My battered but well-loved copy of Monty Roberts’ The Man Who Listens to Horses is a book I’ve been reading and re-reading since I was twelve years old.
Having first picked it up when owning a horse of my own was nothing more than a distant dream, I rifled through it continually for help and support in my first few years of owning my own pony, and have kept it close ever since, carrying it to the two occasions where I’ve been privileged enough to see Monty work live – with two groups of friends at different livery yards years apart – and at one of those had it signed, a couple of decades after it first became a staple on my bookshelf.
In the horse world, there will always be those prominent role models who we are most inspired by, and love to watch and learn from. For me, there are several who stand out from the rest – Nick Skelton is a huge one, a showjumper whose posters were on my wall when I was nine years old – carefully pulled out of Ponies Forever magazine – and who, decades later, I was elated to watch (standing side by side with Charmer in his stable after work, phone propped up streaming the big moment) winning gold in the 2016 Olympics with the beautiful Big Star, post-recovery after his previous accident and rounding off a dazzling career. Luca Moneta, with his unique approach to communicating with his horse even in the most high-calibre of competitions, promotes a refreshing brand of horse-welfare-focused horsemanship. Monty Roberts is without a doubt one of these role models too, having been such a huge part of my early forming of ideas about how best to relate to horses, and in particular to my own – who I was blessed enough to find myself responsible for when we were both only young, and who I was determined to do the best I could for.
The Man Who Listens to Horses is a captivating story, I’m sure for those not involved with horses as well as those who are. Beginning in California in the 1940s, at a time when the balance of life was about to be upset considerably by the arrival of the war years; it focuses initally on Monty and his brother Larry’s childhood on a large competition yard, their work there and their own competing as they grew up, describing the unique opportunities afforded to Monty through his life with the horses in local rodeo events and even in roles in some of the huge cowboy films of the time while doing stunt work for actors like James Dean and Roddy McDowall.
The true heart of this story, however, is Monty’s desire as he grew older to break out from what was the norm in both his upbringing and the culture of the time of horse-starting – or “breaking”. Finding himself determined to find a new and more peaceful method of doing this, he discovered as he did a new path in more aspects of his life, and a deepening desire to reduce violence in the world not just for horses but for people too.
Monty’s outlook is by no means unique – a few years ago I read another very interesting book, Talking with Horses by Henry Blake, which was written in the UK some years previously and focused on many similarly peaceful approaches to communicating with his horses. However, I do understand that in his circle at the time he grew up, to Monty his efforts to break out of the way things had always been done were a constant struggle, and the resistance he met led to a difficult journey for him.
Towards the end of his teenage years, Monty recounts what seems to have been a very defining experience in his life with horses – having the opportunity through summer herding work to watch a group of mustangs interact with one another entirely in the wild – first becoming intrigued by this when observing an exchange between a “trouble-making” young colt “misbehaving” in the group and the dominant mare who dealt with this:
“The dun mare didn’t hesitate. In an instant she pinned her ears back and ran at him, knocking him down.. while this chastisement was going on, the other members of the herd didn’t turn a hair. It was as if they didn’t know it was happening. She ended by driving him out of the herd.. I was amazed. She kept her eye on his eye, and faced up to him… he was terrified to be left alone…. he stood there, and I noticed there was a lot of licking and chewing going on, although he hadn’t eaten anything. I remembered the foal and how it had snapped its mouth, which is an obvious signal of humility as though it was saying “I am not a threat to you.” This colt was saying the same thing to his matriarch… To my astonishment the dun mare was now grooming the colt. She’d let him back in, and now she was keeping him close by and giving him lots of attention…”
Some of these behaviours, and many more witnessed over several years in the natural setting of herds, would go on to form the basis for “Join-Up”, a method for relating to horses, particularly those unsettled for any reason, as other horses would – in doing so putting them at ease, removing the element of fear and bridging any gap in understanding; and in turn providing a solid foundation for building the relationship between horses and humans – one which involves both of us learning so much from each other, and one which is so incredibly rewarding.
The Man Who Listens to Horses is an intriguing book, part autobiography, part textbook, and spans decades of a life spent working with horses and learning from them. It is one I have carried with me throughout my life, and which has helped me find perspective on many ups and downs of my own life with horses.