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Horse sense for untamed children

He has tamed more than 70,000 wild horses. But now Monty Roberts, the "horse whisperer" who inspired the Robert Redford film vehicle of the same name, is turning his attention to a different animal - the British schoolchild.

The 70-year-old Californian has spent more than a quarter of a century attempting, without much success, to convince American schools that his gentle horse-training techniques can be adapted for children. Now he hopes British educators will be more responsive.

"If you work with horses in a calm, violence-free manner they work much better. The same goes for schoolchildren," he told private- school heads and teachers this week.

Global Education Management Systems (Gems), one of the biggest owners of private schools in the UK, is now considering adopting his teaching techniques.

On a snowy farm near Witney in Oxfordshire, the man who talks to horses showed them how it is done by teaching Jeremy, a four-year-old Irish cob, to accept a rider. In just half an hour, Mr Roberts tamed the stallion with signals, pats and soothing words.

"For 8,000 years people tried to train horses by driving them into a vegetative state. It is generally believed that it takes four to six weeks before a horse accepts its rider, but I can do it in 30 minutes by using non-violent methods," he said. "Children are more intelligent than horses, so using these methods on them can be even more effective."

Mr Roberts, who has a degree in behavioural science, has trained 800 championship-winning horses. He has also fostered 47 "troubled" children, including teenagers with convictions for attempted murder and armed robbery. He says that all responded to his "non-aggressive" ways.

But can it work in the classroom?

Kingshurst junior school in Solihull introduced his technique after a teacher read Mr Roberts's book, Horse Sense For People. It claims to be the only school in the country to date to have adapted his methods. Jeff Darby, the head, said: "The Monty Roberts approach brings out pupils' potential by encouraging them to take responsibility for their actions, free of severe punishment or raised voices.

Mr Darby said Kingshurst teachers always "talk in 'positives'. Monty is the man who listens to horses. We like to think of ourselves as the teachers who listen to the language of the child. It is only when you fully understand the child that you can be a really successful educator."

So were the heads and teachers from nine Gems-run private schools who participated in the Oxford course this week won over? Pat Preedy, executive head at Sherfield school, Hampshire, said: "Monty quickly appreciated the horse's language and struck up a trusting relationship with Jeremy. Those same principles can be applied in a school."

Mr Roberts is now talking to consultancy firms with a view to spreading his word across the country, but it remains to be seen if all teachers will be convinced.


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