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From a shout to a whisper – The Irish Times – Thu, Aug 05, 2010
From a shout to a whisper
Thu, Aug 05, 2010
On the opening day of the Dublin Horse Show at the RDS yesterday, the legendary horse whisperer Monty Roberts gave the audience a masterclass in how to break a horse gently – and an insight into the heights and depths of human nature
VIOLENCE IS NOT the answer. At least not with horse trainer Monty Roberts, a survivor of a harsh youth. His approach is based on empathy, not dominance. He is also a practical man, conscious of the physical futility of battling a horse.
There was standing room only, and not much of that, when the famous Californian gave the first of his daily demonstrations yesterday at the Dublin Horse Show. The sun came in fits and starts and Roberts, who generally gives his demonstrations indoors, had to deal with noise, a strong breeze and the presence of other horses competing not that far from where he was working a young horse in a round metal pen set up in a sand arena.
Roberts bounded in, pleased with the reception he was given. But he is also aware that there are always doubters – “asking where’s the trick?” – convinced that his system does not work and that he already knows these horses. “Where would I get the time to train all these horses before I get to wherever I’m going?”
Experts are always difficult to convince. But yesterday afternoon the young horse, bucking and rearing as the saddle went on his back for the first time, had done quite well. Having run around the arena in both directions, establishing what Roberts refers to as “flight distance”, the gelding began to listen. His ear turned to Roberts, the circles he had been making as he raced around became smaller, he began biting and chewing and his head dropped, all signs that an engagement had begun.
Roberts sets out to earn the trust of the horse: a trusting horse becomes relaxed, confident and interested. For every young, unbroken horse Roberts deals with, there are four more horses with problems caused by poor handling.
He is a straight-talking character, born and raised in John Steinbeck country; he knows how to hold an audience and speak his mind. Roberts knows better than anyone that many of the traditional methods of beating a horse into submission are not only cruel, they don’t work and cause horses to see man as the enemy.
It is 15 years since Roberts, now 75, last came to Ireland. He believes that attitudes
to the training of horses here have changed. One of his former students, equine scientist Caroline Jennings, is now the first fully qualified Monty Roberts instructor in Ireland. Founder of Equus Training Ireland. Based at Ellistown Stud in Co Kildare, she believes that more and more horsemen and women in Ireland are grasping the logic of a system that abolishes the old barrier of them and us.
Roberts immediately established a calm presence: the young horse, despite the many distractions, must have regarded Roberts as a friend.
Using a method that allows the horse to feel more involved in a game than in a punishment ordeal, Roberts can cut through a traditional, often harsh procedure that takes between four and six weeks, reducing it to a 30-minute session.
Throughout, the horse’s confidence is built – “it’s as if he knows ‘hey, I can do this’.” As in every teaching situation, there is progress and there are setbacks. But Roberts showed that the skill lies in rewarding the progress and not treating the mistakes as setbacks. He has trained more than 8,000 horses in 38 countries and he has never forgotten his debt to Queen Elizabeth, who heard about him and wanted to see his methods for herself. She invited him to England, where he gave a demonstration to the queen and her equine staff. She suggested he write it all down, which he did, and the result was his 1996 autobiography Monty Roberts: The Man Who Listens to Horses.
At the RDS Roberts made it look not so much easy as the intelligent alternative; “discipline without pain”. The horse he was working with was not that easy, and it was obvious that the session could, at times, have gone badly. But Roberts never lost patience, or heart.
Within 22 minutes, he had the saddle on. So far, so impressive. Suddenly the horse began a series of bucks, intent on dislodging the saddle. Roberts remained calm and eventually the horse settled. Another test was about to begin. A rider entered the arena and laid his body weight across the horse’s back. All very peaceful, but when the rider, as quiet as a cat, mounted, a full rodeo display began. The rider was good, but was despatched.
Roberts admitted that whereas most young horses do buck on the first encounter with a saddle, few actually buck the ride off.
“This horse is tough,” said Roberts in a factual, not complaining, way.
He does not approve of whips; he thinks beating horses is pointless. For sheer common sense, Roberts is special. What makes him unique is his respect for the horse, any horse. He appreciates the pressure we humans put on what he refers to as “these wonderful animals”.
In about 50 minutes, the young horse had accepted saddle and rider. The tack was removed. The rider had left the arena, leaving Roberts and his latest graduate to walk about.
“Horses usually have a roll about now,” Roberts said – but no, this guy didn’t. “He’s a tough one, and he’s going to make a lovely riding horse.”
Many of the faces beamed approval. Parents said “listen to him” while several little girls, seasoned horse and pony owners, nodded at each other and agreed, “he’s the best”.
AND WHY HORSES? Sitting at the Equus Training Ireland stand, Roberts spoke about his childhood, with a father who trained horses the old way and a mother who taught riding from the saddle until about two weeks before Roberts was born. So aggressive was Roberts’s father that he used violence on everything, “including horses and me”.
Ironically for a person so admired around the world, Roberts feels that his training system is less valued in the US. Although many think of him as a Western rider – and he was a child rodeo prodigy and later a movie stunt rider – Roberts is also involved with showjumping, racing and dressage. His broad range gets even wider when he mentions the Dutch dressage riders he admires.
“I have 50 children; 47 fostered and three biological. So much is about proper education. I know: I learned. There is so much damage done to people and horses through ego. My father’s violence made me so angry, I wanted to kill him – and I would have but for a wonderful nun, Sr Agnes Patricia.”
He takes her photograph from his wallet. “She saved me.”
The man in the cowboy hat gives another smile, looks thoughtfully at a horse being walked by us, and it becomes easy to imagine how Roberts as a teenager watched mustangs communicating in the desert, and penetrated the mystery of their silent, physical languages.
Monty Roberts continues his demonstrations for the duration of the Dublin Horse Show.
For further information about’ his methods in Ireland, see Equus Training Ireland, equus.ie
© 2010 The Irish Times