Meeting a legend: Monty Roberts


20160603_191212This past weekend, I had the privilege to meet a legend of the horsey world: Monty Roberts!

Monty became famous when he wrote a book about how he studied the way wild mustangs communicate and adapted that into a training method he calls Join Up / Round Pen Training. Her Majesty the Queen of England came to hear of his revolutionary training method and invited him to do a demonstration for her. He has since taken the world by storm, writing more books and touring the world, showing off his skills.

While I am all for his central tenet of teaching non-violence, I wasn’t (and am still not) convinced that anyone can learn a certain training “method” and through that become good horsemen / women. I become especially suspicious when clinicians start selling their unique brand of training gear proclaiming it to be the only way to get a wayward horse to listen. (Sadly Monty was very guilty of this selling his “Dually halter” which to me, seemed to have exactly the same mechanical effect as simply wrapping a rope around the horse’s nose).

His technique of “Join Up” has also received some critique from Equitation Scientists who managed to replicate it using a remote control car, (also here) making his claims about using body language to communicate with the horse somewhat dubious. Monty himself touts  another study where round-pen-trained-horses had lower heart rates than those who were trained traditionally when asked to to a certain ridden test. If however, you bother to read the actual study, you might find out that the round-pen trained horses were backed much quicker and had been practicing the ridden course while the conventionally-trained horses only rode the course for the first time on the day of the trial. This begs the question whether the training technique itself had anything at all to do with the lower heart rates of the Monty-trained horses. To me it seems that the only thing that was proven was that you could get horses to  relax once they were familiar with a task.

All that aside though. The man himself is wonderfully charming and has serious charisma! He had me, and the rest of the audience totally captivated for hours listening to his stories of training horses that were ready to be scrapped and then putting his money where his mouth is and doing it in front of an audience.

He has an online university where anyone can learn his techniques and become certified in using them, although the man himself said he doesn’t just certify anyone, and he likes people to have worked for it and not come by it too easily. This statement makes a lot of sense if you bothered to pay attention right at the end of the show where he gave away his real secret: he is able to control his heart rate and keep it low. He never gets stage fright, because in the presence of an audience is where he himself feels safest. And this, my friends, is what the horses in his presence respond to!

If you can manage to remain calm in adverse situations, your horse will trust you and do what you ask of it. If on the other hand, you are all worked up, your horse will get worked up too and their flight response will be triggered. It is really as simple as that, but not simple at all. Because learning that sort of control asks of you to become an authentic human and deal with your emotions in a balanced manner. I reckon this is what Monty means when he says people have to “struggle a bit”  – you have to get to know yourself. Horses are prey animals and very reactive to emotions. Getting to know yourself and controlling those emotions take years to achieve – it is always a journey.

So by all means, go out and buy your dually halters, carrot sticks or “magic wands” whatever piece of equipment your preferred master trainer touts. But remember, that you have to know yourself, and if you want to be really effective you also have to make an effort to learn about  how horses behave; how they react, why they react they way they do and how to get them to change their minds. And horses are quick. They learn especially fast when they are frightened (all the things you don’t really want them to learn!) and these are the worst things to try and unlearn.

The best thing to do is to practice. Guys like Monty didn’t get there because they instantly figured out what to do – it was trial and error and hours and hours and more hours (amounting to years worth) of practice. And when you do get stuck, don’t be ashamed to ask for help – but don’t follow the advice of a the loudest person in the yard with the biggest personality – contact an expert and follow their advice!

Most of all, learn to listen to your horse…

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