Like all super-cool horse girls, I’ve started to spend my Saturday nights learning more about equine behaviour (previously, I’d spent them at home on the sofa, so this is actually an improvement). Earlier in March I went to what turned out to be a brilliantly enlightening talk by an equine behaviourist, but this weekend I saw someone many people have heard of. Back in January, I discovered that the great Monty Roberts was coming to my doorstep and, given my recent turnaround regarding natural horsemanship, I decided it was too good an opportunity to miss.
Despite my best efforts, I failed to turn off my event manager (and extreme Type A personality) mode and got quite frustrated by the fact that horse people are apparently incapable of at least starting an event on time (I didn’t need Monty’s explanation that horses don’t have a concept of time and that the event might therefore overrun – I was keen to hear something I didn’t know!). However, once things were underway, it was all a bit mesmerising.
Although I’ve been to several professional equestrian demonstrations, it was my first experience of the human working with someone else’s horse rather than their own, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was something which, had I not developed a very basic working knowledge of natural horsemanship methods, I would’ve straight up written off as sorcery. It’s events like this which make the analyst in me recognise why some people won’t even try these methods by themselves: it takes confidence and a fantastic teacher in order to be good at this. By his own admission, Roberts has worked with thousands of horses – he’s got it down pat. He did state that he still makes mistakes and continues to learn, but nevertheless, he knows his own method inside out and he’s confident with it. Those things alone set him up for success: the addition of patience, physical skill and an ability to think quickly, mean his chances are even better. Anyone watching the demonstration and already in a bad place with their horse could easily have witnessed Roberts at work and lost more confidence, seen this as the art of a practiced master and failed to believe in themselves and their ability to resolve the problem alone.
Because Monty’s introduction and statement regarding horses not sticking to schedules wasn’t the only piece of old news we heard during the evening. We all knew that he could “join up” with a horse. We were all aware that he could calm a horse and render it rideable far faster than many of us could. And to an extent, we all knew that he could impart this knowledge upon others: Monty’s British disciple, Kelly Marks, was present and worked with a horse during the evening, demonstrating her own ability to solve problems and soothe animals. But what I wasn’t convinced of was whether the owners of these horses would then be able to replicate the trainers’ successes when back at home.
Between them, Monty and Kelly worked with five horses which they hadn’t previously met. The first was a “starter” colt – a horse who hadn’t been saddled or ridden before. Monty demonstrated his “join up” method in the round pen with the colt, working at liberty (meaning: the horse and the human weren’t attached by a rope – Monty controlled the horse using gestures and body language without touching it) initially before encouraging the horse to follow him around (the “join up” part). He then saddled the horse successfully and worked it on a double lunge (interestingly, Monty referred to single-line lunging as the “second worst practice within horsemanship” – I felt like his opinion of the worst thing should’ve been obvious, but it didn’t feel that way to me and if I could’ve asked one question, that would’ve been it) before having a rider sit on the horse for the first time. Monty’s work with the first horse was the most impressive part of the evening for me: the horse was relaxed, eager and safe throughout – something which is fantastic for a young horse who was in a strange place with a huge crowd and using methods the horse hadn’t previously experienced. I was also seriously envious of Monty’s ropecraft – I could watch the guy have a horse change direction using a double lunge all day and not get bored, his dexterity was incredible.
I’m not sure whether he was building it up to the crowd to appear more impressive or whether he was being truthful, but Monty was open about the fact that he wasn’t looking forward to working with the second horse of the evening. The problem this time was that the horse’s owner had bought him at a market (alarm bells, anyone?) and he’d proceeded to violently buck her off twice. The procedure was repeated, but this horse behaved very differently – he was incredibly anxious and stressed, though I’ll happily note that I don’t think Monty caused this, it was apparent that the horse was predisposed to this behaviour. It’s for this reason that I think it was unfair for the horse to be used: in my opinion, horses deserve the correct amount of time and attention to address their issues and, with this horse in particular, a Saturday night demonstration is neither the time nor the place. The horse was saddled and this time a dummy rider was ultimately strapped in – it was decided that the horse wasn’t ready to be ridden by a human being. Sure enough, the horse bucked repeatedly, trying to throw the dummy. In this scenario, I think the work was particularly rushed in order for demonstration purposes, so that the audience saw something “interesting”.
To be clear: the horse wasn’t hurt or damaged, but the training, in my opinion, should be completed far slower. The horse needs to become more confident, and he won’t do that by being worked quickly. The owner also needs to gain confidence, and she won’t be able to do that by trying to go as far as Monty did every day. They need to trust each other and develop their relationship – my aim for a first session would’ve been to have had the horse responding successfully to the owner’s requests when working him on a line. I’d have been satisfied with the horse backing up, moving forward, stopping and turning on command. Perhaps even less. I’d have praised him and put him away. I wouldn’t even be thinking about saddling him. But it wasn’t my demonstration, so I continued to sit and watch.
After the intermission, Monty chatted in front of the audience with a British Armed Forces veteran he’s been working with. I wasn’t aware that Roberts worked with Veterans in order to help treat what he refers to as PTSI (Monty doesn’t like the term PTSD – he believes Post-Traumatic Stress is an Injury rather than a Disorder), and was intrigued by this element of his work. Then followed what, for me, was the second-most impressive part of the evening: Monty talked the Veteran through a join up. A horse was borrowed from the venue for this exercise, and it went beautifully – it was clear that as well as being proficient at the implementation of his own methods, Monty is able to successfully pass it on to others, and that was a joy to witness.
The final part of the evening involved much movement of the round pen fence and the configuration of a trailer, so that Monty and Kelly could work simultaneously with two horses whose owners reported difficulties with loading. Unsurprisingly, both trainers managed to load their horses very quickly, despite the fact that both owners had reported taking in excess of seven hours to load the horses by themselves. I was pleased with Monty’s approach here: he used the fences to create a narrow space, re-framing the situation for the horse and ensuring that the horse moved backwards and forwards through a different narrow space before asking the horse to step onto the trailer. He ultimately handed the horse to the owner, who successfully loaded the horse twice.
However, this section of the demonstration was where I felt I began to understand the difference between showing and teaching. There are many nuances to horsemanship, whether you’re taking a natural or classical approach. Although Roberts mentioned that body language is important, he didn’t go into detail, and this was where I was glad that I have been part of some useful discussions surrounding this recently. Horses feed off our energy, and they like leaders. Walk confidently – not aggressively or even determinedly, but confidently – towards your goal, and the horse will follow you. Worry about it a little – no matter how internalised that feeling is, it could be in the deepest, darkest, least visible crevice of your body – and the horse will know. Once the horse knows, he will worry too (there is one type of horse who won’t necessarily worry, but will take advantage here: like humans, some horses will only do things if they can see the benefit to them, and if you’re worried and the horse can’t see why he should do something, he’s got you where he wants you and you’ll spend a long time trying to talk both him and yourself into confidence and necessity – take it from someone who knows).
It was clear that Monty and Kelly are intimately familiar with their process and their ability to solve problems, to the point that they are perhaps unconscious of what they do and how they do it. It may be that they didn’t have time to share their complete knowledge but later did so with the owners. It could be that they thought the level of detailed commentary required to describe the events we witnessed would be boring in a demonstration environment, rather than entertaining. It’s possible that they aren’t able to describe everything, because it’s now so automatic for them that they aren’t aware of everything they are naturally judging and sensing from the animals.
My only criticism here would be if important knowledge and practical skills were being withheld from the clients – my belief is that what we witnessed was a truncated and sped up demonstration, and that the clients would have been supported independently and coached into achieving their goals when alone. As a trainer, one of the most important things is that you don’t just take over – your role is to give your client the tools they need in order to do what you are able to do without your help. If you do not do this, then all you are doing is demonstrating your own prowess, rather than teaching your client and helping them to become independent in their problem-solving.
Critical eye aside, I’m pleased that I went. It was an enjoyable evening – Monty Roberts turns 79 this year and will not be demonstrating forever, so I feel fortunate to have seen someone so proficient and content at work. I hope that other members of the audience were inspired to work with their own horses now and in the future in a similarly calm manner. My own pursuit of knowledge and skills will continue, and I look forward to seeing what I can achieve – one of the bonuses for me was the proof that, with practice, it’s possible to work with horses who are unfamiliar with certain techniques but can be taught them swiftly with patience and clarity (the time pressure within my summer job has been worrying me of late, but what I saw has given me more confidence).
But the big thing that has been confirmed for me is that there should always be a difference between demonstrating and teaching. I am happy to sit and watch someone show what they are able to do with their own animals – it doesn’t bother me that it may be rehearsed and perfected ahead of time, that is a skill in and of itself. If a coach is working with a horse which isn’t their own, I would prefer to know for certain that the client is confidently benefiting from the session, by watching them learn it, or that the session isn’t a public demonstration but a private learning environment.
Wherever you go and whatever you do, enjoy observing a master of their skill at work. If you then want to do it too, ask them how it’s done.