Horse Life (October 1, 1997)

Book Review: “The Man Who Listens To Horses,” by Monty Roberts.

Although I am over a half a century old, my life with horses started only seven years ago. I was born in Montana. My family is the normal Montana mix of cowboys and Indians. My Uncle, Rex Thill, was Montana State bronc riding champion for a couple of years in the fifties. Lots of rodeo in these men. Lots of horses. But because of an incident between a horse and my father there were no horses in my childhood. My father got kicked when he was 12 years old. He lost a good chunk of his skull. He was in a coma for several months. He lived, but he lived with nothing but a flap of skin covering a his brain above his right eye. No plate. No bone, just skin.

It changed his life dramatically, this accident. He could not go to war and fight the Japanese as the rest of his peers did. That bothered him. He could not ride broncs and rodeo like his brothers did. Although he never said it, I’m sure that bothered him. And there were no horses for us, the way there were horses for his brothers’ kids.

If you’d told me 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago that I would be running a ranch that raises thoroughbred race horses I would have thought that absurd. I spent those years in Miami, San Francisco, LA, NY… No way could I make such a drastic life direction change. Certainly not as I approached fifty. Who would want to begin a career working with high strung, volatile animals weighing 1200 pounds when you got to be that old? And certainly I have never been an athlete. I’m short. Chubby. And old.

But that’s what happened. As a result I have read every book, every magazine, every horse-related thing I could find. Playing catch-up. Over time my reading has become more discerning. I tend to select horse health and horse behavior above other subjects.

Monty Roberts has written a passionate story about horse behavior and the behavior of the people who are involved with them. I like the title, “The Man who Listens to Horses.” Listening, I have learned, is the key to it all.

I recently read another book called “Talking With Horses” by Henry Blake. It is dry reading. Although mostly anecdotal, it still manages to be non-personal. The best thing about it is a brief dictionary of phrases (verbal & non-verbal) that horses commonly use with each other and us. If you work with horses you’d get a chuckle as you recognized suddenly what you already knew. In fact, you must know these horse messages. If you don’t, you will find being around horses is more pain than it’s worth. Because you won’t know when to get out of the way.

Monty Roberts’ book is a national bestseller. Why is that? Obviously many more people than just horse people are reading it. I would think that the horse people who most need to read this book will be the least likely to do it. 

Why are non-horse people reading it? Probably because of “The Horse Whisperer,” a popular novel about a man patterned after Monty Roberts who saved a neurotic horse and healed a family as a result. Now here is the story of the real man. But it has to have more than that to turn into a bestseller, to hold the attention of the general public. After all, Stephen King didn’t even do a jacket blurb for it. 

I think it’s because Monty Roberts is an open wound and a happy colt all at once. He pulls you into the raw joy and pain of his life. It’s a big secret I’ve learned, that horse people are happy people. It somehow takes the focus off the petty little melodramas of human life. Horses are bigger than we are. They live in the now. They are the great Zen Masters. They teach us to let go of all that brooding. “Go get us some oats,” they say, “And stop being silly!”

The pain, of course, is that so much misery often comes to these wonderful creatures through no fault of their own. And death seems to come to them so suddenly, so easily.

Roberts talks about Crow’s Landing near Salinas where he grew up. Crow’s Landing was a slaughterhouse for horses. His first horse ended up there. All his father’s horses ended up there when pop’s horse training facility was confiscated for a Japanese interment camp. He talked about seeing the workmen at lunch setting their lunch boxes out on the carcasses of the dead horses. 

For those of us who love and admire horses there is so much pain in the knowledge that if you sell a horse, no matter how careful you are, that horse may end up starved in a backyard by some asshole who bought a horse on a whim and then lost interest in it; or that horse may one day be smashed into a transport with horses she doesn’t know and perhaps get her leg broken before she even arrives. (What difference does it make? She is dog food anyhow.) Then she is shot in a horrible place full of blood and the screams of the dying and soon to be dying. What will she be thinking when she sees this place? 

These are animals who thought they could make a deal with us. They thought that we were intelligent, honorable creatures just as they are. They would run races, jump big jumps, manage cattle, do barrels, take us on long trail rides into the mountains and babysit the kids, all of it in exchange for us simply feeding them some hay. Give them a little land to stand around on. A shelter from the rain if possible. Even that was not a must. What are they thinking when they see that they are about to die? That we have betrayed them in an ignoble, ugly way? For 20¢ a pound?

Monty Roberts learned the language of horses by watching mustangs interact with each other out on the high desert of Nevada. He called it the language of Equis. He has spent his life studying this language and applying it to the training of horses for the various tasks required of them.

Although I have nowhere near the skills he has, I know what he’s talking about. 

Seven years ago when I started I had no reason to question what was told to me about handling horses. I started out with whips and chains. The idea was you had to win every battle with the horse. And everything was a battle. It didn’t take me long to figure out that there was no way a 50-year old, short, tubby little dumpling was going to control a thousand-pound, two year-old thoroughbred stallion by brute force. I wasn’t going to win many battles that way. So I stopped listening to people and started listening to horses. I started mimicking the motions of my lead mare Lanakai when I wanted the horses to do things. I learned to rub the babies at the withers to calm them the same way their mothers do. 

After a while I found my little group of 30-40 thoroughbreds of all ages had accepted me as the lead mare human. I don’t have big battles anymore. The horses try to co-operate. They know that generally I will have my way, but that way is what I think is best for them and they have not been hurt so far. In fact, things have gotten better and better. I am constantly amazed by this. So different from the time of whips and chains. Now only occasionally do I pull out a stud chain. Before it was in daily use with all but the sweetest of mares.

At the core of “The Man Who Listens to Horses” is his life long battle with his dad. His father was an old time cowboy. Broke horses all his life. Probably was considered a damn good cowboy and “one tough son of a bitch.” (That was compliment in that world). He did it the old way. The horse was a dangerous animal, and you had to hurt him before he hurt you.

He tied up their legs and left them for hours and hours in unnatural and painful positions. He tied them up tight and got a loud crackling grain bag and flapped it all over them. This was called sacking the horse out. It was supposed to teach them to not be afraid. It was (and still is) a terrifying and unnecessary experience for the horse.

They broke horses then. These men wanted to break the horse’s spirit. Generally the horses bucked like crazy when they were first ridden. Many horses and men were hurt in this process. But it was the way it was done. And Monty’s dad did it. He was a professional trainer. 

Then Monty came along and learned that you don’t need all that. He could take an unbroken horse into a round corral and within an hour, just by learning to communicate with the horse, have the horse happily saddled and carrying a rider around the arena without a buck. Monty Roberts, of course, is one of the best in the world at this, but many other trainers are doing it all over the country.

Our horses here in Boonville get their early training from Connie Hiatt. Connie doesn’t beat them, doesn’t tie their heads to the saddle to “teach them to bend,” doesn’t scare them to death, and within a few days she’s riding them quietly. They rarely if ever buck. They are happy, often quite proud of themselves, eager to work, waiting impatiently in their stalls for Connie to arrive so they can work during our two-year old training period in February and March. 

A few years back we sent them off to a trainer in Clements. Our eager young horses came back confused and frightened. This guy was from the old school. No kindness was spared for the horses. They were, after all, just raw meat. Cannon fodder for the race track. Racing machines. The horses went away self confident and came back completely unsure of themselves. One thing I have learned so far is that a horse will not win a race if he has no self confidence. 

Monty Roberts spends a great deal of time dwelling on the fact that his father would not ever give his approval and blessing to his son’s work. And for Monty that is what mattered most. The Queen of England had him in routinely to do her horses. She loved him. He ended up a millionaire but he still never got his dad to say, “You know what, son? You really do have something there. I was wrong.”

But there is a darker side to that one, too, that Monty doesn’t want to look at. See, if his daddy admitted that Monty had a better way of starting horses, then he would be saying that the rough, dangerous way he worked all those years was ineffectual, unnecessary, if not downright foolish and stupid. That’s the way he saw it. At the core of it is a simple truth: His father was afraid of horses. Monty Roberts is not. He likes horses.

And maybe there is a part of Monty Roberts that hates this man. This man who beat him and brutalized animals and people just like all the good cowboys before him. Maybe Monty wants to say to him, “Hey schmuck. I am right. You were wrong. Get a clue, dumbshit.”

I know what it means to love and hate a sometimes brutal cowboy father. I sat at the foot of my father’s bed while he lay there unconscious and dying of cancer, and I thought, “Please don’t let him wake up while I’m here because he will fix his eye on me and tell me his last words for me, which will be… ‘I hate you. You did everything wrong. You haven’t been a wife or a mother or anything else that amounts to a pile of shit’.” He didn’t wake up. He had no last words for me. 

I hope the non-horse and the off-course horse people who read this book are learning that animals are much more intelligent than we once thought. I hope this book will save the lives of some horses who would have been lost without it.

Monty Roberts says his goal is to leave this world a better place for horses. He just may do it. Humans are made quite stupid by their arrogant notion that only they have intelligence. So much injustice has been done to the beautiful horses of the world and, as Monty Roberts says, we owe the horses a big apology. We have misunderstood and abused them for so long. 

One Response to "Horse Life (October 1, 1997)"

  1. Kristi Wilwand   January 30, 2020 at 1:41 pm

    The way your words describe your love for horses, so resonates with my heart.
    I have been blessed by my childhood memories that
    carried me daily on the back of my horse Dakota, the beautiful little 14.2 ,paint/standardbred, my parents purchased from the Ukiah fairgrounds so long ago.
    I still cry whenever I see any horse movie because I long
    for the bond that we shared.They are now corralled in my memories and pictures that I treasure.
    Thank you, for this intro to your book so I can find myself
    reading it & finding a way to bridge my present with my past.
    I appreciate your love for these animals that have blessed us.
    Sincerely,
    Kristi Wilwand and Feather Sullivan that sent this
    story my way today:)

    Reply

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