World-famous horse trainer Monty Roberts’ mission in life is to show riders how they can establish a mutually respectful partnership with their horse. Fans all over the world who praise his teachings include none other than Queen Elizabeth II…
Photography CAMILLA STEPHAN Text PETER BENNETT / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.4
There are no limits to what you can teach your horse to do. The horse is simply the world’s most amazing animal. No other animal on earth can work as hard at minus 20 degrees Celsius in the Arctic as in the burning hot desert.” So says the 76-year-old award-winning trainer Monty Roberts, who has spent a lifetime teaching riders to listen to their horses. He lectures everywhere: on racetracks and in riding schools, to cowboys in the US and gauchos in Argentina. And even Queen Elizabeth II has asked Roberts to pass on his methods to her staff in the royal stables.
Despite his advanced years, you won’t find Monty Roberts lounging in his rocking chair on the porch at his magnificent 154-acre Flag Is Up Farm in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley near Solvang in California. He is on the road 320 days a year demonstrating his horsemanship methods and teaching his techniques to amateur and professional equestrians all over the world.
“A good horseman can make a horse do what he wants it to do. An excellent horseman can get the horse to make all the right choices of its own free will. It’s as simple as that,” says Roberts, who loves to travel and work with both horses and people. Today he is in Herning, Denmark, to give a demonstration at Northern Europe’s biggest horse fair, Danis Warmbloods Stallion Selection in Herning; yesterday he was in Germany, and tomorrow he is off to London. “I love being back in Denmark, but the most exciting equestrian place these days is South America. I have spent many fantastic hours with gauchos on the Pampas, horse people in Brazil and the polo players and breeders in Argentina. They all embrace the idea of listening to the horse and connecting with its instincts and behaviour. And they can see the immediate, positive results of treating their horses with respect and understanding.”
Perhaps Roberts’ preference for gentle and understanding training methods comes from having witnessed so many horses being “broken” using the traditional violent methods that were common when he was growing up (and still are, in some places). Or it may be down to the abuse he himself suffered as a child at the hands of a father who was as hard as nails, a subject Roberts has spoken about many times. Besides fighting cruelty to horses he has also worked hard for kids like himself who have endured violence at home – as of today, he has had 47 foster children.
Roberts was raised at his family’s riding school in California and from the age of 13 he took a job as a cowboy rounding up wild Mustangs for the local rodeo association. While riding he spent hours studying the silent language of wild horses. He saw how they communicated and how they taught their young ones how to survive in the wild. He used their non-verbal language to form his own more effective and humane method of training, whereby riders enter into a collaborative partnership with their horse rather than simply dominating the animal – the very opposite of the way his father would “break” horses back home using traditional methods involving pain, control, fear and coercion. He later named these new horse-training methods Join Up, and they have become the foundation of his international network of Join Up instructors.
Before he became a champion rider, Roberts worked in Hollywood as a stunt double for stars like James Dean and Elisabeth Taylor. Driven by his love for horses he then started an incredible career in Thoroughbred racing. By then Monty had married his lifetime companion Pat, and the pair were among the leading racehorse trainers in the States. It was back in the 1960s that they built Flag Is Up Farm as a training and teaching facility. Now when Roberts is on the road, Pat and their daughter Debbie run the international family business. “My goal in life is to leave the world a better place for horses and for people,” he explains. “This mission compels me to keep on travelling and convincing riders to respect their horses and listen to them.” In Herning, riders of all ages flock to get Roberts’ autograph and ask him for advice. It’s the same wherever he goes. An avid horsewoman, Queen Elizabeth of England is also a huge fan of his. She heard about his work many years ago and invited him to come to London and show her staff at the royal stables his Join Up method. She was so impressed that she urged him to write the book The Man Who Listens to Horses, which to this day has sold nearly five million copies. And just last year she made Roberts an honorary member of the Royal Victorian Order.
“The perfect rider in my eyes is the one who keeps a partnership with his horse regardless of whether he is in a competition or enjoying a hack,” he says. “And who trains his horse according to the principle of never doing anything to the horse that he doesn’t wish being done to himself.” He sees the relation between horse and rider as one where both sides bring their own strengths to the partnership: “The horse brings raw physicality and ancient instincts, instincts that enable horses to find their way in the dark or find home where ever they are set loose, while the rider brings aim and purpose.
Unfortunately this way of respecting the horse as an equal partner hasn’t been popular throughout the eight thousand years that horses have been companions for us human beings. And while many horses unfortunately still suffer, more and more people now treat their horses and the rest of the world with more respect. Horsemanship has to start with the horse’s nature and instincts, whatever you’re doing with the horse. You have to follow a path where horse and rider together seek coexistence, friendship and survival. This is the journey I’m on; this is what I have learned from listening to horses, and this is what I share with horses whenever I ride them or train them.”
“Horsemanship is an organic science,” he continues, “one that moves its boundaries as we slowly but surely uncover more about the horse’s needs and instincts. So in many ways, horsemanship tomorrow will be better news for horses than my teachings of today. Thank God for that! And that’s also why I want all my students to become better horsemen than me.”
In 1998 Monty Roberts was one of the inspirations for actor Robert Redford’s part as a horse trainer in the Hollywood blockbuster movie The Horse Whisperer, which also starred a young Scarlet Johansen. The film brought advanced horsemanship to a much wider audience, and it may be that its legacy and continued popularity is one of the factors that has led to Roberts travelling as much as he does.
“Whatever part of the world I travel to, I’m always helping horse people deal with the same handful of problems. Number one is loading: So many horse people have problems getting their horses into a horse trailer. The second biggest problem is horses that step on their owner’s toes when they walk with them. And the third is horses that won’t stand still when their riders want to mount them. All these problems can be solved peacefully using methods of mutual respect, tolerance and consequence.”
Our time is up: Monty Roberts has to go. Now he has to take a look at a dozen horses that all have issues with their owners. From these he will pick four of five to feature in a demonstration before 2,000 spectators, the main event at the four-day horse festival which every year attracts up to 50,000 visitors. His visit to Herning has been arranged by his Danish protégée Maj-Britt M Carter, a certified Join Up instructor who has attended numerous courses led by Roberts and his wife on their farm in California. In the same way, Roberts has educated Join Up instructors to spread the word in countries like Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Italy and Great Britain.
“I´m not getting any younger, so in the last couple of years I have strengthened the Join Up organisation, so that it can keep going after I’m gone,” he confides. “And if I come back as a horse in my next life, I hope to be owned by a 12-year-old girl – because they make the most loving, sensitive, compassionate and committed riders and horsemen.” •
Visit Monty in California. Every day from 09.00 to 17.00 you can visit Monty Roberts home and training facility Flag Is Up Farms in Solvang, California in USA for free. Roberts lives here with his wife Pat and their many horses. The farm also houses Monty Roberts’ Equestrian Academy educating around 140 students per year. The famous Mustang Shy Boy lives here too – a legendary wild stallion that Monty tamed using the Join Up method. Get more information at www.montyroberts.com. His book The Man Who Listens to Horses and the movie The Horse Whisperer are both available at Amazon.com.