Horse whisperer Kelly Marks pays respect to her mentor, Monty Roberts …
In September 1992 I was working with racehorses when a visiting lady asked if we wanted to see this ‘Californian Horse Psychologist’.
Having missed any previous hype about Monty, I had no preconceptions when my father and I went to a small indoor school near Newbury. Sitting on straw bales, we waited to see what it was all about. No music, nor fanfare–just a short introduction; then we watched this man work with two different horses. He let the horses run around the pen (individually I hasten to add), then they’d decide to follow him. After he’d put a saddle on their back, they’d buck, but then they came back towards him. After a short spell of being ‘long-lined’—moving around the pen on a long line—they were happy to be ridden. Weird. Normally it took people several weeks to ride such horses—and he did it in half-an-hour.
Several weeks later I visited the yard where Monty was working, aiming to gather more knowledge. Watching him in action, my feeling was, ‘This guy is smart alright – but so are a lot of the old horsemen and dealers. He’s definitely worth watching, but is it anything special?’ I didn’t get to speak with Monty on these occasions, but someone bought him to our house one day while I was out. He got to meet my dog, Willoughby, which was to prove an important meeting.
“When the Student is Ready,the Teacher Will Appear”
Flash forward to May 1993. I volunteered to take 15 students in their early 20’s for 10 days in France for a horsey study trip. Some extra-keen students and I had got up early to meet a race horse trainer, who had promised to show us some especially beautiful training grounds. We sat in a mini-bus, parked in a garage at 7.15 a.m., the time we had arranged to meet the trainer. Then someone pulled-up right behind us.
My dear students, who occasionally enjoyed ‘winding me up’, shouted: ‘There’s this big French farmer coming up to your window and he’s furious you’ve parked in his way!’ I gave up trying to escape as I stalled the minibus for the second time and was ready to apologise to the man at the window. Who should it be? Not an angry farmer at all, but Monty Roberts. His first words to me were: ‘You’re the girl with the wonderful dog aren’t you?’ It was at that moment I realised this man was indeed someone special –a man of intelligence – with great taste in dogs!
We had come to meet through that experience common in foreign speaking countries–meeting someone who speaks the same language. They become your ‘New Best Friend’. Certainly this was the case with Monty who, having been in France and speaking with virtually nobody in the previous two weeks. He said it was like Christmas and his Birthday had come at the same time when he saw the English writing on the side of the minibus! Monty immediately offered to take all the mini-bus gang for a beer and talk at his hotel that afternoon. Gratefully accepting his invitation, we were all with him for over 3 hours. The students–a sometimes rowdy bunch–were the quietest they’d been on the whole trip. Talking with Monty at the end, he told me about a book he’s been trying to put together for over 8 years. He gathered that I loved books and writing as well, so he asked if I’d be able to help him when he next came to England. So that’s where it all started.
Monty came to England a month later and, on June 16, he gave me his manuscript. In addition to working on the book, I also helped with the ‘remedial’ horses he was working with on his visit. Two other helpers where Richard ‘Max’ Maxwell, who is now a well-known trainer in his own right, and Tim Piper, who is making a success of running a stud in the West Country. Working with the horses, we’d all start at 8 am in the morning and continue right through to the early evenings. I love what I’m doing now, but still look back at that summer with great fondness and as one of the best times of my life.
Previously I’d worked with good horse people who emphasised seeing events from the horse’s point of view. That summer was extra special, however, because we were encouraged to share our own ideas–and our opinions were respected. Maybe this sounds archaic to today’s young people but, at the time, being a woman in racing had an air of invisibility. Maybe it had nothing to do with being female. The tradition was ‘he who pays says’, but this meant that bosses missed-out on lots of valuable information. That summer taught me the value and fun of having someone actually listen. Getting people to respect their own ideas is something I work at developing, particularly on our Horse Psychology ‘problem solving’ weekends. It’s still quite foreign to many people. I tell them: “Just because something is your idea and not something you’ve been told or you’ve read in a book first, doesn’t mean it’s not brilliant!”
“Give a Man a Fish and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach Him to Fish And….”
Monty taught me many lessons about horses that summer—such as having a positive attitude and the power of focus. He may be a genius, but sometimes things go wrong. But his positive attitude made the difference, carrying him through to help ‘lost causes’ of the horse world. Faced by a seemingly insurmountable problem—such as a frightened horse that had been mistreated for years—he somehow ‘knew’ he was going to find the way forward. Setbacks were just that–setbacks and not disasters. He would not lose a beat and kept working to resolve the situation. This seems a great attitude to have, not just when working with horses; but for life in general.
Monty’s positive attitude gave the impression that he could constantly ‘pull rabbits out of hats’. An illustration came when I accompanied him on demonstration tours in England and Ireland. “This is not meant to happen,” I said to myself, watching him trying to fasten the girth on a ‘remedial’ horse that was making serious attempts to kick his head off. His brain was ticking away, then he said: “Kelly, in my equipment bag there is that really old, stiff leather hobble (stirrup leather). Can you just throw that in please?” As he doubled it over and reached under the horse, ignoring the back foot taking well kicks, he was able to gently bring the girth under the stomach and fasten it on the saddle. Creative thinking is a muscle that can be built. So often we can limit ourselves to narrow frames of reference—losing out on flashes of the blindingly obvious. Sometimes when it comes to ‘but this isn’t in the script’ there can be a tendency to freeze, not acknowledging just how ingenious we are all capable of being.
So what have I learned from Monty? Mention his name to people and you will get many different reactions. Some mention ‘join-up’, others say ‘The Horse Whisperer’, believing he wrote that book, rather than his own, ‘The Man Who Listens To Horses’. Some people still see him as controversial; even through his methods have been adopted by some of the most die-hard horse trainers. Others talk about his work for the Queen or how his ideas can be used in school. The most important gift Monty has given me, however, is—a way forward, a way to think things out for myself.
I don’t know if Monty has ever studied Chinese philosophers. If he has, he may take some consolation from the words of Lao Tzu. “The Wise Leader, when his task is accomplished, his work done, throughout the country everyone says ‘It happened of its own accord’.” Many people are becoming more sympathetic and respectful in their treatment of horses. People are making far more attempt to see things from the horses’ point of view. Maybe it was going to happen of its own accord. Maybe it has a great deal to do with a man called Monty Roberts.
You can find out more about Kelly here.