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Wednesday, July 8, 1998 Published at 14:10 GMT 15:10 UK


The real horse-whisperer speaks out

There is a man who knows that humans and animals do have a common language. He says it's a language that reaches way beyond the boundaries of speech, finding its basis in mutual understanding and trust.

Monty Roberts has spent more than four decades practising this with horses, beginning as a child in the Nevada desert. His work has gained him the name of "the horse whisperer" and his teachings have captivated millions of horse-lovers all over the world, including the British Royal Family.

He has helped more than 10,000 wild, no-hope, horses to become tame and responsive animals with his ability to understand them. And his powers find their roots in the experiences and emotions of his own life.

[ image: Monty Roberts talks to BBC's Hardtalk]
Monty Roberts talks to BBC's Hardtalk
The worldwide attention he has earned has been largely due to Nicholas Evans's novel The Horse Whisperer, believed to be inspired by his life.

And a film by the same name, released last month in America, stars Robert Redford. But the real-life horse whisperer says he cannot condone the film's treatment of many of his concepts.

The main reason is that it flouts one of his most unshakeable and wholehearted beliefs - his belief in non-violence.

In an interview with BBC World's Hardtalk programme, Mr Roberts said: "I can't endorse it because they put a white hat on brutality. They bash this horse, they tie the horse down, they sit on top of him to cause him to be subservient.

"That is never effective and yet in a fiction piece, you can make it effective so you are sending a bad message," he said.

A trusting soul

His message convinces people to abandon years of traditional horse-training and speak in the language of trust. It is, Roberts said, the "horse-trusting man instead of the horse-fearing man".

[ image: Actor Robert Redford takes on the film role]
Actor Robert Redford takes on the film role
He calls the language Equus: "It is a language that I discovered the Mustangs, the wild horses, were using with one another," he says.

He noticed that the mare, the female horse, came out of the herd as the leader and would punish horses by sending them away. On their return however, she would give them attention and affection.

And he works in the same way. If a horse is unwilling, he simply walks away and as he returns, the horse begins to regard him as a leader and places its trust in him.

In his language, you do not "break in" horses, you "start" them. He does not call it training but instead, it is allowing the horses to learn. Finally, you never raise your voice or use force, but instead are silent and show gentle body movement similar to that of the horse.

Silent Secrets

His sense that horses were able to communicate with one another began in 1942 when he was only seven years old, by which time he was already an experienced horse rider.

[ image: Roberts was apalled by his father's brutality]
Roberts was apalled by his father's brutality
But surrounded by people who believed making a horse subservient meant establishing physical dominance over it, at first he was unable to say he thought he had found a better way to tame horses.

It was his violent father, "a terrorist to human beings as well as horses" as Roberts says, who brought about the impetus for him to break free and speak out.

Seeing his father, a police lieutenant, beat a man to death in 1943 will always remain as the turning point. "I call it the year I was born", says Mr Roberts. It was the motivation for a lifetime of work devoted to non-violence.

"He was beating horses and he was beating me, but more importantly, I think, was that he was beating a whole generation into understanding that there must be a better way, that we have got to get away from this," Roberts says.

He allowed the horses to become his family in the way that his father and brother never were. He became "lost in the horses", as he says, watching them, studying them and most of all "listening".

Acting human

What Roberts learned from handling horses, he has tried to apply to people. In his various projects, he employs many troubled young men and women.

[ image: Monty Roberts as a young man]
Monty Roberts as a young man
If they continue to be have problems, instead of punishing them, Roberts simply severs ties with them and walks away, just as he does with the horses.

He said: "When you walk away, you are not interested in hurting them. It means you are not be predatorial." To some extent his policy has worked, but in the cases where he has seen people fail both him and themselves, the pain and anguish, he says, has been hard to bear.

But he says: "I have a message, I have a mission. My life is on course to provide help to the world and to hope that the world will become a better place for horses and people.

"If that is an evangelist with a horse, I'll assume that role," says Mr Roberts.

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