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The Horse Gentler

Hitting only taught Monty Roberts fear as a child. The same applied to horses, he figured. So he learned to reach them in other ways.

September 08, 1997|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 . . . rough, tough, break 'em training, like being in the Marine Corps."

But again, not entirely.

Because there is 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.

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