TOPSFIELD, MASS. — A sense of quiet awe sweeps over the 2,000 spectators crowded into this muddy fairground arena on a blustery, gray night in rural New England. The only sound piercing the silence is the rhythmic gallop of an untamed roan, nervously circling the walls of a wire-protected pen, and the gentle murmur of a straight-down-the-line horse trainer.
Monty Roberts - bestselling author, adviser to corporate executives, foster parent to troubled children - has woven a spell over his audience. He has transformed this unlikely setting in Topsfield, Mass., into a place of wonder. Communicating with the young horse using gestures and expressions familiar to it - a method he calls "Equus ... a language silent, a language like signing to the deaf" - Roberts wins the animal's trust in minutes.
"Magical things begin to happen, and he starts to feel secure," he tells his audience, as the roan moves quietly to his side. "My system is to watch for the horse to do something right, and to congratulate him for it ... without pain or restraint."
Roberts inspired the main character in Nicholas Evans's bestseller "The Horse Whisperer," which has been made into a successful Hollywood film. However, Roberts rejects the movie, saying the filmmakers deviated from his technique.
In Topsfield, within 20 minutes the horse gets his first saddle, bridle, and rider - an achievement, Roberts says, that would have taken his late father three weeks to perform in the traditional violent way of breaking down a horse's spirit.
In his autobiography, "The Man Who Listens to Horses," Roberts describes his father as an extremely abusive man, who impelled his quest for an enlightened way to train horses. "I was about seven years old when my father's methods really hit home with me - that it was just brutality."
He remembers seeing horses in the family's corral in Salinas, Calif., with their legs tied up and dripping blood because the rope was wearing into their skin. The tactic instilled fear in the horses.
When Roberts turned 12, he learned to stand on his own two feet, he says, despite his father's whippings when he strayed from traditional horse-training methods. A year later, he traveled to the Nevada desert by himself to observe wild mustangs. Squinting through binoculars in the moonlight, he discovered how a "matriarch" mare gently disciplined wayward colts, driving them away from the herd and later accepting the chastened animals back. Since then, Roberts says, he has mastered the mare's techniques to train more than 10,000 horses in places ranging from the royal stables at Windsor Castle to simple country shows.
Transferring his skills to the human realm, he has taught the values of self-respect, responsibility, dignity, and meaningful work to foster children battling drug addiction, kleptomania, and eating disorders, and to powerful corporations, including Disney, IBM, and General Motors.
Roberts did not start demonstrating his training method until 1989. Before then, his way of treating horses was unpopular. "Now, I'm an overnight success," he tells his Topsfield fans good-naturedly. "If I can help people learn that violence is not an answer, how gratifying that is and how incredible."
A gradual shift from violent horse-training practices has taken place in the past 10 years, the result of better education, says Ray Denis, a Massachusetts horse specialist. Even so, many trainers still cling to the old-fashioned view that they must "break" a horse to make it obedient, says Mr. Denis. Roberts is helping to bring about a change. "Quite a few people [at the Topsfield show] were disbelievers who became converted to that way of training," Denis says.
Roberts describes his horse-training achievements as ranging from wild successes to minor victories, with no failures. But helping troubled children is far more complicated, he says. With his wife, Pat, he has taken in 47 foster children - some for years - and 40 have turned their lives around remarkably.
Taking psychology classes at college, Roberts realized he could use his own childhood experience of violence to help youths. As he learned from training nervous horses, he would not physically punish children for their mistakes, but reward them for good work. "I admire them for hanging in there," he says.
Executives travel to his farm in Santa Ynez Valley, Calif., to hear the simple philosophy that "no one was born with the right to say, 'You must, or I'll hurt you,' " says Roberts. "You can't start screaming at people. What you [need] is a clearly defined path of positive consequences for positive actions. It's not a 'softie' approach - it's an approach where you're responsible for your own actions."
As he autographs countless copies of his book, I casually remark to Roberts that his philosophy could fade away. The comment astonishes him.
"It won't stop with me!" he asserts, swiveling around in his chair to look me squarely in the eyes. "You wouldn't see me as committed and joyful now if I thought it was going to end with me. The world is ready to say, 'No more violence.' "