Never lose your temper with a horse.
Reward him with kindness when he does what you wish.
- Xenophon, Greek cavalry officer, 300 BC
For a young boy in Salinas in the Thirties, it was exciting times. Even as a small child, Monty always attended the local rodeo, with its calf roping and "bronco bustin'". He was the son of Marvin Roberts, reputably the best horseman as well as the toughest man in Salinas. Best of all, his father was owner and manager of the annual event, and of a riding school as well.
Before he could walk, the boy was spending full days on the horse's neck ahead of his mother as she gave riding instructions to local students. At four years old he was competing in horse shows - and was quickly spotted by a Warner Brothers representative. Soon he was stunt-doubling for Roddy McDowall in films, later for luminaries like James Dean in "East of Eden" and a hundred or so other films. Monty's father handled the business, took the money the boy earned, and kept it. ("Who buys your food? Your clothes? You owe me years of room and board!")
In his book, The Man Who Listens to Horses, Monty describes the method his father used on horses - tough love without the love; that is, he "broke" wild horses using total dominance, brutality, and terror. "You hurt them first, or they'll hurt you," he instructed his son. Monty later said, "My father's way of breaking horses was what I would describe as conventional - but that is to say, cruel."
The boy knew how it felt to be physically manhandled by his father, and had plenty of bruises to show for it. "He showed great tenderness to members of the family," Monty recalls, "but I never saw that side of him... I never got hugged by him. He would pass me on the street and not say hello. From the outset, he turned a cold and critical eye on me. Generous with others, he demanded perfection of me. He was unforgiving and scrutinized everything I did, more often than not holding it up to ridicule. As a boy I was serious and polite, and when I look back on these times, I see that I never was a child." While he respected and feared his father, he was determined he would not grow to be that kind of man.
Monty loved horses and knew them to be gentle, lovable creatures, so breaking the spirit of those beautiful animals seemed unnecessary. As he watched his father brutalize a young stallion, born in the wild and imprisoned in a coral, the boy's stomach churned, not the least because Monty himself was routinely so brutalized. He was once actually chain-whipped by his raging father, and a heavy chain it was. Today, at 72, he talks in a trembling voice about his "lifetime of rejection" - starting early on by his father, who "taught discipline" through frequent beatings.
By the time he was seven, Monty was spending much time alone in the high desert of Nevada, watching through binoculars the behavior of the herds of wild horses there, how they related to each other. He would watch for eight hours of daylight, then strained to see them by moonlight, observing how they subtly communicated by positioning their bodies. Thus, Monty very gradually learned the language of horses. He decided he would learn to relate with horses in the same way. It was from what he saw in the wild and what he learned from practice in the breaking ring that he developed the now-celebrated Monty Roberts "horse starting" method - the new horse-training paradigm he is now famous for.
"To destroy the willingness in a horse is a crazy, unforgivable act," he announces to the groups of horsemen and women who come to watch him do his magic. "Inherent generosity is among the dominant characteristics of the horse and, if nurtured, can grow into the most rewarding aspect of their working lives...I have marveled most at their willingness to try for me, over and over again." A method of gentleness, patience, and quiet encouragement brings cooperation, even devotion. What a novel idea!
Gone is the "breaking" of horses to saddle and rider, gone is the violence, the terror, of his father's brutal, traditional method. "My ambition was immense: to change the way humans relate to horses." He set out to form a natural bond with a wild horse. And where his father took three or more weeks of daily abuse to break a horse's spirit, Monty - in twenty minutes - has a saddle and rider on a formerly wild, now calm and cooperating horse. Because he learned the language of horses, he is open to their communications.
"Hold in your mind the idea that the horse can do no wrong, that any action taken by the horse - especially the young unstarted horse - was most likely influenced by you. Though he hungered for his father's approval, Monty quickly saw his hostility to any suggestion that his old ways could be improved upon. On pain of violence, he had to keep from his father the valuable skills he had acquired. The rageaholic would not be proven "wrong" by his son and never accepted the revolutionary method, despite the honors and fame his son earned.
Monty endured the all-but-unanimous scorn of the horsemen who grimly stuck to the traditional "breaking" of horses. Few would accept that you can communicate with a brute beast, win their trust, and teach them without whips and spurs. Horse owner John Franks wonders why Monty's way is not universally accepted and practiced. "I'm a geologist, and when something new comes along in geology, we all jump on it." But in the horse world? "Everyone goes his own way, and it's hard to change a trainer who has done it his way all his life." In 1989 he was invited to Windsor Castle by Queen Elizabeth of England, herself very knowledgeable about horses. She asked Monty to show her just how he did his magic with horses. After seeing it, she suggested he write a book. So he did.
Monty's priceless gift to the world is a way of showing the horse that a saddle and rider are not to be feared, indeed, they can be enjoyed. The task is to bring the horse to its first rider without instilling anxiety and stress. "The horse is a flight animal who feels vulnerable 24 hours a day ... the same vulnerability a woman may feel when she is alone in an elevator and a burly man gets on." Monty learned on his own what Mary O'Hara wrote in My Friend Flicka in the voice of a rancher to his son: "A horse can tell you a lot of things, if you watch, and expect it to be sensible and intelligent. Pay attention to the little signs - the way it moves its body, the ears, the eyes, the little whinnies - that's her way of talking to you ... and it's for you to understand her. You'll learn her language, and she'll learn yours - never forget that they can understand everything you say to them."
Monty lectures widely, demonstrating his technique. "What I can do with horses is the result of long hours watching them in the wild. It's essentially a simple thing based on common sense ... It is an undiscovered language - primitive, precise, and easy to read. The silent language uses the movements of the body - 'signs' - that can be read. ... I believe this a universal 'tongue', understood not just by all wild and domestic horses, ponies, mules, and donkeys, but also by other 'flight' animals such as deer. Once learned, the language allows a new understanding between human and horse."
In My Friend Flicka, author O'Hara has a character say, "Under the eye of a human being, an unbroken horse is in terror." As for the traditional way of "breaking" a horse: "It ruins the horse! He loses something, and never gets it back. Something goes out of him. He's not a whole horse anymore ... he is marked with fear and distrust, his disposition damaged - he'll never have confidence in a man again." From the preface of Monty's book: "The old way: putting a horse in a corral, lassoing him, tying him to a post and then getting on him with a pair of spurs - [is] unbelievable. Now we use round pens, we teach the horse that we're not going to hurt him, that we're his friend."
Monty has "started" (he never uses the term "broken") some ten thousand horses at his ranch and all over the world, and his gentle communication with a horse has never failed. Alone in a circular pen, Monty - without ever touching the mustang - has him trotting 'round and 'round it. Key signs come in succession: the horse cocks an ear, sticks out his tongue, and lowers his head to the ground. "I want to talk," says the horse. He is away from his herd and alone; as a flight animal his instinct tells him he's now vulnerable to predators. And Monty is offering him another herd. "When to face the horse and make eye contact, when not to, where to touch the horse first, whether to move slowly or quickly, all this Monty knows, for he has learned his equine manners and grammar", wrote Lawrence Scanlon.
Monty: "I don't do it for the people. I do it for the horse." It's not about people with horse problems, he explains, "it's about horses with people problems". It's about the horse as teacher. And it makes humans more humane. "The horse has much to teach humans about listening."
And he says, furthermore, that what he's learned has much to teach parents and teachers about dealing with children. "We can do little to teach the horse; we can only create an environment in which he can learn. Likewise with people: the student who has knowledge pushed into his brain learns little, but he can absorb a great deal when he chooses to learn."
"The point of my method is to create a relationship based on trust and confidence...For centuries humans have said to horses [and children] you do what I tell you or I'll hurt you. [But] inflicting pain does not work ...I am convinced that my discoveries with horses also have value in the workplace, in penal and school systems, and in the raising of children...."
I knew that one day he would not be able to hurt me anymore.
- Monty Roberts at his father's coffin
Monty Roberts describes this emotional casket-side scene at the end of his book, The Man Who Listens To Horses. We have learned much about Marty Roberts' brutality with horses, and more about how he viciously and frequently beat his son. The father and son had been estranged for almost all of Monty's life. Now Marty Roberts was dead.
He remembered the time when he was a young boy that he watched with horror as his father, then the village cop, beat and kicked to death a man robbing a bar. He recalled the time his father punished a horse by tying its leg up, leaving him to suffer for hours tethered tightly to a post. Monty could not bear to see the suffering and released the horse, planning to re-tie him before his father returned to the ranch. But he returned early and, in a wrathful frenzy, beat the boy until he feared for his life. He had never known a moment of acceptance or affection, much less love, from his father.
"For most of my life I had longed for the moment when I would stand over my dead father. This was precisely the picture I had had: he in a wooden box, me looking down on him. Through his punishments and beatings, that image had sustained me. Cowering under his blows as a child, I knew that one day he would not be able to hurt me anymore. It was a cathartic moment, and though I have shed many tears in my life, I did not shed one as I gazed into that coffin. The anger lived on, as if he had thrashed me yesterday, though that was more than forty years earlier."
Monty was not like other men and moms, who simply passed their rage on to the succeeding generation. With remarkable insight into himself, he tells us how he prevented his internal violence from transferring to his own loved ones: "I knew the triggers that led to violence. I, too, have felt that anger rise in me, felt the urge to strike out at someone in my family. But I put my grip on that anger. I swore that this man in the box would be the last link in the chain of violence and anger aimed as much at humans as at horses."
Here is one of the qualities that distinguishes Monty from other survivors of abuse: Awareness of the rage within him, and the determination that the violence stops here. Though he is famous worldwide for his genius with horses, his contribution to the literature of childrearing may prove to be, in the end, Monty Roberts' most important and enduring legacy.
"We all want a well-behaved, happy, and willing horse at the conclusion...he should not be traumatized ... Remember, let your animal be free. Do not restrict. Make it pleasant for him to be near you ... No pain. ...The point of my method is to create a relationship based on trust and confidence...The first rule of starting a horse is no pain. You, the trainer, will not hit, kick, jerk, pull, tie, or restrain ...Suggest to the horse that you would rather he did, but not that he must...Above all, stay calm." [Emphases are Monty's]
"Hold in your mind the idea that the horse can do no wrong; that any action taken by the horse was most likely influenced by you. We can do little to teach the horse; we can only create an environment in which he can learn. Likewise with people: the student who has knowledge pushed into his brain learns little, but he can absorb a great deal when he chooses to learn... If we refuse to believe that the horse can communicate, pain can be used to train him... But pain is needless and terribly limiting..."
Monty's audiences are spellbound when he talks about communicating in the same way with wild deer in the forest. It began with rescuing and tending a doe that had been wounded by wolves. To his surprise, she responded to his "horse language" in much the same way as wild horses - and burros, mules, and all "flight animals." In the passage of time, wild deer came to his ranch and frolicked with him on his lawn, at times walking into his kitchen, following him like a dog.
Lawrence Scanlon writes in the Afterword that Monty likes to call himself a "horse psychologist". At Cal Poly he studied human psychology, then used in the corral what he learned in class. "He had experience working with outcasts," writes Scanlon, "from wounded deer, and horses bound to the slaughter house, [then with] violent, druggy, physically abused street kids. After he and his wife Pat had three children, they began taking in the children nobody wanted, and raising them as their own."
Over the years, the Roberts took in a total of 47 children, most of them age 12 to 14. Some stayed for years living like brothers and sisters to Pat and Monty's three kids. "Some had tangled with school authorities, or the law, some had been dismissed as backward, some were hooked on hard drugs or suffered from eating disorders. Most came from dysfunctional families."
Of the 47, 40 of them by Monty's count, stood on their feet after leaving and made a life for themselves. "The rest landed in jail or returned to the streets and died there." But given the afflictions they arrived with, the changes in the kids vindicated the relationship Pat and Monty built, which was not dissimilar to the approach with horses: basic kindness, gentleness, patience, trust. And this is the approach that Monty wants us, and the world, to consider.
"For centuries humans have said to the horses, 'You do what I tell you or I'll hurt you'. Humans still say that to each other, still threaten and force and intimidate. I am convinced that my discoveries with horses also have value in the workplace, in the educational and penal systems, and in the raising of children. At heart I am saying that no one has a right to say you must to an animal - or to another human." Just as trust has to be won with a horse, so must it be won between people and their employers, between parents and their children.
Since 1990, thousands of educators, physicians, corporate officers, and others - more than 240 firms and organizations from around the world - have come to Monty Roberts to hear what a man, known for his horse skills, has to teach about people skills. "It used to be OK to beat a child or for a husband to beat his wife...It's wrong, and not effective either," Monty tells them.
Both his corporate and childrearing philosophy is rooted in respect, and ends in expectations clearly defined: "People must be allowed to fail," he says, "but do not protect the lazy or incompetent; above all, people must be allowed to succeed and be rewarded if they meet or exceed the terms of the contract." Thus Monty's discipline is defined. He (also) hopes that in future our understanding of human-to-human interactions will take great leaps forward.
Some 790 years ago, when Genghis Khan occupied Iran, Afghanistan, & Turkestan, his horses "spoke" the language. "But no one saw it," notes Monty. "No one tried to see it...Like many who profess to love the horse - and do love the horse - the Mongols broke their young horses in the cruel, conventional way....Horses had no answer to the Khan's cruelty, they had no voice. But they did have a language...And that language has probably existed for 45 million years, virtually unchanged...The absence of communication between human and horse has led to a disastrous history of cruelty and abuse...Our loss has been considerable..."
Monty's genius lies in somehow mastering himself, triumphing over his internal rage at his father, just as he mastered the art of animal communication. His saving advantage was that he had a caring mother, from whom he acquired the softer, gentler side of life. Ever hoping for reconciliation between her husband and her son, she tried, in her final years, one last time. She persuaded the old man to sit in the bleachers and watch while their son performed with a wild horse, just as he had done well over 10,000 times before applauding crowds, and before an admiring Queen of England. Monty carefully explained to his father every move, every communication, in this one last effort to reach him with what he'd learned. A half hour later, when the horse was saddled and being ridden around the arena, his father stomped off, muttering and snorting in disgust.
For us, Monty's application to children of what horses taught him is most significant and important. We can easily suppose that without learning to listen to horses, Monty's internal violence - passed on from his father through him to his own three children - would have been devastating. They would have suffered beatings, plus seen their mother attacked and abused during their father's fits of rage. But Monty looked inside himself, acknowledged the violence there, and trained himself to stop it short. He learned to mindfully check the violence impulse, refusing to make his family pay the emotional price for his father's brutal treatment. I think that, among his extraordinary accomplishments, deserves most tribute.
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