Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Taking the Reins

By Dominic Jess

APRIL 27, 1998:  There was a time when horse trainer Monty Roberts was controversial. Instead of whipping horses into submission, he’d get touchy-feely with the animals using a method he calls “joining up.” Now, Roberts is an equestrian legend, a man who served as loose model for an upcoming feature film starring Robert Redford. He’s sold more than 600,000 copies of his autobiography, The Man Who Listens To Horses, and he’s now spreading the word across the world with his 1998 Join Up Tour.

On Friday, April 24th, and Saturday, April 25th, Roberts will demonstrate his unique way of training horses at the Circle G Showcase in Olive Branch, Mississippi. He will also sign copies of his book, still on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, at noon on Friday, April 24th, at the Deliberate Literate on Union Avenue.

Roberts started to develop his method of “joining up” horses while tracking wild mustangs in the deserts of Nevada. Like an anthropologist, he spent nights watching the wild horses interact. He observed the silent body language of the animals to determine how the horses controlled each other. Watching a mare discipline a colt, he noticed the fundamentals of horse behavior. To get a horse to approach you, he found, it is best to simply turn your back on the horse and wait for it to come to you. Staring at the horse makes it run away. Giving the horse a slight glance while your back is turned encourages it to come to you, to “join up” with the trainer as it would with a herd. Today, Roberts uses about 100 different gestures during this process.

Considered a child prodigy by some, Roberts began working with horses at a young age. By age 5, he was working for Warner Bros., including a stint as a stunt double for Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet. In 1955, while working on East of Eden, he trained James Dean in the way of the lasso.

When he was a boy, Roberts says, his horse-trainer father would “break” his charges by tying them to a post, covering them in a tarpaulin, and binding their legs together. This method of training worked by restricting a horse’s movement over several weeks, thereby breaking the horse’s spirit.

At age 8, Roberts watched his father, also a police officer, beat a robbery suspect into a pulp. After lying in the station for two days with a cracked skull, torn lungs, and no medical attention, the suspect died.

And finally, when young Roberts demonstrated his new method of horse training to his father, he was whipped with a chain and spent several days in the hospital. Afterwards, he claims, the beatings occurred about once a week for three years – almost as if his own father was trying to break his son’s spirit as he did with his horses.

Photo by Christopher Dydyk

But in the end, the elder Roberts failed. Today, Roberts is one of the highest-regarded horse trainers in the world.

Until 1986, Roberts kept his methods underground because of the widespread fear that any horse not “broken” by conventional means might hurt a rider. Since then, however, recognition through his book, TV reports and documentaries by the BBC and PBS is spreading his practice across the world. In 1989, he visited England, where, in front of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, and the queen mother, he tamed the queen mother’s filly within half an hour.

In addition, Roberts and his wife, Pat, have fostered 47 other children over the years, along with their three biological children. Most of these kids come from disadvantaged, urban, and abusive backgrounds – the type of kids he once worked with while studying psychology at the California Polytechnic State University.

According to his wife, there are similarities between Roberts’ child-rearing philosophy and his work with horses. “You can’t tell a child they ‘must-do’,” she says. “You must instill in them the ‘want-to’.”

It’s an approach that’s worked for both man and beast.

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