"I’m not a best-selling author, only a human being with a best-selling story," says Monty Roberts, whose 1997 autobiography The Man Who Listens to Horses has sold over three million copies worldwide and has been translated into 13 languages. His second book, Shy Boy: The Horse That Came in from the Wild, chronicles his experience of using his join-up techniques with a mustang out in the open desert, and how that horse, later named Shy Boy, adjusted to a domesticated life.
Roberts spoke to BookPage recently and compared the experience of writing his first book to digging ditches.
"It was hard work doing an autobiography. There’s so much pressure on you to remember from so far back. But when you’re telling a current story like the one I did in Shy Boy, it’s fun. It started out to be a coffee table book. But the publishers wanted more."
Shy Boy tells its story through a combination of Roberts’s words and Christopher Dydyk’s photographs. Dydyk began to take pictures at Roberts’s farm while he was in college.
"We took him in at the farm and gave him the run of the place to take pictures. Immediately, I thought that I recognized an enormous talent within him. Around that time, my publisher started sending teams of extremely high priced, famous photographers to do the jacket for my first book. I didn’t think they were doing a good job at all and said, ‘I’ve got a kid out here who isn’t even out of college yet, and I think he can do a better job.’ They said, ‘We’re a worldwide publishing company, and we don’t mess with college kids.’ And I said, ‘What can it hurt if he goes with me for a day around the farm. We’ll take some pictures, send them through to you, and you can just throw them in the waste basket.’ And the first picture we sent them is the cover of the first book."
Roberts began working on his first book at the suggestion of Queen Elizabeth. She first invited him to England to demonstrate his techniques in 1989, and has since had all of her horses trained using his concepts. Roberts’s method of starting an untrained horse, join-up, achieves its goal through a series of silent body language motions that he has termed "Equus." Roberts learned this form of nonverbal communication by studying horses in the desert as a teenager.
The success of his book was a great surprise to him because he was told by his initial publishing contacts in Great Britain that it would probably sell only a few thousand copies.
Shy Boy grew out of another British partnership. In a 1996 meeting with BBC executives, Roberts expressed his desire to relive his teenage experience of achieving join-up with a mustang in the wild. After months of deliberation, the BBC agreed in January, 1997 to make a documentary of the project, and Roberts began working out the logistics. Luck was on his side, and Roberts was able to acquire Shy Boy quickly through a Bureau of Land Management adoption. Shy Boy was then transported to a Cuyama Valley ranch that was comparable to his natural habitat and left to roam with a free-ranging herd.
Roberts was anxious to begin filming before the rattlesnakes woke up from their annual hibernation and scheduled the adventure to occur during Easter week in 1997. The resulting documentary, " A Real Horsewhisperer," has been shown with great success on PBS television. In Shy Boy, Roberts follows the documentary’s and the mustang’s progress during the following year. Although Shy Boy eventually thrived in the care of humans, initially Roberts was nagged by the possibility that the horse might have preferred to be left alone with his free-ranging herd. To answer this question, Roberts returned to the Cuyama Valley ranch and let Shy Boy decide whether to return to the wild or stay with the people who had been taking care of him.
Roberts has been touring the U.S. and abroad, demonstrating his techniques, for many years now. While Shy Boy and his fellow mustangs are among his favorites, he says that he remains eager to keep working with all kinds of horses and is still learning from them.
"I’ve done over 10,700 horses now. I think it’s more thrilling today than it was 50 years ago. Maybe I’m easy to please. The hair stands up on the back of my neck with every single horse that I do who comes and communicates with me."
Although Roberts’s specialty is horses, he is able to appeal to a wide audience because his underlying message emphasizes communication rather than coercion and brutality. He is on a mission to bring his concepts to as many people as possible and to promote their application in human relationships.
"Horses don’t need us to work on them. They’ve already got it figured out. It’s people that you need to work on. We’re the ones that are messing horses up. And if we can change our mentality so that we come to the conclusion that violence isn’t the answer, then we’re going to make the world better."
At his demonstrations Roberts makes himself quite approachable, and his policy is to stay until every book is signed. One of his most moving encounters occurred in Tennessee when a huge, weather-beaten cowboy, the real thing according to Roberts, came to his autograph line. "This cowboy said, ‘I don’t have a book, I just have this little piece of paper.’ And he literally gave me a piece of paper that was about the size of four postage stamps. He just wanted my name on it, and he wanted to shake my hand." This man did buy Roberts’s book and came back the following night accompanied by his four young redheaded daughters. That night he told Roberts that he would never treat horses the same again and that the book had convinced him to change his brutal ways towards his daughters and his wife. After the demonstration, Roberts helped the man get in touch with a local agency to help him alter his violent habits.
"Every single night now some little kid or somebody will come up to me and say, ‘You know I don’t have a book, I really don’t have the money to buy one. I just have this little piece of paper. Will you sign it?’ And I say, ‘You bet, give me that piece of paper, I’ll sign it.’ And there will not be anyone who comes to me with a little scrap that I won’t remember that cowboy and how important he’s been in my life. I have never seen him since that evening, but if I can help change what’s happening to someone that dramatically, that’s what I want to do."
Roberts is currently on tour demonstrating his join-up method, and his web site (www.montyroberts.com) lists his upcoming schedule. In addition to putting on a great show, Roberts donates a significant amount of the proceeds from each exhibition to a local horse-related organization.