Back to the syllabus

Thinking Outside the Box: The Horse Whisperer


If you have seen the film The Horse Whisperer, starring and directed by Robert Redford, then you have been introduced to a different way of relating to an animal.  For the history of film, we have consistently been shown scenes, often very violent ones, in which some cowboy is "breaking" a horse so that it will allow a person to

mount and ride it.  The following article gives you some insights into how this new technique came into being.


"For many of his 63 years, people have said no to horseman Monty Roberts.  When Roberts as a young adult suggested to his horse-trainer father a less aggressive means of training horses---a technique based on cooperation and understanding rather than submission and fear---his father said no…(today) Roberts' own book, "The Man Who Listens to Horses," is a runaway bestseller with 2 million copies sold in 14 languages.  And it hasn't come out in paperback yet.  The BBC shot a documentary called "Monty Roberts" that was a major ratings hit on PBS and has just come out on video.


"Earlier this week, Roberts, who lives in Northern California, demonstrated his "join-up" techniques of establishing a bond with the horse before sold-out audiences over two nights at the Topsfield Fairgrounds.  He takes a horse that has never been ridden and, within 30 minutes, the animal is cantering around a round enclosure with a rider on his back as if he's been doing it all his life.  The process of nonverbal communication---a method that Roberts equates with deaf people using sign language---involves an elaborate series of gestures that Roberts explains as he demonstrates.  Lonnie, a 3-year-old gelding from Balsom Farm in Fallmouth, Maine, was brought into the ring.   While he's a bit reluctant at first, Roberts allows the horse to run in circles, explaining that the horse is a flight animal and its first instinct is to flee.  Slowly, Roberts allows the horse to come to him.  It's a magical dance between equal partners that ends with Lonnie accepting a saddle, bridle, and rider for the first time, without violence or stress.


"'The horse wants to please,' said Roberts, a man who is as gentle and soft-spoken with humans as he is with horses.  He exudes an inner confidence and an almost messianic zeal about his approach to horses.  'I gave a talk recently at Belmont Park advocating whipless racing.  There's no reason for the violence.  Horses love to run.'


"As a youngster, Roberts grew up around horses on his father's farm in Salinas.  He started riding at 2 and, between the ages of 4 and 6, won several championships.  In 1955, at age 20, Roberts was hired by Warner Bros. as a production adviser who handled all the animals involved in the Elia Kazan move of John Steinbeck's novel, 'East of Eden.'  In fact, when star James Dean was killed in the auto crash on May 5, 1955, he was on his way to visit his new friend, Monty Roberts.


"In the meantime, Roberts was beginning to see parallels between his father's treatment of him and the horses.  He had been a quiet, withdrawn child, and his father physically abused him.  'He thought it was a way to solve problems,' said Roberts of his father, Marvin Roberts.  'It wasn't.'  Roberts rebelled against his father's admonition, 'You hurt them first or they'll hurt you.'


"While his father continued to fight Roberts and his methods, Roberts was branching out.  Working as a horse trainer, adviser, educator and author, he started to develop his pacifist, non-restraining techniques by observing horses' behavior.  How do they interact in herds?  How do they react to stress?  Roberts slowly began to apply what we now call behavioral psychology to the animals.  After several decades, during which Roberts was roundly ridiculed by a significant majority of the horse world, he began to gain a few converts.


"But his big break didn't come until 1988, when Queen Elizabeth II, an avid horse woman and racehorse owner, invited him to Windsor Castle after she read about Roberts’ techniques in The Blood Horse, a horse-racing magazine.

"'Her Majesty was wonderful,' said Roberts.  'The English were much more accepting of my methods, and I worked on many of the queen's horses.  After that, it got a little bit easier to get people to listen.' 


"And, while Roberts acknowledges that the bestselling book and movie of 'The Horse Whisperer' have helped promote his tour, he's a fan of neither.


"'The ending of the book and the movie of  'The Horse Whisperer' involves the depiction of a horse that must be restrained and physically controlled to make it do a human's bidding,' he said, between shows.  'It's the opposite of everything I talk about.'"  (Reported by Michael Blowen in the Boston Globe, and reprinted in the El Dorado county Extra, June 24,1998, p. EE8.)


Exercise: based on the above, how might you extract from the story of Monty Roberts certain basic principles that are needed if you are going to be the type of creative person that thinks outside the box?


Now that you have identified these principles, how might you apply them to a particular area such as education or social work?

Back to the syllabus