Top positive review
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A great trainer, a great technique, and a great book!
on 4 December 2004
This is a fascinating autobiography of one of the most sought-after horse trainers in the world. Monty Roberts takes us from his childhood, growing up on a ranch in California, all the way up through the years right before the book was first published in 1996. He learned to ride at a very young age and was quite successful on the rodeo circuit and in reined cow horse competitions. But what really gave him his ambition to develop a method of communicating with horses was the abuse with which he saw his father treat horses, and the the abuse he himself received from his father. Convinced that there must be a better way to train horses, he observed the behavior of mustangs, and ultimately came up with a technique he calls 'join-up'.
'Join-up' involves working with a horse in a round pen, first encouraging the horse to flee around the perimeter by making steady eye contact and assuming an imposing stance. The handler then watches for three tell-tale signs that the horse wishes to communicate - first the horse will lock his inside ear on the handler, then begin licking and chewing, and finally lower his head near the ground as he travels around the pen. Once the horse has given these signals, the handler takes his/her eyes off the horse and shifts away from from the animal. At this point the horse will usually come up behind the handler and stand very close, allowing the handler to touch him. Then the horse can be saddled, bridled, and at last, mounted and ridden. (This is a very truncated explanation - the book goes into much more detail.)
Of course Roberts was not the first to use methods like these. Some other reviewers here have complained about this fact, accusing him of taking undue credit. But Roberts himself admits this in his book. He points out that there were trainers in previous centuries that tried (and had success with) similar methods, but that for whatever reason these methods did not take a firm hold on the general equestrian population. So yes, Roberts does do a lot of self-promotion here (another thing some have complained about), but this is because he's attempting to spread the word about his method of training. He is using the book first and foremost to sell his technique, but this is because he wishes to make the training experience a better one for horses.
This book takes us through Roberts' journey of learning, and all the trials and triumphs that led him to where he is today. He tells us of his experience with mustangs, his successful childhood riding career, the encounters with his father that helped shape his own way of thinking, the development (and narrowly-avoided disaster) of his Thoroughbred racehorse facility Flag Is Up Farms, various success stories of his 'join-up' method, his meeting with Queen Elizabeth II of England, his many tours to demonstrate his techniques, and even his succes in using 'join-up' with wild deer. He also introduces us to the horses that have shaped his life and carved a place for themselves in his heart - Brownie, his childhood mount; Johnny Tivio, his all-time favorite; and Dually, his most recent mount.
Toward the end of the book there is a 'How To' appendix describing in detail the 'join-up' technique. Roberts lists all the necessary equipment (nothing fancy is needed - everything is standard equipment that any horse owner should already have; the only thing you may have to 'borrow' is the round pen itself if you do not have one), and takes us through the procedure in a clear step-by-step fashion. He explains the purpose of each aspect of 'join-up' and how the horse will perceive the handler's actions. He also explains the meaning of the horse's responses to these actions. The appendix is very easy to follow and the technique is simple enough that it is easy to remember afterward, without having to lug the book to the arena with you.
The book concludes with an afterword by Lawrence Scanlan, the author of 'Riding High' and co-author (with Ian Millar) of 'Big Ben'. Scanlan describes his experience observing the 'mustang project' that Roberts embarked upon in 1997. This takes us briefly into the story of Shy Boy, a small mustang stallion Roberts attempts to gentle (in the wild, not in a pen) with his 'join-up' technique. The afterword is very short. Roberts went on to write about his experience with Shy Boy in his next book 'Shy Boy: The Horse that Came in from the Wild'. I have not read that one yet, but plan to soon, as I was very impressed with 'The Man Who Listens to Horses'. I would highly recommend it to anyone involved with horses.