The measure of a horseman

A video popped up on Facebook depicting a “horse training” demonstration by a world famous horseman.  The friend who posted suggested that people write to the organization to voice their displeasure.  The organization is not in my country, so I’m sure my voice would have no impact – but the video presents some very serious issues.  So, at the risk of offending fans of this horseman, and being told that I don’t know the situation (though it’s pretty clear), I have decided to share that video here, and offer not only my take on it, but an alternative by another well known horseman.  This will take a little time, so get comfy.

The setting is a stop on Monty Roberts 2018 tour, day 1 at the Cavan Equestrian center in Ireland.  The introduction to the video, on YouTube, provides the following information:

The first of the Equine Welfare Network charity horses to be chosen to take part in the Monty Roberts 2018 Tour at Cavan Equestrian Center was Freisian X EWN Miss Mia Wallace. We asked could Monty and his team tame her feisty nature? Mia has a “sharp temperament and if fresh is not easy to handle. She looks pretty but her attitude is not pink! Monty and (amazing to say the least ) Jo Lowes are going to continue with Mia on day 2 tomorrow a small number of tickets are still available

So, it seems that Mia is a rescue horse, and she has some attitude issues.  Fair enough.  Let’s also grant that the video seems to begin after the session has been underway, so we cannot know what he has done with the mare leading up to the point where it starts.

Without further ado, here is the video.  It runs about 11 minutes, and it’s worth watching all the way through, in order to form a clear view of it.

For those who can’t, or won’t sit all of the way through, here is a brief synopsis (if you did watch, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs).

[Update, March 26: The day after I wrote this, the video was taken down.  No surprise, as all comments on the original post were that it was a horrible display of horsemanship.  So, with the video no longer available, I have expanded the description.]

Roberts leads the mare around a chain link round pen, saddled and with a rope halter attached to a lunge line.  There is a woman in the round pen with him, helmeted and wearing a protective vest, who he lifts a couple of times up to the saddle.  In between he leads the mare around, occasionally jerking the halter.  He then lifts the woman up to the saddle, where she settles.  He leads the mare around, when she suddenly explodes into rodeo style bucking, hunched backed and stiff legged. Roberts is forced to drop the lunge, as the mare begins to tangle it around her legs. The woman clings to the saddle for a while, but eventually is thrown into the dirt.  Her leg is caught in the reins, and there is a struggle, as she tries to get free and the mare tries to get away.  To the mare’s credit, she doesn’t bolt in this moment.

Roberts catches the mare, they fix the tack, he leads her around a little more, the woman gets up, and this time he lets the mare loose.  He moves her around a bit, flapping the looped lunge line at the mare, or against his leg, every time the mare attempts to stop.  The woman sits as somewhat dead weight, acting only as a backing dummy.  The mare occasionally responds appropriately, turning or trotting – but at no time does the mare seem to really understand what is happening, or feel relaxed.  Soon the mare explodes again, and this time with even greater violence.  At one point, she throws both of them against the chainlink walls, before finally dumping and nearly trampling the woman.

One more time the woman gets up, and they adjust the tack before she again mounts.  This time Roberts leads the mare very, very slowly and carefully, ending after just a few seconds.  They then untack the mare and hand her back to the apparent caretaker.  The video ends with the mare led away, still clearly on edge.

So, here we have a mare that the rescue group says is difficult to handle.  Comments on the original post say the mare was surrendered as non-rideable, due to a serious hock injury.  Is trying to back her in front of a massive crowd, at a facility where she is clearly stressed, the right way to approach her issues?  Methods aside, is this fair to the horse?

Then, there is the obviously extreme risk to the rider.  Apparently she works for Roberts, and clearly she is practiced at hanging on in these situations (which already tells me a lot about his training style, if I didn’t already know).  But what sort of trainer puts someone in this sort of harm’s way, for the sake of a demonstration?  The first time could have been unexpected – but after that first time, why on earth would anyone let go of the mare?!  His final approach should have been the only one, if indeed backing was required.  But I’m left looking at a mare who seems to have few skills, and little trust in humans.  So why would backing be so important?

If you are accustomed to seeing such behavior in a horse being backed for the first few times, then I would suggest finding a new trainer!  In forty years of starting horses, I have never had one react this way to a rider – to tack, occasionally, but never a rider.  That is not to say that there is never a buck or bolt, at some point in time – but it’s typically from being spooked, and only twice has it ever come close to looking like this mare (both were pain related).  The fact is, by the time it reaches this point, the horse has been pushed well beyond their stress tolerance.  (Playful bucking is much different – it does not involve the body rigidity you see in this mare.)

Now, don’t just take my word for it.  Watch this much shorter clip (about four minutes) of Warwick Schiller discussing how he handles out of control horses.

So, famous names aside, thinking purely from the horse’s perspective, which of these men is the better horseman?  Roberts, who fails to read or address the many stress signals the mare sends out?  Who pushes beyond her emotional limits, at risk to her and both humans?  Or Schiller, who reads the small signals and addresses them at each level, not pushing to the point where the horse actually explodes?

This post is not meant as a wholesale condemnation of Roberts (though, full disclosure, I am not a fan).  Perhaps you have found some value in his methods.  Nor is it a wholesale endorsement of Schiller – I like some of his work, but disagree with him on some ideas about horses (though I have it on good authority that he is ever evolving, and some of his early videos may be less representative now).  The point is simply to judge the interaction in the first video, on the merits of its effect on the mare.

Yes, I have heard all of the arguments why Monty Roberts is tops.  Yes, the Queen has had him work with horses.  And yes, this mare clearly has difficulties.  But, putting aside his famous name and reputation – did he actually accomplish a single thing with this mare that was worth the risk the rider was clearly in?  Did he address a single root cause for the mare’s clear distress/confusion/anger?  The mare’s attitude as she leaves the pen says it all – she will be even more prepared for stress the next time someone works with her.  There is an old saying – the horse you end with today is the horse you start with tomorrow.

The measure of a horseman should never be his reputation or fame. It should always be in how he handles “that” horse, on “that” day, in “that” situation.  Although we all have our bad days, the session with Mia is, to my mind, a complete failure of horsemanship.  The horse always comes before ego – even if it means that you spend a whole session standing quietly until a stressed horse calms down.  It may not make for a great show, but it makes for a great relationship.

Be good to your horses!


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