BOOKS: The Man Who Listens to Horses

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1997:

The Man Who Listens to Horses
by Monty Roberts
Random House (201 E. 50th St., New York, NY 10022), 1997.
258 pages, hardcover, $23.00.

The term “horse whisperer” was coined over 100 years ago, but
never before has it enjoyed as much popularity as today. A 1995 novel of
that title by Nicholas Evans touched readers around the world––both
those who love horses, and those who just love a good story.
The Man Who Listens to Horses, the autobiography of real-life
horse whisperer Monty Roberts, is nonfiction with the same potential. At
the local bookstore the other day, I saw stacks of The Man Who Listens to
Horses right beside the cash register, not buried in the “horses” section
where only equestrians might find it––the only non-fiction horse book I
have ever seen placed in such a sales-friendly location. It deserves the
same treatment in other stores across the country.

Roberts’ story begins in California during the Great Depression,
when he was born. He paints a vivid picture of ranch life then, when
wild horses roamed the nearby plains of Nevada in abundance. From the
wild horses themselves Roberts learned what he calls “the language of
Equus.” At age 13, he spent weeks alone in the high desert, studying the
mustangs, and what he learned changed his life.
Roberts tells us in rich, enchanting detail about his early days
as rodeo rider; his childhood “career” as a Hollywood stunt-double for
actors such as Elizabeth Taylor, Roddy MacDowal and Mickey Rooney;
his troubled relationship with an abusive father who shunned his unconventional
horse-training methods; his unique friendships with James
Dean and Queen Elizabeth II; his struggles to be accepted in the cliquish
world of horse shows and horse trainers; his global travels and successes
in horse racing; and finally, his peace with himself and his considerable
contribution to the well-being of horses.
As a reader, I was swept away. As an equestrian, I see conflicts.
Horsey friends who have also read this book share concern over
Robert’s belief that horses, “Horses, as a natural response, do not move
away from pressure, they move into it—particularly if the pressure is
applied to their flanks. Once flight is no longer a clear option,” Roberts
explains, “the horse’s best defense is not to run, but to turn into the
onslaught and kick. Go into pain, nature told the horse.”
This is all well and good against a wolf-attack, but for practical
purposes, everything we do with domestic horses must be aimed at getting
them to move away from the pressure of a heel, or a rein against the
neck. If a horse is pinning me against a wall, and I place my hand on his
ribs or hip, I want him to move away from my pressure. In such a situation
I don’t have any way to give him something to move toward.
Another small conflict I had as a horse person is that Roberts
leaves out a few pertinent facts about rodeo and racing. He concedes that
there is much cruelty in rodeo, but defends bronc-riding, saying that
those horses only work eight seconds a day, they are well-fed, wellattended,
and in truth, enjoy sending cowboys flying. That is all true, I
am sure––but Roberts neglects to mention the tight “bucking strap” drawn
painfully up the horse’s flanks. Nor does he say a word about the sharp
spurs that rake across the horse’s shoulders, often leaving scars. The
horse won’t buck without the strap, and the cowboy loses points if he
doesn’t rake. As for racing, the issue that horses are run much too young,
both from a physical and emotional standpoint, is left unaddressed.
However, there is no doubt that Roberts loves horses with all of
his heart, soul and mind. He has devoted and dedicated his entire life to
the betterment of the lives of horses. Not many people would do that,
especially against the opposition that Roberts suffered from the time he
was a small child, and continues to suffer to some extent today. He tells
amusing stories about how skeptics still love to test his mettle with scary
mountains of snorting, pawing, fire-eyed horseflesh.
Also of note are the introduction and afterword by Lawrence
Scanlan, author of Riding High. ––Staci Layne Wilson
(Cofounder, International Generic Horse Association/HorseAid.)

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