The Man Who Listens to Horses by Monty Roberts
Web posted on: Tuesday, May 12, 1998 3:42:22 PM EDT
(CNN) -- Monty Roberts has spent his whole life working with horses -- schooling them,
listening to them, and learning their ancient equine language. In The Man Who
Listens to Horses, he tells about his early days as a rodeo rider in California,
his problems with his violent horse-trainer father, who was unwilling to accept
Monty's unconventional training methods, his friendship with James Dean, his
struggle to be accepted in the professional horse-training community, and the
invitation that changed his life -- to demonstrate his method of "join-up" to the
Queen of England.
The Call of the Wild Horses
It all dates from those summers alone in the high desert, me lying on my belly
and watching wild horses with my binoculars for hours at a time. Straining to
see in the moonlight, striving to fathom mustang ways, I knew instinctively I
had chanced upon something important but could not know that it would shape
my life. In 1948 I was a boy of thirteen learning the language of horses.
In the wilderness of Nevada, the soil is silky and cool to the touch at dawn, and
at midday will burn your skin. My summer vigils were marked off by the heat
of the day and the cold of the night and a profound sense of solitude. It felt
right to be there under those vast skies on that dove-gray moonscape in the
company of wild and wary horses. I remember, especially, a dun mare with a
dark stripe along her back and zebra stripes above her knees. Clearly the
matriarch of the herd, she was disciplining an unruly young colt who had been
roughing up foals and mares. I vividly recall how she squared up to him, her
eyes on his eyes, her spine rigid, her head pointed arrowlike at the adolescent.
No longer full of himself, he knew exactly what she meant. Three hundred
yards from the herd, the outcast would know by her body position when he
could return to the fold. If she faced him, he could not. If she showed him part
of her body's long axis, he could begin to consider it. Before her act of
forgiveness had to come signs of his penitence. The signals he gave back to
her -- the seeking of forgiveness -- would later be fundamental to a technique I
would develop to introduce young horses gently to saddle and rider. It was the
mustangs who taught me their silent body grammar, and the dun mare was my
I grew up in Salinas, California, where wild horses were annually put to other
uses. In 1948, the Wild Horse Race was a featured part of the Salinas Rodeo.
And because I lived in a house on the rodeo grounds (or competition grounds,
as I called it) where my parents ran a riding school, rodeo was part of our
lives. Normally, wild horses were cheap and plentiful. Doc Leach, a short,
bespectacled man who was our dentist and also president of the association that
governed the competition grounds, would have called the usual people and said,
in effect, Come on, folks, I need a hundred and fifty mustangs to be delivered
to Salinas by July the first and it would happen. But with horsemeat used so
extensively during the war, mustang numbers had dwindled significantly, and
by 1947 the herds in northern California, Nevada, and southern Oregon had
diminished by as much as two-thirds, with the horses now located almost
exclusively in Nevada. That year Doc Leach's calls had fallen on deaf ears.
What mustangs? the Nevada ranchers had countered. You come up here and see
if you can get them yourself. The wild horse race was usually no race at all but
a kind of maniacal musical chairs played with mustangs, but that year the
Salinas Rodeo Association had to scrape together what they could find, and so it
was a fairly tame wild horse race, with too few horses and too many old ones
to put on the show required.
The following year I saw an opportunity to provide Doc Leach with a service
that would both salvage the reputation of the wild horse race and save the lives
of a hundred or more horses. I was only thirteen; he might not listen. But I was
driven by both a fierce young entrepreneurial spirit and my love of the horses.
In previous years, after the rodeo, the mustangs were sent to Crows Landing to
be slaughtered for dog food. If I could somehow make them worth more than
What if, I proposed to Doc Leach, I go to Nevada and get the mustangs? Doc
Leach's eyebrows popped up above his glasses. How you going to do that,
walk? No, I've made a lot of friends from trips to horse shows there. I know I
can ask for help from the Campbell Ranch. Bill Dorrance, a remarkable
horseman in his mid-fifties who would become my mentor, had contacts at the
ranch and would make the arrangements. Ralph and Vivian Carter, good horse
people and friends of the family, had business to conduct near there and had
agreed to help. Finally, I had a truck driver lined up. Good for you, Doc Leach
came back, a hint of mockery in his voice. I was, after all, little more than a
boy. I'd ride up to the ranges with some of the day hands from the Campbell
Ranch, and I bet I could secure one hundred and fifty head. Head of what?
Chickens or horses? He had a sophisticated sense of humour. Strong and
healthy mustangs, Dr. Leach. I explained to him that my younger brother,
Larry, and I could care for them at the competition grounds until the rodeo
was held. They'll be ready on the spot, with the pair of us on hand to see
they're all right. Doc Leach shifted his pipe from one corner of his mouth to
the other and blinked a couple of times. That meant he was cogitating. Finally
he asked, What's in it for you? I was thinking, sir, that after the rodeo Larry
and I could break in the mustangs and maybe have an auction sale, so they'd be
worth more than Crows bait. That was the euphemism for animals taken to
Crows Landing for slaughter. This year, I told him, he would not have to send
any animals to the abattoir. There'd definitely be more than a few that would
go through the sale ring ridden by my brother or myself and maybe provide
someone with a useful mount, sir. He was still cogitating, so I went on. And
perhaps the rodeo association could show a profit at the end of the day, more
than the slaughter value anyway. Doc Leach weighed the arrangement, turning
it over in his mind. He was like the buyer of a used car, kicking the tires and
looking for the hidden defect. When he could find none, he agreed.
He offered to call up Irvin Bray and contract him to provide me with transport
for the return journey. Finally, we agreed that the net proceeds of any sales
were to be divided equally between the rodeo association and the Roberts
I was on my way to Nevada to gather 150 head of mustangs. It would prove to
be the most important opportunity of my life: to study horses in their natural
groups, in the wild. For the next three years I would be crossing the Sierra
Nevada to the high desert beyond, to live alongside wild herds for several
weeks at a time. From that experience I would begin to learn a language, a
silent language which I have subsequently termed Equus. With that as a
springboard, I would assemble a framework of ideas and principles that would
guide my life's work with horses. I would have none of this were it not for my
time as a teenager spent in the company of mustangs.
© 1997 by Monty Roberts. All rights reserved
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