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Monty Roberts: learning the language of horses

"The Man Who Listens to Horses," by Monty Roberts. Random House. 258 pages. $23.

This ought to be a fascinating book about a remarkable person. Monty Roberts says he has learned to talk with horses, and there is a substantial amount of evidence that he speaks the truth.

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Roberts claims to have discovered a body language he's dubbed Equus. He uses it to earn a horse's trust and persuade it to accept a rider -- without resorting to the time-honored subjugation known for good reason as "breaking" a horse.

And he can do it in less than half an hour, a far cry from the days it can take to saddle and ride a horse by traditional methods.

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Ridiculous, you might say. Many horsemen thought so -- and some still do -- before Roberts demonstrated his method countless times, including a performance in England that won over Queen Elizabeth II and earned him widespread acceptance.

In his memoir, Roberts says he learned the language of horses as a teen-age boy, when he spent countless hours in the Sierra Nevada observing herds of wild mustangs he'd been sent to round up for a rodeo in his hometown of Salinas, Calif.

He played behavioral scientist, watching their movements over and over until he began, through process of deduction, to decipher a language.

Roberts says he learned the meaning of some 100 gestures -- for example, that a horse who trots along with its muzzle just inches off the ground is signaling its willingness to join up with the herd. For Roberts, that means willingness to submit to the man trying to saddle him.

From such observations, he developed the system that has enabled him to saddle more than 10,000 horses without once resorting to the whip.

His life would be remarkable enough if that were all it involved. But Roberts' story includes much more than learning the language of horses.

He was a champion rodeo rider throughout his childhood. He was a stunt double for Elizabeth Taylor in "National Velvet." He taught James Dean to be a cowboy for the movie "East of Eden."

He's trained horses for powerful and bizarre people like Hastings Harcourt, whose father founded the Harcourt, Brace and World publishing company.

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And, perhaps most poignantly, his gentleness with animals springs from the violent abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, who also trained horses and treated them as cruelly as he did his son.

The pity of it is that Roberts isn't nearly as facile with English as he is with Equus.

His writing is labored and flat. The narrative jumps back and forth in time for no apparent reason. And Roberts, perhaps because he struggled so long to be accepted, comes across as self-important and holier than thou.

It's a shame this book wasn't a biography, written in an outsider's voice. If it had been, we might have gotten more than a good story well told. We might have gotten the kind of thorough analysis, with a healthy dose of skepticism, that a life as unusual as Monty Roberts' requires if it is to be fully understood.

Unfortunately, "The Man Who Listens to Horses" must be chalked up as a victim of the recent memoir craze -- a book too weak to be recommended to anyone but hard-core horse lovers or animal behavior buffs with incentive to suffer bad writing because the message is worth it.

Stephen Proctor, assistant managing editor for features for The Sun, has been a student of thoroughbred racing and breeding for his entire adult life, and is actively involved in a racing stable.

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Pub Date: 8/10/97



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