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At Home With - Monty Roberts

This article is from the November 2020 Horse Deals magazine.

Legendary and world-renowned horseman Monty Roberts has achieved so much in his 85 years, and there is no sign of him slowing down.

Monty took time out on set of his next documentary to share with Horse Deals some of his incredible journey and his learnings from his extraordinary life so far. The California-based natural horseman trainer and clinician is a wealth of knowledge from a lifetime of studying and working with thousands of horses. He has four university degrees, multiple honorary doctorates in animal psychology, is an acclaimed author, has a TV series in his name, and received recognition from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Not to mention the positive impact he has made to ‘difficult’ horses and has pathed the way for a new training way. Horse Deals was delighted to speak to Monty, who was humble, generous, patient and excited to chat about his career and the moral changes that equestrians worldwide still need to realise.

Monty is at home in front of a film crew

Monty is at home in front of a film crew

Monty, how are you going and what have you been up to lately? I’m good! With this whole COVID thing we haven’t been up to much, except staying on the farm and living with my deer and my horses.

That doesn’t sound so bad? Oh I think it’s wonderful. There ought to be a law that we do this for 60 days out of every year.

What’s the story behind the deer? I have worked with the same family of deer for 47 years. They teach me so much about horses. They are the flightiest animals on earth and I think horses would be just a close second to deer and antelope. They are a part of my life.

When were you first introduced to horses and what were those early days like? I have to tell you that I wasn’t in the horse business until I was three and before that I was just learning to walk and talk. My first horse was Ginger and my second horse was Brownie and I won my first competition at the age of four.

I was on horses eight to ten hours a day from the age of five or six because my father had a riding school and I was on the road promoting that riding school — I didn’t know I was at the time. All through the 1940s I was in competition.

During the week I was a child stunt performer for films. Three out of five movies made in the 1940s had a child with a horse in them, and they had no children that they could use as stunt people, so my father would rent me out for anything. He was a very violent man. In fact, he showed me the fallacies of violence, and that’s how I became such a non-violent trainer of horses.

I had to go to school twice a month to take tests to prove that I was getting an education. I met a teacher and Notre Dame nun there, Sister Agnes Patricia, and she knew my father and of his violence. She kept telling me ‘you need to get the best education possible so that you can get out of this kind of thing’ and that violence should not be a part of my life. Most children who are violated will violate themselves. It’s a chain reaction through the genetic makeup of our minds, that we do what our parents do. Even when sometimes we say we hated it, we’ll do it anyway. She encouraged me to study behavioral sciences to understand why we do what we do, and further to that, understand my father and not blame him because his father beat him up too. I really appreciate what Sister Agnes Patricia did. She was such a positive influence on me, words can’t describe it. In 1949, I said to my father that I will never strike another horse again, no matter what he told me to do, and I haven’t.

What was it like building a business in the equestrian world? Now that was difficult. I won 11 World Championships at a fairly young age, winning my first when I was 14 years old, and through that I was able to get clients to send their horses to me. While I thought I was doing well at the time, when I look back I realise I was barely making it. Then along came a New York man who had me build Flag Up Farms 54 years ago, and right now I am sitting in the same house my wife Pat and I moved into back then.

I have had a charmed existence, and I’ve had an existence that most people would look back on and wish for themselves, although I’m still working and I love what I do, so I’m going to keep going until I can’t do it anymore.

Has your business changed with the pandemic? My word has it changed, and it’s very difficult for me. I can’t get horses to come here. My farm is virtually empty. I’m sitting here with my deer and very few horses because people can’t travel, and there’s a whole lot of things about all of this that makes it difficult. At 85, I don’t have any relatives that have lived this long, so I’ll get through it somehow.

Your list of achievements is huge. What are the highlights? The highlight of the early part of my life was a horse called Johnny Tivio who won me four World Championships. I looked down his neck and I realised what an amazing animal he was. He was just something so special. And of course, marrying Pat and having her interested in horses too is a highlight. She’s still showing horses in competition. I’m not allowed to say how old she is, but it’s pretty darn amazing really.

Just today I looked back on my achievements in Germany with Gestut Fährhof and the Jacobs family’s racehorses and it is just unbelievable how the horses have performed for me. And it isn’t that I did anything to make those horses perform, I just got out of their way. I helped them see the way, I requested and stood aside and the horses became the champions. There’s literally close to 50 champions in Germany alone from the horses that I’ve produced for the Jacobs family. And I am still working with difficult horses that they send me. There are, in fact, close to 100 champions globally that were started by me, and in one way or another influenced by me in the process of their training.

Recently I learned that three of my students have passed the one million dollar mark in horse show earnings in the western division alone — and that’s not including training revenue. I never thought that was possible, and I have three students who have done that. I also have students in Europe who are doing things better than I can. It isn’t a matter of giving me credit, it’s a matter of giving the horses credit for teaching me how to be non-violent.

How have these difficult horses you’ve worked with become champions? One must remember that the most difficult horses come from those that are the most sensitive. A horse that is thick-skinned and doesn’t care one way or another, doesn’t become a difficult horse. It’s the champions that become difficult horses.

Johnny Tivio was my first sensitive and difficult horse, and German racehorse Lomitas was my second, and he was trying to kill people at the barriers. I went to Germany in 1991 and ten days after I arrived he raced and won and became Champion Race Horse of the Year in Germany. Mr Walther Jacobs then asked me to buy six or eight mares from America to be placed on the breeding book of Lomitas. Spirit of Eagles was one of those mares. While several of them produced stakes winners, Spirit of Eagles produced Silvano. He was a multiple champion in several countries, won over two million US dollars and has been the leading sire of South Africa for over five years. The success just goes on and on, and those are sensitive horses. I’d like to give all my competition the most sensitive horses possible if they are traditional trainers, because they won’t have a champion at all, and I can beat them by staying out of the way of my own sensitive horses.

Monty demonstrating his Join-Up training techniques. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Monty demonstrating his Join-Up training techniques. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Can you explain your Join-Up training methods to our readers who might not be familiar with them? Horses are sensitive flight animals and they will get away. To hit or cause pain to a flight animal is the silliest thing a human being could do. What Join-Up is, is the request of the horse to come to you, and to gain something from coming to you. I walk away and they follow me. Every horse in the world, even the most difficult ones, will join-up in very few minutes because I’ve learned how to breathe, relax, and treat my body so they know that I am no danger to them. Once they know that, then I begin to reward them for the good things they do, and charge them a price for the bad things they do. The price I charge is not violent, it’s go to work, and do more work, then relax and walk away when they get it right.

With Lomitas, for instance, they literally hired 12 men to put him in the stalls and they ran the race without him, with him lying on the turf. Two or three of those helpers ended up in hospital and John Gosden said to Mr Jacobs ‘you better call Monty Roberts and have him come over and deal with this horse.’ Five minutes after I met this horse, and I don’t talk to myself, I said out loud Monty Roberts you better get your work right, because you are in the presence of greatness. I don’t know why this horse told me that he was so great, but he was great. I got out of his way and rewarded him for the things he did right, and ten days later he raced and he won. You can quiz me all you want, but it’s not because I am a genius, it’s because the horses, and also Sister Agnes Patricia, taught me HOW to learn.

Are you a very spiritual person Monty? I don’t know if I am spiritual or not. I know that there are too many things that are too complicated for just happenstance to create on the face of this earth, so there must be a greater force somewhere. At 85 you start thinking about that greater force because you are soon to meet it if there is one. Since I was taught by a nun, she wouldn’t want me to say that I don’t know, she would want me to say that I am certain there is a force, or God if you will, but I just don’t know. I’ll try to be the best person I can be so if I do get there and there is one, he won’t throw me out.

How do you feel that training has evolved, particularly in Australia? I have problems with Australia, and the rest of the world too, not moving as rapidly as I would like them to. There is still a lot of violence towards horses in Australia, and who am I to criticise them and I am not criticising them. We were all using violence just a generation or two back. Before I was born there were 6,000 years of breaking horses. ‘Breaking in’ is a statement used by most people in the horse industry, like ‘who does your breaking in?’. The word breaking is just awful, I just can’t stand it. We don’t break horses, you start a horse, you train a horse, you engage with a horse, but you don’t break a horse. For me, there’s still too much of that in Australia and too much of it here too. I think that Scandinavia and Europe are moving much more rapidly.

I went to Hong Kong for a horse called Pakistan Star who was stopping dead in the middle of his racing, stopping and standing on the racetrack while the rest of the horses finished the race and they were ready to shoot him. The owner had me travel there and I worked with him for two days, and in six weeks he won four and a half million US dollars. Most people would say there’s something really crazy about that. I’ve been accused of having powder in my pockets that I blow up their nose and it changes them. If you live in a certain way and do things in a certain way and someone comes along and says, reverse it 180 degrees and you’ll be right, your tendency is to say ‘if this guy’s right, everything I’ve done in my life is wrong.’

In Australia, what is so difficult is that there are so many regulations in the racing industry. For instance, I can’t use my special halter because it’s not a part of the regulations. It seems that every time that you turn around, there is something else to say ‘oh no, you can’t do that.’ We will never change if we establish a set of regulations, and everyone has to live with them for the rest of their life. Freedom to investigate and attempt to improve, is part of what I had to do in order to change the process with the horse industry, when I began my life. It’s difficult; I understand that regulation is necessary, and that if you don’t have regulation, then people will do things that are really crazy. But by the same token, I would like to see them become a lot more flexible, so as to investigate the potential for improvement.

How do you feel morally about racing? Racing morally is the doing of something that horses love to do, more than anything else on earth. When they are a few days old, they race one another. In spring, out in the wild, when the mustang and brumby mares are foaling, you’ll see those little babies racing one another. If there is a God, that God is teaching them that they have to learn to run, in order to survive. They have to be ahead of everyone else, because the predator is going to get the last one. So that’s racing. What we cannot do is ban racing. All the Thoroughbreds would die if we banned racing. That’s the most critically horrible thing you could do. But get it right, get it so that the horses enjoy it as much as they do when they are in the wild. Then we’ll have it right.

I had my first meeting with the trainers of Thoroughbred racehorses in 1964, so I was only 29 years old at the time, and I was like a child. And boy, were some of the trainers really angry with me. They said ‘you will never live long enough to see regulations on whipping racehorses in California. Just get it out of your mind right now.’ And we just had it passed; we are really eliminating the whip in California so I am just so happy. We’re finally waking up and turning the corner, with same day medications too.

Monty showcasing his training methods at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.

Monty showcasing his training methods at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.

What does the legislation entail? If you look up Golden Gate Fields, their most recent condition book says no whip can be used at all to produce pain. You can use it to protect yourself or prevent an accident or something — which is silly because no whip has ever stopped an accident — but you cannot strike a horse with the whip.

With same day medication, the issue has been when horses that are a bit sore have been given medication that deadens it, and they then break a leg. We’ve killed more horses than you can imagine in the last year or two here in California, and our training core has become more like druggists than trainers, so that’s going away too.

What’s the single most important piece of advice you can give a horse person? I’m going to give you two things that I say, and one is that violence is never the answer. Violence is always for the violator and never the victim. No one of us is born with the right to say ‘you must or I’ll hurt you’ to any other creature, animal or human.

The second is that a good trainer can make a horse do almost anything he wants him to. But the great trainer, he causes the horse to want to do it. And we all know that if we go to work loving our work and wanting to do our work, we will do a better job than if we go just for the reward of a paycheck. When I do my clinics for corporate people, I want them to learn how to cause the people to want to come to work and to love their work. That’s when you get good people working for you. It’s the same with the horses. Horses are really ambitious, they love going to work, but you have to cause them to want to go to work. You can’t force them to do it and if you force them to do it, they’ll go the other way. It’s called positive thigmotaxis.

I might have to Google that one…? Positive thigmotaxis is that horses will go into pain, rather than away from pain. If you walk a horse through a door that is too narrow and they hit their hip on the door, the next time he will hit it harder. It has to do with predators and how they work. We are the other way around, we go away from pain. If we touch a hot stove, we pull back away from it. If someone pokes us with a pin, we go away from it, we don’t go into it. The only place in the human body that differs is our mouth, and why did mother nature make us want to go into pain in our mouth? When we lived in the cave, there weren’t dentists. If we got an abscessed tooth and we had pain in our mouth, and we wouldn’t go into pain, we didn’t eat and we died. So through survival of the fittest, we go into pain in our mouth. Just check out a child who has red sore gums, hurting with teeth coming in, and they will be biting down on a hard rubber ring called a teething ring, because we are thigmotactic in our mouth.

We do talks at universities and in the equine science courses they’re still not even teaching about thigmotaxis, but it was written about 2,000 years ago. It’s the most important behavioural trait in the horse’s body; they go into pain, not away from it. When you whip a horse on the backside, the horse’s tendency is to run slower, not faster. You can scare a horse into running faster a couple of times, but after that they will go into the pain of a whip. There is just no space for pain in training. You can work a horse and call that discipline if you want, but you can’t strike a horse and call it discipline, it just isn’t.

Is there anything you’d still like to achieve? You know, I’ve pretty much done everything I think I am capable of doing. I suppose my goals now, and for the last five or maybe even ten years, have been to leave the world better than I found it, for horses and for people.

I’m guessing we won’t be seeing you kicking back, reading a newspaper in your retirement any time soon? I will retire in a box!

Monty in front of a huge crowd at a demonstration. Pictured is his special halter.

Monty in front of a huge crowd at a demonstration. Pictured is his special halter.

Quickfire Questions

What’s a book every person should read? My textbook From My Hands to Yours. It just goes from start to finish through my rules and the methods I use.

What’s your signature dish? I really love to cook! Because of my geographical location Western Barbecue is something I understand more than I do any other form of cooking, but that’s mostly for when we are entertaining. A dish that I love to cook for a more reasonable amount of people is the Italian dish Osso Bucco.

What music are you listening to? I have helped write a lot of country and western songs, so I love country music. I love melodic music too, background music and that kind of thing.

What’s your favourite thing about Australia? Space. I love the space of Australia and the Australian outback people. I love the old world thing.

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