The Man Who Listens to Horses

by Monty Roberts

Ballantine, 1996, 1997

Written by Lynn Carrick

Monty Roberts, who is described as a "Real-Life Horse Whisperer" on the cover of his book, prefers to think of himself as a "horse listener". Ever since he was a young boy, studying wild mustangs in the high deserts of Nevada through binoculars, he has listened to the "sign" language of horses. He calls it Equus.

By studying the movements they make to one another, and their reactions to his own, he learned to communicate with them and encourage them to "join-up" with him. This term is one Roberts uses to describe the process wherein a horse accepts him as a herd member. Explaining that a horse understands instinctively that it is in more danger alone than it is in a group, it becomes clear that it would want to accept him for its own benefit. Roberts makes it clear that it is much more effective to have a horse perform because it wants to, rather than because it fears not to.

Roberts describes his frustrations with his father and others who were more than a little reluctant to believe in a method which differed so widely from the traditional, and very cruel, methods of "breaking" horses, used for thousands of years. His sentiments against cruelty and for understanding extend much further than to equines, however. Roberts studied psychology in college and has used his delicate instincts to help people through difficult times as well. His own experiences with a father who used physical rather than emotional strength to teach obedience profoundly affected him, and were largely responsible for helping him to make a determination at the very young age of eight, that he would follow a different road. He kept to that road, and it has led him to fame, comfort, and the friendship of monarchs.

The language of what Roberts refers to as "flight" animals works with others as well, as he proved when he spent time trying to achieve join-up with several deer over the years. The process worked with the deer, though there were some differences, owing to their more sensitive natures. Roberts' success bonding flight animals (those more inclined to flight than fight) to "fight" animals which humans definitely are, is nothing less than astounding.

His book details his own experiences over the years, and describes the struggle he had gaining acceptance. The approval of Queen Elizabeth II of England went a long way toward making him feel he was finally justified, though in his heart he always knew his ways were best.

Roberts' methods involve no harm to the animals whatsoever. There are many instances in the training process where he advocates allowing the horse to do whatever it chooses, to give it confidence and gain its trust. He encourages trainers to allow the horse to learn that it will not be harmed, but only treated well, and demonstrates again and again that a horse will give its whole heart if this is done. He explains his philosophy that there is no such thing as teaching - only learning. He believes in making the atmosphere one in which a horse is willing and enthusiastic about learning what it is the trainer wishes it to do. He uses this philosophy throughout his life, and others would do well to learn to do likewise.

His book is warm and funny and easy to read. Though there are sad moments described, the overall feeling of the book is hopeful, particularly for the lucky equines who will benefit from his methods.

And for all of us who love horses, it's a brilliant dawn on those high Nevada deserts - a beautiful new beginning for horse training everywhere.