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Horse whisperer Monty Roberts aids veterans and others who face traumas

Monty Roberts is taking his message of nonviolent communication and developing trust to military veterans, military police, and incarcerated youths with post-traumatic stress disorder.

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    Horse whisperer Monty Roberts helped bring about a revolution in animal training. Now he wants to help people as well.
    Courtesy of Afonso Westphal
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Dressed in a crisp, deep blue shirt, western boots, and chocolate dungarees, Monty Roberts is showing a gathering of about 50 interested equestrians how it’s done.

“The key is to speak the horse’s language, which is gesture,” he says, as he tosses a 30-foot “long line” leading a brown horse to gallop around the perimeter of a 50-foot diameter paddock. His waist is punctuated by a CD-sized silver belt buckle, his neck by a red ascot, and his head by a factory fresh Stetson.

After the horse trots around twice, Mr. Roberts tosses the line again and the horse – named Tommy Chex – reverses direction. Seconds before Tommy does each move, Roberts tells the crowd when the horse will (1) twitch its inside ear in Roberts’s direction, (2) snort and lick its lips, (3) slow to a trot and drop its head near to the ground, and (4) nod its head.

Next, Roberts walks away from the horse at a 45-degree angle, pauses, glances over his shoulder, and continues walking, predicting exactly when the horse will trot up quietly behind him as if to say “Hey, take me with you!” or “Don’t go just yet!” When Roberts closes his fist, the horse slows down, and when he opens his fingers, the horse speeds off.

What Roberts is doing is something he calls “Join-Up®” – two words that describe the ineffable moment of connection between a cowboy and horse in which the two communicate silently on equal terms. He has demonstrated an uncanny ability to “speak” this language, eliminating the centuries-long practice of “breaking a horse” with traditional methods.

Roberts is considered the original horse whisperer – long before the 1995 novel of that name was published and a gaggle of copycats crowded the market.

It was Queen Elizabeth II who put him on the map after witnessing his violence-free horse training in 1989. “You must write a book,” she admonished him. He did, and the book, “The Man Who Listens to Horses,” became a bestseller and launched an international debate about the role of violence in training horses.

Roberts’s methods date back to 1947, when he was a 12-year-old boy and spent extended time with a herd of mustangs in Nevada. “As I watched the mustangs, it dawned on me that there was a language,” Roberts says. “It dawned on me that there was a possibility that a human being could learn that language and could conduct, in some fashion or another, the necessary gestures to cause a horse to respond in what I considered its own language.”

On this February evening, a group is here to witness the technique, now polished after decades: the remarkable transformation of an untamed horse to one that will accept a saddle and rider in under 35 minutes. Most traditional horse-breaking methods involve days or sometimes weeks of work.

“The first day I saw it, I was very skeptical. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing ... that evening I just couldn’t sleep,” says Cpl. Maj. Terry Pendry, senior riding instructor of the household cavalry at Windsor Castle, who works directly for Queen Elizabeth. In 1989, he had been invited to see Roberts’s method at work.

“I just had to go back the remaining three days that he was at Windsor,” Pendry says. He went to California to study the method and now has used it on close to 800 horses. “I owe Monty Roberts a lot. It’s rather like a carpenter going to work without his saw. Without Join-Up, I don’t go to work.”

After spending a lifetime refining his system, teaching it globally through books, videos, TV shows, demonstration tours, and his own Equestrian Academy here, Roberts is now taking his message of nonviolent communication and developing trust to military veterans, military police, and incarcerated youths with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

At an evening at his ranch titled “Night of Inspiration,” Roberts told of overcoming an abusive father and the prickly resistance of the traditional equestrian community to become arguably the top horse trainer in the world.

Now he is morphing into the role of advocate for the healing power of horses.

He has written three New York Times bestsellers and won countless awards, while opening training facilities on several continents. He now holds clinics to help veterans recover from combat-related trauma.

“I know firsthand that Monty is making a difference,” says Gino Sanchez, a law enforcement officer for more than eight years who has witnessed a wide range of traumatic experiences, including two brutal shootings.

“What I admire most about Monty is that he has used Join-Up and applied it to help veterans, law enforcement, and first responders diagnosed with PTSD,” she says. “I have attended several three-day Join-Up clinics and have seen the change in people from Day 1 to the last day.”

Another fan is Stephen Harrison, a drill instructor in a National Guard program for at-risk youths called Grizzly Youth Academy in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

“I come from a warrior community which has spent a lifetime learning to deal with conflict through violence and force,” says Mr. Harrison, who has had military deployments in Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, South Korea, and the Philippines. “It may be impossible to sum up the extraordinary success he has had with those across the board from the military to police and special forces who have learned to overcome events that have haunted them for years – and to learn to trust again. There is a huge effort to try to codify what he does and teach it to as many as possible.”

Henry Schleiff, president and general manager of the Military Channel, summed up the results after about 400 people attended a clinic: “The impressive, unique work that Monty Roberts has pioneered, using untrained horses as a therapeutic tool for veterans who are trying to work through anger and depression, is absolutely inspiring.”

When he is not touring the world about 300 days a year, Roberts lives on his 100-acre ranch in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, known for its horse farms and vineyards. His home is filled with sculptures and other artworks created by his wife of 59 years, Pat.

“What intrigues me, whether I am watching Monty Roberts work or using his method of Join-Up myself, is that the horses are relaxed and happy when they leave the arena,” says Brigitte von Rechenberg, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. “There is trust and respect; there is no winner and no loser. Monty’s methods leave the horse his dignity. These concepts cause happiness to reach your soul.”

In addition to raising three biological children, Pat and Monty have opened their home to 47 foster children over the years.

“Monty is making a difference on every continent because he challenged 6,000-year-old conventional wisdom that horses needed to be ‘broken’ in order to get performance from them,” says his daughter, Debbie, who organizes his tours and events. “Against all odds, going up against his father, his teachers, and his industry of horse trainers, he would not be ‘broken’ in his belief that ‘violence is never the answer.’ ”

After his demonstration of Join-Up, Roberts retires to tell more stories in the saloon that adjoins his art-filled home, called “The Western Room.” A group of 50 is warmed by Roberts’s kindness and disarming humility. He is asked if his way with horses is a natural gift. His answer leaves his visitors thoughtful and inspired.

“Yes, I do believe I have a gift,” Roberts says. “But I believe all of us do.”

• For more information about the Join-Up program visit www.Join-Up.org.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

Below are links to groups that treat emotional and other health-care needs in areas of crisis:

Peter C. Alderman Foundation seeks to heal the emotional wounds of survivors of terrorism and mass violence. Take action: Help heal the emotional wounds of former child soldiers in Uganda.

International Medical Corps is dedicated to saving lives and relieving suffering through health-care training. Take action: Provide health care in war-torn Congo.

Team Rubicon pairs veterans with medical professionals working in high-risk areas of the world. Take action: Outfit a veteran volunteer.

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