Tall in the saddle

21st September 2001 at 01:00
You might have heard of Monty Roberts. Maybe you know him by his unofficial title, the Horse Whisperer, as a modern-day Doctor Dolittle, a kind of cross between old-time cowboy and new age guru. The romance of his story is fictionalised in the novel and the film of that name, made by Robert Redford, who couldn't resist playing the lead (pictured).

But Monty has become famous in his own right, and against the odds. His father was an orthodox horse trainer, for whom violence was an acceptable way of training horses and disciplining his children. He would inflict regular, savage beatings on Monty and his brother.

If life can be measured from 0-10, says Monty, the time between 0 and 1 is when most damage is done. "Was I damaged? I was nearly totalled. I don't know how I came through it. The only hope I had was to get with the horses."

When he was about 10 years old, Monty was walking down the main street of their home town of Salinas, California, when he saw his father coming towards him. He said hello, but his father did not respond. Thinking he had not recognised him, Monty shouted another greeting. His father looked him in the eye and walked straight on.

"This incident scarred our relationship," he says. "It reflected a huge coldness, a huge void between us which I could simply never come to grips with."

By the time he was 14, Monty was a skilled horseman and rodeo rider, but he had grown to hate his father. One day he decided to do something about it, the only way he knew how. He went to the cupboard in their house where the guns were kept, picked up a rifle and put in a couple of rounds.

"I walked towards my father. My intention was to kill him. But I stopped short. I was a good shot; I had been hired to shoot deer before. But I thought about my life as a killer, not of animals but of a human being and I said to myself 'you have got to change now. You have got to get violence out of your life.' I took my father as the antithesis of where I wanted to be."

He took refuge in horses, observing them and learning their language ("a silent language like signing for the deaf") which he calls Equus. "My eyes, my shoulders, my hands, the direction of travel, the speed of travel will all come into play. Just as with a child, if you wait for your horse to do something right and congratulate them for it, that is worth 25 times the negative reinforcement and waiting for them to do something wrong and punishing them for it.

"Horses are responsible for all that I am as an adult. I feel as though if I had not had the help of those animals I might have become a very violent man." His brother grew up in his father's image. "He's a mountain man. Last year, he was sent to jail after shooting all the dogs in his area. He was taking revenge. He thought a dog had bitten one of his horses."

Initially, Monty's way of training horses without resorting to violence or restraint was mocked. But it worked. He found that he could train a horse to accept a saddle in a matter of minutes instead of days. He made successful racehorses of stubborn colts, worked wonders with wild mustangs. His unorthodox methods so impressed the Queen - and reportedly moved the Queen Mother to tears - that all her horses are now trained according to his techniques of intelligent horsemanship.

But the one person whose recognition he craved wouldn't give it. Just before Monty's father died he came to Monty's farm and saw him join up with 22 horses, a task that would have taken his father six weeks. But he still refused to acknowledge his son's talents. "Suicide," Monty's father said bluntly afterwards. "If you don't hurt them first they will hurt you."

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