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Horse Sense

Roberts, whose training style inspired a book and movie, brings one of his top pupils to Hollywood Park

June 11, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

Monty Roberts was 4, or maybe it was 5, when he figured out that with the blink of an eye, a twist of the shoulder, a flutter of the hand, he could make a horse do things. He could make a horse follow him or calm down or allow a saddle to be thrown on its back.

"I don't call myself a horse whisperer," Roberts said. "Other people have. But I don't whisper. I communicate with a horse in the language of the horse."

Other people have called Roberts the "Horse Whisperer" because Roberts was an inspiration to Nicholas Evans, the English author of the book "The Horse Whisperer," from which Robert Redford adapted the movie by the same name.

Roberts, who abhors the physical methods the movie character used, does not endorse the movie. "I would never touch a horse like that," Roberts said.

Said trainer Tim Yakteen, "Monty has a special gift. Monty can communicate with his stock, no doubt about it."

The pride of Roberts stock right now is a 6-year-old German-bred named Sabiango. Sabiango is entered in Saturday's Grade I $350,000 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap at Hollywood Park. Yakteen, who works for Bob Baffert, calls Sabiango "drop dead gorgeous" and "a class act."

These words make Roberts, 69, proud. Though he has owned hundreds of horses in his life and though he has over 50 now on his ranch in Solvang, Calif., Sabiango has secured a special place in Roberts' heart.

"I've loved this horse since he was a baby," Roberts said. "I've loved his spirit, his conformation, the look in his eye."

Roberts and Sabiango met in Germany when Sabiango was 20 months old. Roberts has worked with owner Gestut Fahrhof in Germany for two decades and it was at the request of Fahrhof that Roberts went to Germany to figure out Sabiango's quirks.

"The horse's health was troublesome," Roberts said, "and when the horse started to go downhill health-wise, I encouraged Gestut to send the horse to the United States."

That proposition was too expensive for Fahrhof, so Roberts asked if he could lease the horse. Permission was granted and Roberts paid for Sabiango to come to California last winter.

Using what he calls natural medications, Roberts improved Sabiango's health and disposition. "You could bring Sabiango into your living room," Yakteen said, "have him sit on the sofa and he wouldn't knock over the coasters."

Roberts believes he can get any horse to behave as well.

From age 2, Roberts could ride a horse, starting on mustangs, which populated his father's ranch. When Roberts turned 14, he leased a barn from his father and began his business of of gentling troubled horses.

"The language of the horse is the language of gestures," Roberts said. "It is a gift we all have. I've identified 187 signs with which I can communicate with the horse.

"If you look a horse straight in the eye as opposed to look elsewhere, beyond the horse or behind him or over his head, that's a sign that you are in charge, a predator and the horse will start to back away. If you drop your eyes down, the horse tends to slow and drop his head."

In a matter of 30 minutes, Roberts said, he can get an out-of-control horse to accept a saddle, bridle and rider. "I did a demonstration recently with an abused Arabian filly," Roberts said. "In 24 minutes I had a rider on her back."

Roberts travels the world giving lectures and demonstrations of his technique. It was at one of those demonstrations where author Evans was inspired to write the book.

Roberts and Yakteen first met when Yakteen was working for Whittingham, a trainer revered for his special ability to communicate with horses.

"Charlie had an inner knowledge or feeling and was able to do things with horses nobody else was able to do," Yakteen said. "He could read them perfectly, know when to go on, when to give them a breather. Charlie was able to get the best out of his horses, always."

It strikes Yakteen as a wonderful coincidence that this horse partly owned by Roberts, another man who can give voice to a horse's feelings, is running in a race that honors Whittingham.

"Darn right it would be special to win this," Yakteen said. "It would mean a lot."

Sabiango will be ridden by Tyler Baze in an 11-horse field, which includes Musical Chimes, a 4-year-old filly trained by Neil Drysdale for Sheikh Maktoum al Maktoum of Dubai, and California-bred millionaire Continental Red. Sabiango's last race was in Hong Kong in December, and in Germany he has won two Group I stakes races.

"I'll be there cheering my head off," Roberts said. "I don't bet but I don't oppose it. If Sabiango runs as he has trained, he would be a good bet."

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