Originally created 07/09/98

Horse listener breaks with tradition



UPPER MARLBORO, Md. -- Monty Roberts, better known as The Man Who Listens to Horses, has a simple philosophy about his fascination and famous rapport with the equine species.

"Horses have been my entire life. I was born with horses all around me," said Roberts, a Salinas, Calif., native and author of the mega-best seller "The Man Who Listens to Horses."

"I suppose if I had been born in the middle of Iowa," Roberts said, "I'd have been fascinated by corn."

Roberts spent his youth observing the body language of wild horses, eventually translating it into an aggression-free training method known as "join-up" and promoting it in his book.

The popular author demonstrated his technique at the Prince George's County Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro last month before a crowd of several thousand. Proceeds from the event were given to the Equine Rescue League, a Leesburg, Va.-based organization that shelters neglected, abused and unwanted horses, rehabilitates them and puts them up for adoption.

Years before writing the book, Roberts, 63, had made his mark in the world of horses.

As a youth, he worked as a Hollywood stunt double for the likes of Mickey Rooney, Tab Hunter and Charlton Heston, even doubling for Elizabeth Taylor in the movie "National Velvet." At 19, he was teaching a then-unknown James Dean how to spin a rope for the film "East of Eden." In 1989, he did a demonstration for Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle, and her horses are now trained with his method.

Roberts said his gentle approach is rooted in his past as a physically abused child and his observations of the harsh, traditional method of "breaking" horses.

"I became interested at a very young age in how you could love something so much and treat it that way," Roberts said. "I didn't like what I saw. I thought it was unnecessary."

Roberts proved his point with 2-year-old Louie, a horse who had never worn a saddle and bridle or been ridden. As the majestic brown horse entered the arena's circular pen, Roberts predicted his actions with accuracy.

First, Roberts gently tossed a lead rope in Louie's direction, encouraging the horse to run in a circle around the pen. Roberts said Louie needed to run the equivalent of about a quarter of a mile before they could start the process.

As Louie continued trotting, Roberts said the horse would [filtered word] one ear toward him and slowly move away from the fence, running in a tighter circle. And Louie did.

Next, Roberts explained that any minute, Louie would relax his neck and begin licking and chewing.

Sure enough, Louie began dropping his head and licking.

The trainer then closed his hand into a fist and dropped his hand -- a sign of nonaggression -- and Louie stopped running. Because looking a horse in the eyes is considered aggressive, Roberts looked away from Louie and dropped his shoulders. As soon as Roberts averted his gaze, Louie looked in his direction.

Seconds later, the young horse was following Roberts willingly as the trainer walked around the pen.

"Find the thing he does right. Reward him," Roberts said as he patted Louie on the head.

In less than half an hour, Louie had allowed himself to be saddled, bridled and ridden, all without a struggle. In fact, the horse didn't seem to want to leave the pen until Roberts volunteered to lead him out.

Roberts calls this the moment of "join-up," when an animal decides to join a person instead of fleeing.

"Horses learn incredibly fast," Roberts said. "Teachers have to create an environment in which their students can learn. You're watching a young student learn before our very eyes."

Roberts' fans, many toting copies of his book, praised the trainer's simple but profound approach. They stood patiently in long lines, waiting to snap his photograph and have their books signed. Music from the old TV shows "Rawhide" and "Bonanza" played in the background.

"I love horses and I love his technique of gentling them instead of beating them into submission," said Cheryl Carnahan, a 19-year-old horse camp director from Germantown. "I also train dogs and I use his method. I think the best way to become close with an animal is to treat it like part of the family."

Stacy Wilson, a 29-year-old graphics artist from Brandywine, called Roberts "a great American."

"He's really someone who has the guts to say, `This is the way you should be doing it instead of pain and cruelty to animals," said Wilson, who rides horses. "We really need more people in the horse community like him."

"He's added an element of understanding that de-mystifies the way the horse behaves," said Carrie Joyner, a 30-something graphics artist who also rides horses. "He's just opened up a whole new angle."

Several people said they also had read "The Horse Whisperer," a best-selling novel by Nicholas Evans, but preferred Roberts' book.

"The Horse Whisperer," a work of fiction about a man who rehabilitates troubled horses, spawned a recent Robert Redford film of the same name.

Roberts said he had a bone to pick with the film, specifically two scenes that show a horse being yanked with ropes and having a girl placed on its back to make it subservient. In the end, the film showed the opposite of his philosophy, he said.

"They wanted me to endorse this movie so badly," Roberts said. "I couldn't have endorsed that movie the way it was."