The Writer Who Listens to Readers

I was once fortunate enough to speak with Monty Roberts at one of his shows in the 1990s. Roberts is an American horse trainer who promotes his techniques of natural horsemanship through his Join-Up International organisation, believing that horses use a non-verbal language, which he terms ‘Equus’. Roberts original best-seller, The Man Who Listens to Horses, (prompted, it is claimed by Queen Elizabeth after she had seen his horse training methods) marked the beginning of international fame: he now regularly tours the world with live demonstrations and runs an Equestrian Academy in Solvang, California and an "online university" to promote his ideas.

Though I’d seen him ‘perform’ on television prior to attending the show, I was still astounded to witness what he could do with horses. In brief, an untrained, ‘unbroken’ horse was brought into a circular arena with Roberts at the centre. When facing the horse, as he explained, the animal believed him to be being confrontational, and so distanced itself from him as far as possible on the edge of the arena, pacing around and around the perimeter as it sought to escape. Roberts argued that at a fundamental level horses wanted to be in affinity with humans and would rather approach them if not frightened off. To demonstrate this, Roberts turn side-on to the horse as it circled. Immediately, the horse dropped its head and slowed its ‘flight’ response. As Roberts continued to lower his gaze, removing his confrontational stance and remaining side-on to the horse, it sidled over to him to within a couple of feet. If Roberts turned to face the beast, it immediately ran to the edge of the arena and began seeking escape again; every time he turned away, it would approach.

What was even more remarkable, though, was the way in which Roberts, using a similar technique, was able to get the horse to accept a bridle and then a saddle. He would simply present the animal with the bridle, watch it flinch, then withdraw the bridle. By presenting the bridle and then taking it away, the horse was prompted into a ‘flight then approach’ sequence. Each time he presented it, Roberts would draw nearer to placing the thing on the horse’s head; eventually, after many sequences, the horse accepted the bridle without protest. The same thing then happened with the saddle.

Horses could be ‘broken in’ using these methods without any coercion: instead of literally ‘breaking the horse’s spirit’, the Roberts method obtained the cooperation of the beast with the result that horse and rider quickly entered into a symbiotic relationship - the relationship which, Roberts would have said, the horse would have wanted anyway if he or she had been allowed to construct it.

The most dramatic part of the evening, though, occurred when a horse was brought into the arena which had a history of refusing to get into horse boxes to be transported. It had taken its owners all day to force the animal into the box to get it to the show, and now it was presented to Roberts as an impossible task to get the horse into an empty horse box in the arena within twenty minutes.