Trainer of a Different Color

Called "The Man Who Listens to Horses" -- the title of his best-selling 1996 memoir from Random House -- Monty Roberts is almost certainly the most famous horse trainer in the world. Or, rather, to use his own new-agey term, he's a "horse gentler." Although already renowned in the equestrian community for his innovations in horse training, Roberts became a celebrity outside the horsy set when Robert Redford played a character like him in the 1998 film The Horse Whisperer.

Roberts, who will appear and give a demonstration of his "Join-Up" horse-training technique on Wednesday, March 22, at WestWorld of Scottsdale, was born in Salinas, California, in 1935. His parents ran a riding school, and by the age of 6, he had proved himself a competitive riding prodigy. By 10, he had already doubled for Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet and appeared as a stunt rider in dozens of other films at Warner Bros. and other studios. At the age of 20, he trained James Dean for East of Eden.

Roberts attended California Polytechnic, triple-majoring in biology, animal science and agri-economics, and competing on Cal Poly's rodeo team. After college, he founded Flag Is Up Farms, and throughout the '60s, '70s and '80s, trained thousands of horses and dozens of mules while pursuing side ventures ranging from tree farming to behavioral studies of wild fish and deer. In the late '80s, he became an adviser to the equestrian staff of the British royal family. He's written two books, The Man Who Listens to Horses and Shy Boy: The Horse That Came In From the Wild (HarperCollins, 1998).

Monty Roberts and friend.
Christopher Dydyk
Monty Roberts and friend.

"I'm gonna do, in all likelihood, four horses," says Roberts, by phone from a speaking gig in San Francisco, of his Scottsdale appearance, which lasts about three hours. "You never know what they're gonna bring you, but it's my hope that I'll get one horse that's never been trained, and three others with remedial problems. One that does something like kicking the farrier, and another that does things like bucking or rearing, or refusing to go forward, that sort of thing, that gives problems while riding. And for the fourth horse, we like to get one that they've had no luck loading on a trailer, one that is phobic about the trailer to the point of being dangerous."

What, precisely, is the astounding innovation of Roberts' "Join-Up" method? Fundamentally, it appears to be nothing more than the idea that a horse will respond better, and more quickly, if it's treated with kindness, patience and gentleness. Though this sounds obvious, the opposite belief has actually long been dominant in horse training, and indeed in animal training in general.

The received wisdom has for centuries been that a horse must be "broken" -- that is, forced into submission through physical pain. Roberts claims that he received this wisdom himself, in a dynamic demonstration, from his own father, who he says beat him savagely with a chain when, as a boy, he showed his father the nonviolent methods with which he'd been experimenting.

Roberts says that he has met with the same sort of resistance as an adult. "I have a small army of very virulent detractors. Most of them are professionals who, if what I do is shown to be right, will have to change how they do things, and boy, they don't want to do that." Machismo also plays a role in resistance to his methods. "They [the detractors] are operating under the opinion that they are entitled to use violence. You know the sort of thing: 'The next thing, you'll be telling me that I'm not allowed to whip my kids, and nobody's gonna tell me that.'"

The method that Roberts eventually evolved was dubbed "Join-Up" because it involves appealing to the creature's herding instinct and inviting it to "join up" with the trainer's "herd." Asked what he will do, for instance, to get a phobic horse into a trailer, Roberts replies, with guileless simplicity, "I'll ask him." And how, specifically, does one ask a horse to go into a trailer?

"You're asking me how to speak Equus," says Roberts, using the term he coined for the equine language. "Now, if you spoke French, and I called and asked you how to speak French, it would be a long, involved conversation. But the main thing I try to communicate is that I don't mean to hurt it, that although I am predator, don't judge me by what I am, judge me by what I do." Monty Roberts is scheduled to appear at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 22, at WestWorld of Scottsdale, 16601 North Pima Road. Tickets are $25. For details call 480-483-8800 or 1-888-826-6689 (1-888-U2-MONTY).

 
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