In the early 1940’s, a young man decided to oppose the brutality of equine “breaking”. He traveled extensively, even as a teen, facing insurmountable odds, in order to discover more about the inner workings of Mustang herds. His work was rejected and he spent his entire life trying to prove to the World, as well as his father, that there is a way to work with horses without restraint or pain. I encouraged my clients to tag along and meet Monty, as he is in my mind, one of the first trainers to promote natural horsemanship on a commercial level. For nearly 80 years, he has worked to create a better world for horses and no matter who you are or how you disagree with his practices, this is the ultimate goal for any true horseman to want to achieve. As we delve into this blog, please bear that in mind – Mr. Roberts deserves respect and recognition for what he has done and we have to consider the context from which he is presenting his findings.
On the note of context, Monty fights against what he calls “traditional” methods of working with horses. The term “traditional” itself no longer bears the same meaning it did 50 years ago. In my personal experience, the equestrian community has gained access to so much information already, that the word “traditional” itself can vary from place to place. The only way to know what Monty means by traditional, is to contextualize his work and to read his material. It would honestly be incredible to be able to say that he is fighting a system that does not exist at all anymore. Unfortunately it still does. I recently encountered a trainer who still uses roping and sacking to back horses. He justifies his methods by emphasizing the need for safety of horse and rider. Let’s just get something straight here. If you are afraid of horses in the first place, you should not be working with them. I will not name this trainer, but below is a picture of his method at work. In my mind, this is exactly the type of thinking that Monty was trying to abolish in the first place.
As a trainer, I understand that things sometimes go wrong. I also know that it is my responsibility to ensure that I give each horse the best possible chance of understanding what I’m asking. Monty aimed to do this. He wanted to discover how we can change ourselves in order to accommodate the horse, not vice verse. With this in mind, let’s have a look at some of the points that my clients in particular found confusing or disconcerting whilst watching Monty Roberts in action at Mistico on the 4th and 5th of June this year.
Following a lifetime of creating a product and/or system, one has to be loyal to this system, or face serious consequences. Mrob (as my clients like to call him), is no exception and the constant promotion of his products and reading material throughout the show was somewhat distracting. The fact that it was a demo, should hint at the fact that there would be some type of promotion involved, but my clients did find the promotional agenda overpowered the message. My thoughts throughout the demo were that I wonder what the horse is thinking while this showman is telling his stories. Has the crowd forgotten about the horse? I truly hope that I never develop a system that I am so firmly convinced in, that I lose sight of the animal in front of me in the present moment.
Mrob highlights what he calls the three worst forms of horsemanship in the World today. The first is striking a horse with a whip. The second is single line lunging and the third is feeding the horse from the hand. The first point is self explanatory. The second point, single line lunging, is obviously something which Mrob aims not to use. He employs in-hand handling (leading), free lunging in his effort to Join-Up with the horse and double line longing (long-reining) on his Dually Halter when starting the horse. Throughout his process, Mrob asks the horse to change direction frequently. This is commonly done in one of three ways. The first is the closest to a traditional way as English riders understand it – the horse is asked to halt on the outside of the lunge ring, the handler approaches, changes the equipment, leads the horse to the center of the ring and sends them off in the opposite direction. Straight lines, military-style movements, discipline. This video by HorseMart gives an idea of lunging in the traditional sense: HorseMart_How to longe. The handler could have facilitated the signal to halt by stepping in front of the horse’s direction of movement, but accourding to a true, textbook-dictated sense, this is not really allowed, so the handler is limited as to what she can do. Please also note the dangerous looping of the lunge line. All recognized riding establishments who follow the traditional system of thinking, advocate this as correct, but it is an absolute no-no!
The second method involves blocking the horse’s movement in one direction and rapidly sending them off in the opposite direction, as seen demonstrated here by one of Monty’s students: Backing Hometown Colonel. This is the method which Mrob uses and horses can choose to do this by either facing their handler when they change direction or by facing away from the handler when they change direction. If Mrob is to advocate the use of double line longing only, he cannot advocate that the horse should come in to the handler before changing direction. This would lead to a terrible entanglement of the lead lines. The thinking behind sending the horse off with the hindquarters facing away from the handler is that the handler is dominant in the relationship, much like a lead mare sending a naughty youngster out of the herd for misbehaving. She will often bite him on the bottom to get the desired retreat. As much as we would like to think of this as being kind, and although no pain is inflicted, wouldn’t you like to be more than just a disciplinarian? Some people don’t, and that is absolutely fine. This works for Mrob and has for many years. There is just much more depth to be found in the relationship if the horse is allowed to reciprocate. Mrob also justified his dislike of single-line longing by saying that it promotes that the horse bends to the outside on a circle and he believes he can correct this with double lines. No, Monty. Unfortunately horses naturally carry weight on the inside shoulder, with their heads pointed out. The classical masters have spent many years to formulate exercises to help correct this phenomenon, so that horses can effectively carry our weight more economically, thereby increasing their longevity, beuty and power overall. The single line is not the cause of this problem and no single tool is the solution. Progressive, systematic training is the only thing that can correct this natural tendancy, as shown here at liberty by Marijke de Jong: Work on a Circle at Liberty.
The last method used in longing, is called an S-change, demonstrated here by a student of Phillipe Karl, amongst other useful gymnastic exercises: Philippe Karl & Parelli Student. This involves sending the horse’s hindquarter away, drawing their head as they turn to face you, continuing to draw them through the circle, blocking their new eye and moving them off into the new direction. This demands by far the most effort and coordination from the handler and the least from the horse. I have no doubt in my mind that Mrob has already discovered this, but that he is unable to change his entire system now, this late in his career. This again is not a problem. We are meant to keep learning and I hope that in 50 years, many of my thoughts will be improved upon and people will see kindness and communication as nothing new or revolutionary, but rather a norm.
Thirdly, Mrob believes that feeding from the hand is a flaw in horsemanship. This again, is completely subjective and his rigidity in this matter can be attributed to the context from which he formulates his opinions. When your reputation relies on being able to back horses humanely in under 30 minutes, there is little time for bonding, affinity and positive reinforcement with horses. I would also like to remind the readers that although timing is everything when it comes to the use of Positive Reinforcement, we must also understand the physiology of the horse, who is designed to eat little and often, up to 23 hours out of each day. If we completely exclude any sort of meal from the exercise periods, it is no surprise why horses are eager to return home after a trail ride, why they become jittery at feeding times and why they seem stressed when we work them. The longer they go without salivating and swallowing (which only happens when they chew), the more acid is being produced in their stomachs. Think about the environment you would like to create for your horse in order to facilitate optimal learning and then tell me that feeding from the hand will always produce a biting horse 🙂
This brings me to the point about learning environment and distraction. While waiting for the first show on Saturday, one of the organizers came out to ask various groups of people sitting outside to please keep their voices down, as the noise outside was distracting the spooky horse inside the indoor arena. Although I have always been sensitive to the fact that horses are acutely aware of noise, movement and distractions, and although I understand the importance of keeping spectators’s activities around the ring to a minimum, this simple act had me thinking. Any trainer who is looking to build an authentic relationship of trust and partnership with their horse understands that distractions are wonderful! Distractions are opportunities to test your horse’s level of trust in the handler and distractions in essence trust the strength of your bond. The reason I believe that Mrob did not want distraction (he frequently asked spectators to stop moving or sit down when he felt like the horse he was handling lost interest in him), is that he was working within a limited time frame. Your chances of success with training most animals, are greatly improved when you are the most interesting thing in their general vicinity. This makes sense, but again I must doubt the strength of the bond if the horses look for distractions rather than choose to stay with him. The point here is not to argue at all, but rather to highlight that with any method or trainer, there is ALWAYS room for improvement. Trainers’ goals change as they develop and in order to give horses a fighting chance under our dominion, it is imperative that we are able to think critically and question everything in front of us, experiment and take feedback from the horse as a chance to grow in the depth of our relationships with them.
A few more points were raised by my clients, including their dislike of the use of the Dually Halter, which we will discuss as a topic on its own, the fact that not much of what was happening in the present moment was discussed (I think he assumed that most of the audience had read some of his material and were merely looking for the necessary “pointers”), and the fact that the owners were not involved in the process enough. What they did enjoy, was that the results were almost predictable, that his body language and methods were consistent, that he is an absolute showman and that it seemed as if his overall goals for a violence-free horse-human partnership were achieved. There has been much negativity surrounding Mrob and his legacy and although each point for as well as against his method can be justified, my goal is never to put a single trainer down. Instead, it is important to take the positive from each trainer, let go of that which you cannot justify in the eyes of the horse and continue on your equestrian journey harming no one, yet constantly learning more. I was astonished that so many of the spectators found his work revolutionary, but at the same time, I am incredibly grateful that for them, this is absolutely new and it maybe, just maybe, might have sparked a thought that there may be a kinder way of doing things with horses. Judging by the applause and shocked gasps when youngsters allowed riders on their backs in a mere few minutes, or spooky horses were touched by plastic for the first time, or even our predatory instinct to “capture” horses was fulfilled when the bad loaders walked into the horse boxes, I guess many people were touched and that…that is what education should be about. Ultimately we can never be a horse, as much as we learn about them. The fact is that they, saints that they are, tolerate us, interpret what we say through a myriad of confusing signals and learn how to please us. The sooner we can be honest about this fact, the sooner we can appreciate them and go forward without creating labels for our training that makes us feel like we are doing them a favour by doing things differently to so-and-so. Horses don’t know about the latest training principles. All they know is how you make them feel right now and who you have been towards them in the past. I am humbled by their generosity of spirit. They are incredible and we don’t deserve them. The least we can do, knowing this, is try our best to give them our best – always!