography *The Man Who Listens to Horses*. He was accused by his aunt
and brother of fabricating it all. His aunt, Joyce Renebome, and his cousin,
Debra Ann Ristau, published their own book: *Horse Whispers & Lies: The
Shocking Story, Did Monty Roberts Trade Truth for Glory?*Why the
discrepancy? Roberts says his abuse was hidden: "People like my father who
control in that way are very clever about hiding their affliction." He also
claims that the counter-allegations are the result of a long-running secret
affair within the family.
Roberts's reputation as the real inspiration for Evans's book *The Horse
Whisperer* has also been questioned. Evans, who also wrote the screenplay
for the film starring Robert Redford, has said: "Roberts was not the model
for the main character. There were several astonishing horsemen I met in
America who were in one way or another the model."
What is beyond dispute is Roberts's acceptance by some of the world's best
horse-riders as an exceptionally talented trainer. The World Equestrian
Games gold medallist Anky van Grunsven says she was greatly impressed by
Roberts's winning over of a recalcitrant 17-year-old horse called Iggy,
while the European Dressage Championships medallist Imke Schellekens-Bartels
describes his performance as "spectacular". Many thousands of people around
the world who have seen his public demonstrations seem equally convinced.
But can his skills work as spectacularly with British schoolchildren?
Roberts says that he held meetings in Britain two years ago with 25 of our
top educational decision-makers and has already played a key role in turning
around a failing school in the Midlands. It all began, he says, with his
passion for healing abuse victims (he and his wife have fostered 47 children
and have three children of their own). This prompted educationists to enlist
his help. He was first contacted by a local school in Santa Ynez Valley when
he was 25.
"I started helping with what I thought were good ideas about getting an
education. I was being taught my educational ideas by the horses, primarily
that violence is not the answer. As with horses, so with children: when you
take violence out of the equation things move more quickly and effectively.
Children, like horses, instinctively understand body language. The tactics
for teaching children and horses are the same: both are flight animals who
flee when threatened. But if you communicate and negotiate with them, they
will accept guidance."
Roberts says that his ideas have benefited problem schools around the world,
including the Kingshurst Junior school in Solihull.
"When I wrote *Horse Sense for People* [his 2001 book], one of the teachers
at Kingshurst got in touch. It was a failing school. When I took it on, I
would have rated it 9.5 out of 10 as a dysfunctional place to be," he says.
"My involvement started then. I went there ten times in four years and in
2004 the school was declared a centre of excellence. I did not save their
school, but if you want to say the horses saved their school..."
Jeff Darby, the head teacher of Kingshurst, sees it differently. "Monty did
not get us out of special measures. Kingshurst was in special measures in
1995 when I came to revamp it. We adopted strategies such as
'solution-focused brief therapy', which seeks not to blame children for
their actions or to bully them into changing, but to find positive ways
forward. Our strategy was also based on the psychiatrist William Glasser's
ideas in his book *Managing Students Without Coercion*. Four years later we
were awarded beacon school status.
"At that point, one of my teachers read Monty's *Horse Sense for People* and
found that it contained three statements that mirrored some things we were
doing: 'Violence is never the answer. Violence is always for the violator
and never for the victim,' and 'None of us was born with the right to say,
you must or I'll hurt you, to any other creature'."
Darby appreciates Roberts's visits and motivational talks: "He's a celeb.
That gives us recognition while there are many schools who are doing what we
are doing and don't get recognition. Our higher profile might even help to
change government policy a bit. Monty is good at touching base with the kids
and he has reinforced that violence is not the answer. We are grateful for
what he does."
All of this makes Roberts seem like a conundrum. As our time together draws
to a close, I remark that he seems well for his age – and thereby hangs
another amazing Monty story. "I was diagnosed as a diabetic two-and-a-half
years ago. My father and grandfather both died from it," he says. "I was
told that I was well over the blood-glucose limit. I was about 50lb
overweight. My blood pressure was at least 180/80." Roberts decided to cure
himself with a combination of alternative health concoctions that he uses on
his horses. It includes bovine colostrum (the premilk fluid produced during
late pregnancy) and coenzyme Q10, a vitamin-like substance that has shown
some small beneficial effect in preliminary studies on blood pressure.
"I've been eating right, too," he says. "Now my blood pressure is 109/58 and
I've a pulse of 49, where before it was 71. My blood pattern looks like an
Olympic athlete's. The doctors say it can't happen at 72 years old. Well..."
He holds his hands out in a looky-here's-the-proof fashion. "It's nothing
less than a medical mystery. It shocks everyone in the nutritional world." I
rather suspect it would.
Ask Monty*, by Monty Roberts (Headline, £14.99), is available from Times
BooksFirst for £13.49, free p&p. Phone 0870 1608080 or visit
The horse-whispering technique is also being used on troubled dogs, fretting
babies and even teens. At the core of the technique is body language and
nonverbal communication. The whisperer works in a calm, nonviolent way,
until they have achieved a mutual understanding.
At the forefront of baby whispering was the late Tracey Hogg, a British
nurse turned Hollywood baby guru, who honed her skill of understanding body
language through working with disabled children.
The technique may even help young offenders. A Scottish management company
is teaching wayward youngsters in Midmar, Aberdeenshire, the technique, to
impart to them the importance of body language, and how a calm,
understanding approach diffuses a situation much more effectively than
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