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The Horses in My Life

By Monty Roberts

Random House Canada,

246 pages, $39.95

It was my riding instructor who first gave me the heads-up on Monty Roberts. We now know, she said, that the stories he tells about his life may not be exactly true. But go ahead and read him -- go along for the ride, so to speak -- because he's still the all-round champ of horse psychology.

Roberts is a globe-trotting evangelist for a non-violent system of horse training that he calls "join-up" -- make that Join-Up{+T}{+M} -- a method that he claims to have invented. The story of how he developed this technique formed the basis of his blockbuster autobiography, The Man Who Listens to Horses, published in 1996, which rode high on The New York Times bestseller list for 58 weeks. The book told a tug-at-the-heartstrings tale of an abused boy who took refuge from his violent father by heading into the Nevada desert, binoculars in hand, and observing the behaviour of wild horses. "It all dates from those summers alone in the high desert, me lying on my belly and watching wild horses with my binoculars for hours," Roberts wrote.

Back home in the corral, the young Monty set to work surreptitiously, keeping well clear of his dad, to apply what he had learned about equine society and horse-to-horse communication. The result was a strategy for starting green horses based not on breaking their spirits with spurs and whips, as Roberts père and others of his generation had all too frequently done, but on earning the animals' trust and co-operation.

Working in a circular enclosure, or round pen, the young Roberts first pushed his trainee away from him by waggling a rope in the air, causing the animal to canter around the perimeter. When the horse showed signs of wanting to "negotiate" -- by tilting an ear toward the trainer, licking, chewing and lowering its head -- Roberts would relent and permit it to stop running and approach him. Once "joined up" with its new human friend, the horse would follow the trainer without a lead rope and, often within minutes, willingly accept a saddle and rider.

Whether or not Roberts deserves all the credit for discovering "join-up," the technique itself is pure gold. It's ridiculously easy to accomplish -- I've had the pleasure myself -- and it helps to build rapport between horse and rider. Roberts's story, by contrast, has long since been tarnished. In 1999, three years after his autobiography was published, his aunt, Joyce Martins Renebome, and her daughter, journalist Debra Ann Ristau, published a rebuttal entitled Horse Whispers and Lies, which angrily refuted many of Roberts's childhood stories. There was no abuse, these authors insisted; no youthful vigil in the desert; no epiphany in the wilderness. To this day, Renebome maintains her attack on Roberts's integrity via two websites.

The dispute about Roberts's veracity is a "he said/she-said" affair, and it is difficult for an outsider to know what to make of it. But the controversy is disquieting, and when I picked up Roberts's latest book, I was decidedly standoffish. The Horses in My Life consists of 38 short chapters that take us, horse by horse, from three-year-old Monty clutching his first riding trophy aboard the aged Ginger, through innumerable rodeo championships and triumphs at the track, to international stardom as a horse whisperer. The book reaches its climax with the saga of Shy Boy, a mustang from Nevada that Roberts tamed in the wild in 1998, as a demonstration and proof of his techniques, for a BBC television documentary. As Roberts tells the story, it took him all of 72 hours to get a rider on Shy Boy's back, a feat that, to his glee, is still not credited by some skeptics.

Roberts does not respond directly to his detractors, though, like a chastened horse, he does make some conciliatory gestures in their direction. Of his father, whom he had earlier accused of brutality and outright murder, he now says merely, "He was cruel to me and I was afraid of him." As for his formative adventures with wild horses, they have mostly been relocated to the rodeo grounds in Salinas, Calif., where Roberts grew up. With controversy thus muted, he is able to focus our attention on the real subject at hand: the hearts and minds of horses.

In the end, what impressed me about the Roberts of The Horses in My Life was not his swagger about championship buckles or racetrack earnings or tête-à-têtes with the Queen. It was his unquestionable understanding of horses, both as a species and as individuals. Whether his client was a stallion with a deathly fear of umbrellas or a promising filly that was terrified of entering a stall, there appeared to be no end to the sympathy, patience and ingenuity that he could bring to bear on the problem. My teacher was right: An aspiring rider can learn a lot from Roberts and his writings. By the time I turned the last page, I was on the verge of joining up. Seems that Roberts's charms don't work only on horses.

Candace Savage is in Saskatoon, wishing someone would teach her how to get her horses into her new trailer. She is the author of Cowgirls and, most recently, Crows: Encounters With the Wise Guys of the Avian World.

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