While the purpose of this pulpit is to ‘to seek the truth in love,’ as our affirmation says, the bottom line of every sermon must include something about hope…some kind of hope.
Hope is the ability to look at difficult aspects of life, to look at the truth about life, and to see some possibility for changechange for the better.
Erich Fromm said, “Hope is a vision of the present in a state of pregnancy.”
That’s precisely what I saw when I read about Monty Roberts work with horses in his autobiographical book, The Man Who Listens To Horses.
A member of the congregation (Jane Strong) introduced me to the book and to Monty Roberts. She gave me a film showing him at work with a horse; work he calls Join-Up. The book and the film show how he works with horses in a non-violent, mutually respectful way. He doesn’t break horses, he starts them.
I was immediately captivatedhooked. I’ve been thinking and talking about Monty Roberts and his work with horses since I saw the film and read the book, not so much because of my interest in horses, though I’ve had some important experiences with horses. I’m interested in and appreciative of his work because of my interest in my fellow human animals, and our shared interest in helping to move our species one step closer to becoming a civilized species.
Therein lies the hopethat we can become civilized, as well as the acknowledgement that we are not yet civilized; we are prone to violence; we are prone to greed, which prevents us from building a sustainable, equitable and just society; we are prone to tribalism, which causes us to make fear-driven decisions about how to relate to the world.
But for all our limitations, there are signs of hope that we can become more than we’ve beenthat we can move beyond violence which is the human response to fear. We can change the way we relate to one anotherwe can learn to move beyond racism, sexism, homophobia and all the other prejudices, which are insidious forms of violence to which we have too often accommodated ourselves.
It’s in this spirit of concern and sense of hope that I want to talk with you about Monty’s work with horses. I hope to sketch out a portrait of the man and his work with the horses for the past 50 years.
I hope it contributes constructively to our ongoing conversation about peace and justicethe world we hope to build, including the inner world, which we call our spirituality.
The old way of working with horses is called breaking them in. In this old way you master the horse, you break the horse’s wild, free spirit and get him to do what you want him to do, to dominate him by force.
Monty Roberts learned a new way. How did he learn it? He learned by paying attention to horsesby listening to them, in a very real sense.
He does not do this in any kind of psychic sense, as if he could read the horse’s mind, as if the horse spoke English. Quite the opposite. Listening to a horse is to pay attention to the ways horses communicate with one another; to notice the body language, the ears, the eye contact, and so forth.
That’s what Monty Roberts did. He opens his story by saying, “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 at a time.”
Monty was a boy of 13 at the time, and he was working on an annual round-up of wild mustangs which would be used in his town’s horse show and then sold. He grew up in Salinas, California, where wild horses were brought to the Salinas rodeo for the wild horse race every year. Monty worked with the men who rounded up 150 wild mustangs for the show.
Monty grew up with a father who broke horses in the old way, with violence and domination. His father treated him in much the same way he treated horses. He believed in the old Biblical injunction: spare the rod and spoil the child. Spare the whip and spoil the horse.
Monty knew that there had to be a better waya better way for a father to treat his son, and a better way to take a horse from the wild and form a partnership, a mutually beneficial alliance.
So he lay on his belly for hours watching wild horses from a distance.
Remember the story of The Little Prince who is traveling around the universe trying to learn things? He meets up with a rose and develops a special relationship with the rose by taking care of her.
Then he meets the fox and he asks the fox, “Who are you?’
“I am a fox,” said the fox.
“Come and play with me,” proposed the little prince. “I am so unhappy.”
“I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.”
“Ah! Please excuse me,” said the little prince.
But, after some thought, he added:
“What does that mean– ‘tame’?”
“You do not live here,” said the fox. “What is it that you are looking for?”
“I am looking for men,” said the little prince. “What does that mean– ‘tame’?”
“Men,” said the fox. “They have guns, and they hunt. It is very disturbing. They also raise chickens. These are their only interests. Are you looking for chickens?”
“No,” said the little prince. “I am looking for friends. What does that mean– ‘tame’?”
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. It means to establish ties.”
“‘To establish ties’?”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”
“I am beginning to understand,” said the little prince. “There is a flower… I think that she has tamed me…”
Then the fox showed The Little Prince how to tame him…by looking at him only out of the corner of his eye, at first; ‘do not say anything–words are the source of misunderstanding,’ he says. Don’t get too close, too fast; but you can get a little closer every day…little by little…until, gradually, trust is built.
This is a perfect summary of what Monty Roberts does. He explains that the horse is a herd animal, and herd animals rely on one another for mutual protection. Alone, the horse is more vulnerable to attack by predators. They want to be part of a herd.
The horse is a flight animalthe horse responds to danger by fleeing.
Humans are herd animals. We need the mutual protection and security that comes with being part of a herd, which we call community. We are both fight and flight animals; but we’re best known as a fight animalwe respond to perceived danger by attacking, and we attack even without perceived dangerwe attack for domination.
The horse’s natural response to humans is to flee. A wise tendency!
Monty Roberts felt an affinity to horses, perhaps because he had to flee from his abusive father. He protected himself by going into himself.
Then something amazing happened to himhe started to observe horses in the wild. It took an enormous patience, unusual for us humans, especially at age 13.
Monty writes: “My summer vigils (in Nevada) were marked off by the heat of the day and the cold of the night and a profound sense of solitude. It felt right to be there under those vast skies on that dove-gray moonscape in the company of wild and wary horses. I remember, especially, a dun mare with a dark stripe along her back and zebra stripes above her knees. (dun is a colorbrownish gray) Clearly the matriarch of the herd, she was disciplining an unruly young colt who had been roughing up fouls and mares. I vividly recall how she squared up to him, her eyes on his eyes, her spine rigid, her head pointed arrow-like at the adolescent. No longer full of himself, he knew exactly what she meant. Three hundred yards from the herd, the outcast would know by her body position when he could return to the fold.”
“If she faced him, he could not. If she showed him part of her body’s long axis, he could begin to consider it. Before her act of forgiveness had to come signs of his penitence. The signals he gave back to herthe seeking of forgivenesswould later be fundamental to a technique I would develop to introduce horses gently to saddle and rider. It was the mustangs who taught me their silent grammar, and the dun mare who was my first teacher.”
Note the way Monty describes the communication between horses: ‘their silent grammar.’
Recently I watched a so-called animal psychic tell the owner of a horse what the horse wanted to say to her. The horse, it seems, communicated in perfect English, using fine grammar and syntax. The so-called psychic told the owner, “He wants to tell you how very much he appreciates your loving care…he says that you know something about his uniqueness, something no one else knows…and he says that he trusts your decision to do whatever is necessary in his time of illness.” And blah, blah…
Monty Roberts is explicitly clear about this: he has no magic powers and knows no secrets. He doesn’t hear horses talking, as if they communicated the way we do, with words. Their way of communicating is non-verbal, and highly effective. Monty said he simply paid attention and used his ‘common sense,’ which is available to anyone willing to pay attention.
Once he realized how horses communicate with one another, he set out to change the way he communicated with themhe decided to use their signs and signals, their language.
Monty calls his method join-up–he develops a mutually satisfying relationship between horse and human. He doesn’t break them in, he starts themthat’s the term he uses to describe join-up; he has started over 10,000 horses. About a quarter of those he has done in front of a live audience.
He calls the signs and signals given by horsestheir ways of communicating with one another and with anyone willing to learnEquus.
He says, “I’ve called it Equus but I believe this is a universal tongue understood not just by all wild and domestic horses, ponies, mules, and even donkeys but also by other ‘flight’ animals such as deer. Once learned, the language allows a new understanding between human and horse.”
Monty bristles when people assign him mystical, magical qualities, as if he has broken some kind of animal code. That’s not it at all. He enters into a relationship with a horsea kind of communicationwhich will result in the horse voluntarily deciding to work with this human in this new relationship.
It is an astonishing thing to watch, which is what we plan to do a week from next Thursday, the evening of January 23, and then to talk together about the implications for each of us, both that night for a while and the following Thursday evening.
Though I think you really need to see it for yourself, I can tell you, in summary, what Monty does: he takes a horse from the wild into a round penjust the two of them. The horse enters the pen clearly nervous and understandably apprehensive. Monty flicks a light cotton line at him, but never snaps it at him or touches him with it, but uses the line to send the horse around and around along the parameter of the pen, allowing the flight instinct to kick in. In a sense he’s telling the horse to ‘go away, I know that’s what you want to do, and need to do, so go to it.’
After several minutes of this some key signs start to come, one after the other: the horse, still trotting in a circle, eventually locks on ear on Monty, later sticks out his tongue and makes chewing motions, and, finally, lowers his head until it is inches from the ground. It’s as if the horse is saying, ‘okay, let’s talk.’
The horse doesn’t want to be alone. He’s a herd animal. He wants to join up. The important thing about this process, which Monty demonstrates, is when to face the horse and make eye contact, when not to, and where to touch the horse first, and whether to move slowly or quickly. Monty has learned all these things. He calls the process of joining up Equusthe manners and grammar of the horse…the communication necessary to create the special relationship he calls ‘ join up.’
The Little Prince asked, “What does that mean, tame?” The fox replied “It means to establish ties.”
Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do, to form mutually satisfying relationships characterized by respect, sensitivity and tenderness? Isn’t that what we humans really need to do, whether we admit it to ourselves and one another or not?
If we pay attention, we see lots of attempts to break one another, rather than to join up in mutually satisfying relationships.
The great Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, talked about God being manifest as a special ingredient in certain relationshipsrelationships like the one Monty Roberts learned how to develop with horses. Buber called it the “I-Thou” relationship. Monty Roberts calls it ‘join-up.’
Buber’s I-Thou relationship doesn’t just happen; we have to learn how to make it happen; we have to understand the subtleties of communication: when to look the other person in the eye; when to be quiet and listen; when to respond; how to respond…how to respond in ways that are inviting…ways that encourage risk taking…ways that move from keeping a safe distance to deep, lasting relationshipthe kind which we all want but sadly don’t often find because we don’t understand the ways in which such relationships are created, and our part in their creation.
We have the potential to join up with horses, pets, and with other human beings. This is the metaphor of the rose in The Little Prince. He joined up with his rose by taking care of the rose, but more importantly by coming to appreciate the uniqueness of the rose, and the special relationship that grew out of the time he spent on the rose.
The Little Prince didn’t try to change the rose into a daffodil. He came to understand by devoting himself to the relationship.
Like horses, we humans are herd animals, but we are cautious. We hesitate to join up, wondering what the other’s motives may be, and even wondering about our own motives!
We stand back. We hold back. We hesitate. We test. We put it to the test, but sometimes we create self-fulfilling prophecies because we set out to ‘prove’ that the other person has ulterior motives.
Sometimes we break the barrier that keeps us apart.
Paul McCartney told an interviewer about sitting with his old Beetle partner George Harrison, while George lay dying. He said that he realized there was nothing more to say, no more words; the words rang hollow, and it made him nervous to be sitting at George’s bedside without talking, so he did an amazing thinghe reached across that huge abyss and he held his friend’s hand.
He said, “It was the first time I had ever held George’s hand, and come to think of it, the first time I ever held a man’s hand, with…you know… affection. I mean it was a very tender moment. I was really nervous, and I wondered what he would think and I didn’t want him to know that I was nervous…and he held on to my hand…and it was a beautiful moment which I cherish and which I’ll never forget…and I don’t even know if I’m explaining it right but in those moments I learned something…something important, I think.”
Walt Whitman has some lines in his signature poem, Song of Myself, in which he says something about the limits of language, and about animals:
Logic and sermons never convince,
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul (Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so, Only what nobody denies is so.)
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain ‘d…I stand and look at them long and long…
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
It’s a nice thought, but I do think there are lots of unhappy animals; there are a lot of unhappy horses who have been broken, who have been beaten into submission.
There are lots of happy animalsif the word happy applies; animals who have loving owners. This, I think, is the spirit of that line in the Bible where God tells his humans to have ‘dominion over the animals.’
It certainly doesn’t mean to dominate, but to domesticate, to be at home with them, and to a home, here in this life, on this earth, better prepared to share the earth with all other creatures, and to take care of the earth as if it is our sacred home.
The fate of a horse is in the hands of its owner. Monty’s method and message is clear: use common sense; pay attention; try a little tenderness; don’t try to dominate, to force, to frighten the other into submission. You may seem to succeed in the moment but the price will be high. We can’t be bullied into a meaningful relationship.
If we’re bullied and we comply then we’ve lost our spirit; that’s what gets broken when a horse is ‘broken in,’ the spirit is broken. The same is true for humans. But broken spirits can healthat, too, is the hope in Monty’s story.
I’m now reading another book by Monty Roberts: Horse Sense For People. Among other things, he suggests that the feminine nature is less about fight and more about flight, which is why women often have such important relationships with horses and other flight animals. Women often have to cope with abusive relationships, from which they may have to take flight, if they are to survive with spirits intact. But we’ll save more of that for another chapter of Join-Up.
Final Note: In 1989 Queen Elizabeth read an article about Monty Roberts and invited him to Windsor Castle to demonstrate his techniques. Since then, all the Queen’s horses are trained in the Monty Roberts method of Join-Up. The next step is to get all the Queen’s men, working with these horses, to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
We’ll close with a prayer attributed to Albert Schweitzer
Hear our humble prayer, O God, for our friends the animals, especially for animals who are suffering; for any that are hunted or lost or deserted or frightened or hungry; for all that must be put to death. We entreat for them all Thy mercy and pity, and for those who deal with them we ask a heart of compassion and gentle hands and kindly words. Make us, ourselves, to be true friends to animals and so to share the blessings of the merciful. Amen