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It's difficult to imagine a nicer way of spending a warm afternoon than sitting in the shade with cool drinks and Monty Roberts, shooting the breeze. There is something so supremely benign about Roberts, it's almost a hypnotic force. It's not hard to think of him aiming this peaceful power at a wild horse and ending the episode by making a friend.
A largish man, made larger by tight fitting western-style clothes, at 65, the self-professed original horse whisperer seems to embody the West that shaped him. But the nice side of the West. The gentle side. The one that's about long sunsets and dew dipped mesas and mustangs that can be tamed with a whisper and a gentle touch.
Everything about Roberts exudes gentleness and humility. Even the things he says that, from others, might seem like braggadocio seem natural and right from this man. Take, for instance, his writing mentor: none other than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen of England. "The Queen put me with my first publishers in London because I wasn't going to have anybody publish my book," Roberts says. "She kept saying: Write a book, write a book!"
I have to pause him in mid-sentence to confirm this one. "The Queen?" I ask, thinking it might be some pet name for a Western gal pal. Or an affectionate term for his wife. "As in the Queen of England?"
"Yeah, sure," he replies, as though this were the most natural thing in the world. "But she doesn't realize that you can write a book all you want, but people aren't going to publish it."
Except, of course, when the Queen has expressed an interest in your work. As the saying goes, it helps to have friends in high places and it would seem that Windsor Castle is high enough to have gotten the ball rolling.
Roberts credits the Queen with his conversational writing style, as well. "Well, you know who's responsible for that? It's the Queen," who read the earliest portions of the earliest manuscript and told Roberts that while what he was producing was all right, it wasn't as wonderful as listening to the trainer talk. According to Roberts, the Queen told him that "they have these little tape recorders you could carry around. You could just talk to that and then write it down. I much prefer to hear you like it's a conversation." Which is what he did. And the resulting books have sold in the millions.
The most recent of those books published in North America, Shy Boy: The Horse That Came in From the Wild, is a modern day Western adventure whose earliest portions were created while a documentary team filmed the proceedings. Roberts led the television crew into the high country of central California where wild horses still roam. There, and with the cameras rolling, Roberts demonstrated the technique he calls "join-up" on a wild horse: the animal he would come to call Shy Boy.
After a year of sharing his life with Shy Boy, Roberts attempted a startling experiment: he took the horse back to the herd and set him free. "When I turned him loose, I worried," Roberts says. "Just like a parent would. And I walked around all through the night, like a parent would. But you've got to do it, you can't put a leash on them." It was a successful experiment: beyond all odds and expectations, Shy Boy came back.
At 65, Roberts lives on his California horse ranch, Flag Is Up Farm, with his wife Pat, an equine artist. The couple were married in 1956.
Linda Richards: Did you have a special mandate for Shy Boy?
Monty Roberts: The mandate of this book is that violence is never the answer. And that if you can cause animals -- or people -- to operate in a relationship where they want to rather than are forced to, good things happen.
The mandate is to get violence out of our lives and to show [this] particularly with this wild horse who couldn't tell you a false story if his life depended on it. They can't do that. [Horses] can't contrive or make things up. Shy Boy chose to come back to me rather than go to his own wild herd because of a trust that he had. I'm sure that while he was out there for that one night, that his mind was tickled by: Wow, I remember really cold nights. And I remember going long periods of time without anything to eat. And I remember looking for water for three or four days and barely surviving. I'm remembering now that for this past year things have been a lot better and these people really have loved me. I've never been struck, I've never been treated badly in any way. I'm going back.
He broke away from those horses, leaving a group of wild horses to come to the domestic horses and straight to me. Straight to me: not even to the horses first. It must be more than a metaphor. It must be a straight transition to how people would think.
Children get frustrated from time to time. They may even get angry. But if the trust is there and if there's a good basic relationship, they'll come back around and see value in that relationship and [return] to it. It's one of the reasons that I say to parents so often that you've got to get out of the worrying business. You've got to have confidence that the child will do what you think you want the child to do. Because if you spend the early part of this relationship building a trust and engraving good ethics -- good fiber -- you have to trust it. You can't say: you're not going out and see the world. I will protect you from this awful world. It's not going to happen. Because some day there's an 18th birthday and then you know you're not there and you've got to turn loose. And I turned loose of [Shy Boy] and I'm going to tell you straight: when I turned him loose, I worried. Just like a parent would. And I walked around all through the night, like a parent would. But you've got to do it, you can't put a leash on them.
There are very real connections between young horses and young humans, aren't there? Even intellectual commonalties.
One of the first articles ever done on me was in the Los Angeles Times and this guy really stuck his chin out and wrote it just like I said it. He didn't tend to soften anything, he put it straight on the line. There were some nice letters written back, but there was one letter written back: Who does this jerk think he is, to compare our precious children to a damned ol' dirty stinkin' horse? This guy is crazy and oughta be strung up for such a breach of etiquette.
If he's a city person and so forth, I can understand his position from where he sits. If he would take the time to come and stay with me for a period of time he would see that every animal on earth is precious and that they all fit in to a mosaic that makes a beautiful picture if they're respected. I would want his precious children to learn how precious other animal species are and to respect them for what they are. I don't have any problem with him calling his children precious or treating them precious. And I'll say they're precious, too. But I have a problem if he says the horses aren't, because they are and it all depends on your point of view and your perspective, whether you understand that they're precious. But every species is precious and as we lose them, we're beginning to realize how precious they are. That the world doesn't work as well when there's missing links.
The loss of species is what I've been thinking about as I read your book. Wild horses in particular, of course. There are now about 30,000 left in the United States?
And less in Canada. And it wasn't that long ago that people were carting them away for horse meat. Is that still happening?
Sure it is. Not as much. But now it's a federal offense.
That's a step in the right direction.
Right after World War II there was a directive that came out of the department of the interior -- one of these departments in Washington [D.C.] -- that the ranchers ought to look toward turning out heavy horses -- Belgian and Clydesdale and Percheron stallions -- with these mares so that they could then harvest larger horses.
Oh dear! To bulk them up.
Yeah. You could catch 2-year-olds then and get $200 roughly for a 2-year-old. Where the typical mustang would be half that.
Because they were lighter.
Yeah. A senseless theory, really. Because they also had cattle and a horse that's double the size eats approximately double the amount of grass, so you're putting grass through a horse versus a cow no matter which way it goes. And you're beginning to contrive this precious, pure Spanish Barb mustang.
Over generations I would think they would revert anyway. They are as they are almost in ideal form through habitat. I don't know that the big heavy ones wouldn't have adapted. But I'm glad it didn't work anyway.
There's quite a few of them out there anyway. I was in an area recently near Eureka, Nevada and you could see these little Clydesdales running around everywhere with four white socks and big blazed faces like Budweiser mustangs.
But traditionally, too there was always blood being introduced from thieving stallions and horses getting loose and stuff. A lot of them are probably descended from domestic horses.
Yes but, remember, when the Spanish brought the horses from North Africa they were a specific blood type and they came from a specific type of horse. Then we began to haul in these horses -- these Thoroughbreds and Arabians and so forth -- and we literally turned them out or they got lost or whatever. It really changed them around. Little Shy Boy still shows a lot of the Barb.
You must have a lot of success stories.
Last year in the United States we raised a million three for therapeutic riding. And I get to meet Shy Boy in three days in Colorado. He's going to put on a little demonstration for the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] people. We're trying to enhance their adoption program. And I started a horse in Montrose, Colorado last year that they sold at auction after I started him -- a pure white mustang that they captured in Utah -- and he was sold for $6000 to raise funds for a family crisis center. [The horse] came with what was supposed to be eight months of training with me, but it's a year and now he goes back and I could literally walk him right through there and light a package of firecrackers under him and he would stand there. You can tie a dummy human to a stirrup and he'll drag him around and not say a word. We put him through a real bomb-proofing program.
Do they geld them automatically when they put them up for adoption?
Pretty much so now. They don't adopt away very many stallions.
Are people breeding mustangs for type?
Yeah. But I don't recommend it. I think a person ought to adopt a mustang because they want a mustang and not go into breeding. You can get domestic horses and breed them for whatever purpose you want.
Shy Boy is your horse now?
Yes, he's fully mine now. But I went through the process of adopting him, which means for one year he belongs to the United States government. And they send an inspector around every so often to see that we're doing a good job and that we're taking care of him and stuff. At the conclusion of 12 months you can petition for ownership. If you're reasonable in your care for him and so forth they will grant you ownership. And they did. I passed. [Smiles]
I guess for you they almost wouldn't have to send someone out.
They did though, I give them credit. They did. And he was a nice man.
How often do they come out?
About four or five times in that year. He comes to an eight million dollar Thoroughbred farm to see this mustang and that's a little unusual for an adoptive parent. [The inspector] told me that, when they come out, if there's any reason to wonder about this, that they might make six or eight visits in that year and they'll cancel you off: take the horse back. This particular one that I did -- and I really did it without announcing what I was doing. I wanted to see just how far they did their inspections. And remember that when I adopted Shy Boy I adopted three, I adopted two others. So he was examining three horses.
I was traveling so much that one of them stayed very wild for six or eight months before anyone got to him to gentle him down at all. And they couldn't get near him to trim his feet. The inspector said: We'd better get this horse's feet trimmed. He was in a pen and it was winter time then and it was muddy and the feet are growing and they were pretty long. My barn manager said: I don't know what we're going to do. This thing'll kick your head off.
So they called me on the road and I told him what to do: Put panels along the fence and make a little chute and give him a shot, put him to sleep, trim his feet and then he wakes up. And that's what they did a couple of times before we got to him to get him through the process of gentling.
And now you can get to his feet?
Oh, now he's fine.
Another thing reading your book has caused me to think about is how much of the world you've ignited with your books. And I guess also Nicholas Evans with The Horse Whisperer which sort of happened at the same time. There was such a wide interest -- not just from the horse culture, which is vast -- but from the world at large. Did that surprise you?
It surprised the hell out of me. I was taken to the woodshed with my first book. The Queen put me with my first publishers in London because I wasn't going to have anybody publish my book. She kept saying: Write a book, write a book! OK, I'm writing a book...
But wait: the Queen? As in the Queen of England?
Yeah, sure. But she doesn't realize that you can write a book all you want but people aren't going to publish it.
So first she introduced me to a guy called Michael Clayton who was the editor of Horse & Hound magazine in London. He was a very naughty boy. He took about 20 minutes of tape from me, like if we shut it off right now, that's what he had. And he said: I can do a book from that. Don't worry about it. And I said: You can't do a book from that. And he said: Well, that's all I'm going to put into it, so that's the book. So I said: I'm not signing off. You've done an autobiography, which the Queen wants, with 20 minutes of tape, you don't have any clue about my life.
The next thing I know I get a call from the publisher who said that the Queen had called them to encourage them to take the book on and it turns out that they went to Michael Clayton -- I guess the Queen told them about the Clayton relationship -- and they paid him 500 pounds for this stinking 20 minute tape that we just visited over. So anyway, the next thing I know I was coming to England and they wanted a meeting with me. I went there and they had assigned me an editor and it was a schoolhouse session. They took me in a back room and told me that: We want you to know that the Queen wants a book and so we'll print a book but there will be no advances and there will be no royalties. We don't know what sort of idea you have about what this book may mean to you financially or anything, but we're telling you up front that it won't pay for itself. It'll sell between three and 5000 copies, particularly because of Her Majesty's connection. And it won't pay for the printing. We'll lose money on it but it's something we'll have to do.
And I said: Fine. I don't delude myself. I'm sure you know your business and if you say it'll sell between three and 5000 copies I have no reason to doubt you. So do whatever you want, I'm just writing the dang thing and if she has a book for her night stand and I have one for mine, I suppose that's all I can expect out of it.
I went away and it was about six months later that the BBC called me and said that they'd had some of their representatives at one of my demonstrations over there and they'd like to come to California and do a documentary on me. I answered in a positive fashion and they came over and they sent this incredibly strong lady over as a director and producer of this piece and she watched my work and she had heard that there was this book coming along and she asked if she could read the manuscript. She thought it would give her a lot of information. And I gave it to her. It was probably at that time about 50,000 words out of an eventual book of about 100,000 words.
Which book was it?
The first one [The Man Who Listens to Horses]. This was before any book was published. And this woman came to me the last night she was there and in the only cooperative conversation I ever had with her she said: You know I think you really have a book here, but I think you need a literary agent that knows how to market this book. I'm not telling you that these people are lying to you, they're probably telling you what they really believe. Anyway, she said, I went to school with a girl that later became a literary agent. Next time you're in England you should have a meeting with her.
Which was arranged and I did have and she became my literary agent: the only one I ever met. She became my literary agent and -- my God. Things changed.
So that publisher never did publish a book?
What year would this have been?
1995. It was published in 1996.
Which, I think, was around the time The Horse Whisperer came out. So I wanted to ask: are you the horse whisperer? Because when I interviewed Nicholas Evans a few years ago he talked about this wonderful trainer he'd seen in England and then he wrote the book. So, are you his horse whisperer?
He came to one of my demonstrations and apparently he told me at the demonstration that he was going to write a book. That he was inspired by what he saw there. Half way through the first manuscript they sold it to become a movie and at that time the moviemakers looked over his shoulders to finish this manuscript. And the end of that book and the end of the movie is just abject brutality and I wouldn't endorse the book and I wouldn't endorse the movie. So recently he has said: I don't know who Monty Roberts is, I didn't write my book based on him.
The timing did seem right to me.
He came to the demonstration at Duchy College in the Cornwall in 1991. That's when he started writing the book.
You raise Thoroughbreds?
I guess I said it that way because it always seems to me to be a not very happy business.
It can be.
The first activity that most horses engage in after their first suckling is to race. And nature has put a chip in their computer that absolutely loves running and competing while running. Nature is not stupid: if they don't love to run they're gonna feed a pack of wolves. So they love it. I've been fighting for 30 years to take whips out of racing. They're inappropriate and they're not effective. If you take the flight animal who moves in to pain, rather than away from it, to whip them is just counterproductive. They run slower when they're whipped.
Do you work with race horses? Or breed them?
Both. Flag Is Up Farm. Do you know why the name?
No, tell me.
At the races, when all the horses are in the starting gate there's a moment that happens, it's called "under starter's orders." And when the horses are under starter's orders, until the race is over, they do not belong to the owner, they belong to the bettors. And the people in charge of them have everything to say about them. The owner has nothing to say. Not even the trainer.
When they come under starter's orders, all the betting has to stop and the head starter is completely in charge. And there's a guy that stands out in front of the gate and he has a flag and he raises it up when the horses come under starter's orders. And the announcer actually says: Flag is up. That means a lot of things to people that know what goes on in racing. At that moment you've lost all control and you're sitting over there in the stands watching through your binoculars or whatever. And if you've done a good job, it might be successful and if you haven't, you probably won't be successful. But that's the moment that the whole operation is preparing for: Flag is up.
What's your role at the farm?
I own it. I pay salaries and feed bills.
How many horses?
About 150 to 300.
How many are racing?
Well, we're not in the racing business so much. I have about five head, I suppose, who are racing but that's more a hobby. We train horses and we breed horses for the public. And we breed for ourselves, too. But we're actually clients of the farm just like everybody else. I've gone completely nonprofit now. The farm actually belongs to a nonprofit foundation. If it made a million dollars, I wouldn't get five cents of it. But the horses I own personally.
And you write the books.
Yes, I do. But I actually don't write. That's what I use [points to tape recorder]. And I talk.
Oh really? I understand that Barbara Cartland worked that way, which amazes me, because I can't work that way at all.
See, it amazes me that anyone can sit down and write that stuff on paper and keep your mind right. I do it on airplanes and under the galley in the back of an airplane where I don't disturb anybody. Or I find a little space on the airplane where it's quiet. Or hotel rooms. At the racetracks. Sitting there talking to a tape recorder, which is then transcribed. And then it's awful. [Laughs] Then I have it read back to me. I can't read it and do it right, either. I hear the conversation back and I say: Whoa, wait a minute. Let me say it this way. And then I change it and I do about three tiers of that before anybody starts editing.
That's why it's warm to read: because it's like listening to you.
Well, you know who's responsible for that? It's the Queen. I started out writing. I wrote and then my wife typed it up. And [the Queen] wanted to see some pages, which I gave her. She said: It's nice, but I think it should be more conversational. And I said: OK, how do you write a book and make it sound that way? She said: Well, they have these little tape recorders you could carry around. You could just talk to that and then write it down. I much prefer to hear you like it's a conversation.
So I went back and did it. And I hired a lady to [transcribe] it and -- holy crimeny -- when I read this, I thought: do I really speak this way? It was horrible! So I changed it around and that one had about seven tiers and more tears than tiers, too. Then I got a little better about saying something that can be written better and making fewer mistakes. And it stays pretty conversational. | September 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of Death was the Other Woman.