A Horse Story

[From Dag Forssell (970908 11:00)]

This article in today's Los Angeles Times caught my eye. One can read it as
a commentary on still popular, prevailing behavior modification methods, or
as a comment on mutual control of perception. I think it speaks volumes
about how far mankind still is from ushering in a kinder, gentler
understanding of living control systems. Don't you wish Mr. Roberts would
frame his discussion in PCT terms?

Best, Dag




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It is mandated that spouse may not beat spouse, parent will not batter
child, and teacher must not spank student.

But they thrash horses, don't they?

"Unfortunately, they still do," says Monty

Roberts of Solvang, a breeder and trainer who talks to horses, a body
linguist who has yet to raise a whip in angry teaching. "Thanks to the SPCA
and other concerned organizations, we have come a long way. Certainly to
the point where most people _think_ the problem of animal cruelty is over."

But it isn't. Not entirely.

Not behind the closed doors of quick-buck guard dog kennels. Not within
many circuses, most rodeos and a few equestrian centers where cruel double
standards apply and doing unto others is only a human consideration.

Roberts knows of hitting with fists, of kicking and spurring. Training by
pain. Whipping, or "firing," horses to make them frisky for sales. Animals
in chains and hobbled; pitiless breaking to build blind, fearful obedience.

"Sadly, when it comes to certain training techniques, the tendency is still
that hard training has to be done. tough, break 'em training, like being
in the Marine Corps."

But again, not entirely.

Because there's Roberts. At 62, he has spent half a century privately
using, then publicly demonstrating another way-the equine psychology of eye
contact, reading the movements of hoof and neck muscles, and understanding
the unmistakable semaphore between a man's squared shoulders and the twitch
of a horse's right ear as it opens to human sounds.

Roberts calls it listening to horses and speaking Equus.

He likes to be known as a horse gentler.

He says he doesn't break horses, he starts them.

Through trust, respect and negotiation, Roberts routinely will start a
wild-eyed stallion to bridle, saddle and rider in about 30 minutes. And if
the understanding and conversations continue, the loyalty and mutual regard
are forever.

Would, says Roberts, that the horse world had responded so quickly to his
methods. But he was denied for decades. Trainers here and overseas were
loath to discard their traditional, ungentle ways. Worse, they saw in
ex-rodeo rider Roberts a form of California hocus-pocus falling somewhere
between Uri Geller and Dr. Dolittle.

Only now, after books and television documentaries and an impressive
command performance before Britain's royal family, has resistance moved aside.

"It is breaking down, and there is more room now for my methods," Roberts
says. "Still, it does hurt to have been so soundly rejected for almost 50
years.... On the other hand, people with new theories and different
concepts have died without having them proven.

"So you've got to know how grateful all this makes me."

"All this" is the joy of being a cowboy on a global roll.

"The Man Who Listens to Horses," Roberts' autobiography recently published
by Random House, is on bestseller lists in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. His
life has inspired a novel being made into a feature movie. There's a BBC
film, on Roberts' lone wooing of a mustang from a Nevada herd, that will
probably be offered to American networks.

To date, a thousand disciples of his work are speaking and listening to
horses around the world. Roberts has started 10,000 new or unruly
horses-$36 a day being the going, modest rate if you have a new or unruly
horse-and several hundred race winners.

Eight years ago, after magazine articles on his work had reached Buckingham
Palace, Roberts was invited to London to meet Queen Elizabeth. From this
and subsequent audiences, he started dozens of royal racehorses, many
mounts new to the Household Cavalry, and he was sponsored by the queen on a
demonstration tour of training stables throughout the United Kingdom.

It was his breakthrough year.

And now the fat corporations- General Motors and Disney, Xerox and
AT&T-send executive teams to Roberts' 200-acre Flag Is Up Ranch, a short
trot west of Solvang, to learn how understanding and gentle negotiation
beat intimidation and anger in the workplace. Surprise.

As Roberts recently explained to a female interviewer for a London
newspaper "Imagine you are drinking in a bar and I come up and say 'OK,
you're coming with me, I will make you do what I want because I am stronger
than you.'

"How successful is that going to be? What will I have achieved? Will you
ever be as good to me if you are acting out a fear, as if you were in a
loving relationship and were pleasing me because it was your choice? It's
the same with horses."

As it was the same with Roberts, as a child reared on a Salinas ranch by a
vicious father-an equal opportunity disciplinarian who beat animals, those
he arrested as a peace officer and his young son.

"You hurt them first or they'll hurt you" was dad's creed. Young Monty-who
by this time already had been a child riding double for Elizabeth Taylor
and Mickey Rooney in "National Velvet"- thought understanding and
nonviolence were better bets.

He argued the point with his dad.

Dad beat him with a 4-foot chain.

As Roberts recalls in his book "I was left in a pitiful, grieving state. He
whipped horses into submission and now he was giving me the same treatment.
I felt the same anger and sense of failure that the horse must have felt.
As a lesson in how not to win respect and allegiance, it only reinforced a
reluctant obedience, instilled fear, and left me with a lifelong sense of

At 13, Roberts was a professional horseman, tracking and catching wild
rodeo horses in the Nevada high desert. Next, Plains cowboy and national
rodeo champion. Then, Hollywood trainer who taught James Dean to handle a
rope and look good in cowboy boots for "East of Eden."

All the time, he was building on a Nevada memory, the indelible sight of a
wild dun mare disciplining her rebellious colt. Not by force. But by
cutting him from the herd and into loneliness. Pushing him away by standing
square, and keeping him away by unflinching eye contact. In the end, head
down, the colt moved his tongue and lips, licking and chewing, and asking
to be allowed back with the herd.

It convinced Roberts that "every degree of a horse's movement has a
reason.... I would learn, much later, while starting horses in a round pen,
a rich code of signs and subsigns. Whether I am moving, standing still,
facing the horse, or away; all this matters as the horse reads my body
language and I read his.

"I can now enumerate about 100 or more signs the horse will respond to, and
the vocabulary is still growing."

This month, as the launch of a national gallop to promote his book, Roberts
rounded up the usual suspects-booksellers, celebrities and the media-to
display his uncanny horse sense.

He says he sees nothing mystical or spiritual in his work. His audience
sees everything gifted and occult in the 28- minute chat between Roberts
and an unbridled, unridden yearling.

Roberts speaks to the horse through squared shoulders and his unbroken but
soft stare. A slash of his hand says go away. The same movement with open
fingers says he really means it.

The horse talks back. Eyes wide for full vision to see everything that is
going on. Nostrils flared and snorting, clearing the olfactory system in
case danger can be smelled.

Then the colt, conditioned by 60 million years to be a creature of flight,
takes flight. Hooves pounding, he sends dirt flying as he canters left
around the wooden wail of the round pen. His inside ear is up, open and
fiat, a small dish listening to all sounds coming from Roberts.

The trainer works with a light sash line, not for hitting the horse but for
magnifying hand gestures. And, for the benefit of his audience, there is
Roberts' gentle running commentary:

"My hand is telling him to go away, and he knows that an isolated grazer is
a dead horse and he's not going to be very happy with that. So I'm going to
give him a reason to come back to me, to see me as a safety zone.

"Shoulders square. Eye to eye. See, now he's turning to go the other way
and he is saying he wants to negotiate this deal. That ear is still open to
listen to me. He's saying 'I give you respect. I don't know what you're
about, but I give you respect.'

"I'm telling him 'For now, I'm calling the shots, until we can form a
partnership. You see, I speak your language.' I can test him by allowing my
eyes to drop to his neck. See, he slows. He knows.

"Now he's licking and chewing. It's saying something like: 'I'm a
herbivore, I am a grazer, and I am making this eating action with my mouth
while considering whether or not to trust you. Help me out with that
decision, can you please?' "

Roberts does. He moves his eyes back to the yearling's neck and shoulder
and his pace drops again. Back to the eyes and the pace increases. Man and
horse are communicating. The horse drops his head, neck muscles relax, and
Roberts knows his moment of truth. The horse moves half a stride from the
wall. He wants back in.

Roberts angles his shoulders. He is inviting the horse to join him. And his
four-legged student does, moving toward Roberts' shoulder, then nuzzling it.

It has taken eight minutes.

"This is the moment called 'join-up,' when he wants to be with me and he
comes to me," Roberts continues. "I rub his head and let him know he is
pleasing me, and we will be fully connected. And he has come to me not in
confusion, but because he wants to, because he trusts me, because he knows
I speak his language"

The rest, the saddling, the riding seems elementary.

Except for Roberts, Because every join-up, every communion with a horse of
a different personality, endorses his ways.

Sure, the critics still yelp.

There are jockeys and trainers with neither time nor tolerance for change.
Not when their centuries old ways also produce obedience and performance.

It's pride, it's machismo, it's ego, Roberts counters.

"It's all the things that always hinder progress," he says. "The general
attitude is: 'We'll do just fine on the methods we know, and when we run
into trouble we will call him.' If they had adopted my methods from the
beginning, they wouldn't have these problem children."

At the end of the day, however, Roberts hears no detractors.

A keg-cheated horseman with a bad back, Roberts has his ranch overlooking
several million acres of the Santa Ynez Valley. He has Pat, the teenage
sweetheart he married, and three children they have guided to responsible
adulthood. There also have been 47 foster children-bulimics, cocaine
addicts, the emotionally and sexually abused family the Robertses have
taken in and turned around.

And if horses and Roberts' communication skills were part of that success,
so be the broader message.

"My ultimate goal has always been to leave this world a better place for
horses. I've done that. There are people out there doing my work. So this
technique is immortal.

"Life can't get any better than this."

-- end of article --