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Horse Sense

The Horse Whisperer

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Roberts, enjoying a gabfest.
  • Roberts, enjoying a gabfest.
It didn't matter that Monty Roberts had been talking, not whipping, horses into the saddle for 40 years -- when Queen Elizabeth II asked him to do it for her, the author of The Man Who Listens to Horses and creator of the Join-Up training system got nervous.

"I was pretty sure it wasn't going to work," admits Roberts, who will be demonstrating "horse whispering" Wednesday in Canton. "It doesn't work with horses when you're in that state of mind. But as soon as the first horse made a move and put me in the frame of communication, then all that went away."

Naturally, this doesn't mean the horse sidled up and said, "Hey, Monty, how's the wife and kids?" It means the horse -- by nature a flight animal -- had recognized a predator in its midst and was waiting for a sign of what to do: bolt or approach.

"They don't mistake us for a horse when they communicate," Roberts explains. "Horses have an intraspecies language -- horse to horse -- that utilizes their anatomy to the fullest degree possible, and in order to survive, they had to learn at least part of the language of predators as well." But few predators that wanted to befriend a horse have ever bothered to reverse this process and interpret what the horses were saying. Roberts himself, who has been professionally training horses since the age of 5, was 13 before he recognized horse communication in wild mustangs.

"It was a revelation to me," he recalls. "I vowed I was going to learn what the heck it was they utilized as language." Roberts called his discovery "equus," after the Latin name for the horse, and places it in the same realm as human body language and signing for the deaf. "It's not something sort of mystical or that you can transcend information across brains. It's a specific language."

Roberts, now 65, has since taken his nonviolent Join-Up method -- "join-up" after the moment the horse decides to be with you, not away from you -- and applied it to an entire philosophy of nonviolent leadership. But that doesn't mean he likens teaching people to training horses.

"I don't see it as training at all," he explains. "You create an environment in which the student itself learns, and if it isn't learning from free volition, then there's no learning at all."

If only he taught high school as well as horses.

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