Flight Animals

With Monty Roberts, the horse whisperer, at a youth project for equine assisted psycho-social learning

Horses are flight animals- this is well known all over the world.
A creature is called a flight animal as soon it runs away after the first sign of danger. They are very attentive animals checking their surroundings for danger constantly. Actually, they are plant eaters, the food for predators and not born to fight. Seeing a potential danger, they decide to run away immediately and not to attack. Flight animals are for example antelopes, rabbits or
even horses.

The human being on the other hand is considered to be a predator, but this cannot be generalized. Humans can be flight animals as well. Each of us knows situations where one would rather want to flight instead of fighting. Run away scenarios as excuses or alternative strategies exist even in everyday life. We are not always hunting, we also have a flight culture and if it is boring or too stressful, we escape in the consumption of chocolate or the television program.

Monty Roberts has more examples. He says: the horse as a flight animal asks for not to be attacked and staying part of the herd. Especially children and women often behave just like flight animals. They shy away when they are attacked physically or verbally and run off. Accumulate such attacks; these negative experiences can become the psychological baggage that a person carries around. If a child will never have a possibility to build confidence and trust in adults, the anger will grow and be discharged in a similar form as experienced before by the adults. These children are not able to communicate precisely, talk about their problems and needs not even later as a teenagers or young adults. From earliest childhood, such behavioral patterns were characterized.

You still feel the anger and disappointment every time Monty Roberts talks about his own childhood. He tells how his childlike enthusiasm and confidence were struggled down by his father with hits and abuses. The 72 broken bones before he was 12 years old did not result from being bucked off the horse, although it was presented to the doctors this way. The child Monty fled from violence and rejection of the adults into the horses company.

I have heard many similar stories, not only from children. As well adults prefer the company of animals, after they have been disappointed by people. Animals on the other side look for contentment and well-being and especially horses find this in the company of the herd or even humans. Animals don’t have prejudices, but they demand all of us: body and spirit, mind and soul.

Many years ago I organized an event which brought together Monty Roberts and not problem horses but rather problem children: mentally or physically disabled, orphans, hyperactive, difficult. It was fascinating to see how they met, bright-eyed and then the perfect intuition Monty chooses exactly that girl to work with the horse in the round pen, which overcomes her greatest fear this afternoon. Since then I am fascinated by working with people and horses.

During his Austrian Tour in April 2011 I could interest Monty Roberts for another project. In Innsbruck, we visit a farm where young people work with horses. These teenagers are the most difficult characters of the Tyrolean Youth Welfare; they need special treatment and individual attention due to their problem variety. Some of them have social deficits, drug problems, are disoriented or end up in crime. From the horses they learn how to start a trustful relationship, to get responsibility and accept structures. This work is based on experiences and solution-oriented approaches. The therapist Carina Prantl works in cooperation with the welfare institution "Netz" after the EAGALA model that Monty supports also in the USA. The Tyrolean project won the third prize at the conference "Animals as Therapy (TAT) in 2010.

Arriving at the farm in the morning, everything is prepared. The horses are clean, the chairs positioned and it's lovely spring weather. Monty Roberts gets out of the car as we know him from pictures: blue shirt, red neckerchief, brown jeans, and the English cap. He greats everyone personally and shakes hands with every teenager and every social worker. A greeting is not a big thing, he says, but it shows the other that he is important to you. First of all he asks the teenagers what they know about him. Not to make himself important or to be considered as a VIP - not at all- he wants to show that he is a normal human being, as they are. He is on the same level, he is not the horse whisperer from the movie and he distances himself from this movie, because of the violence against the horse that is shown there. The topic ‘violence’ will also be the common thread that runs through the whole conversation. He talks about his childhood, about the violence that his father used on him, about losing confidence in the father and also in the doctors and teachers who well believed that his injuries were caused by being bucked off from a horse and not by beatings and abuses.

Drugs and alcohol are often seen as causes for the problems of young people. The teenagers tell that they have been about 15 years old when they first came in contact with these things. "And how old have you been when violence came in your life for the first time?" Monty asks each of them. Five or six years old they reply and silence follows for a moment. “I have been four years old“, Monty says. And when he was older he started playing American football. He wanted to attack each person wearing the shirt with the other color, solving experienced violence by using violence.

He talks about his anger that has grown so much that he even thought about killing his father. This moment he takes an old photo out of his wallet. It is Sister Agnes Patricia, his teacher. She told him, doing this, he would be like his father, ending up in prison, and nothing had changed in this world. This moment he decided against violence and began his mission, making the world a better place than he found it, for horses and people.

"If a young man steals an old ladies handbag, how many criminals do you see there?" Monty asks in the discussion. Just one is the over all response. "And how many victims are there?" Two victims, the old lady is the victim of a purse robbery and the young man is a victim, a victim of circumstances that made him turn into a thief.

But you can make a difference, Monty tells his listeners. Tell your story, write it down and make it better. “If I can stop only one young man from being violent to his wife or his children, I have achieved my goal.” Monty talks directly with everyone, but without clear details. He does not want to know who was responsible or why something has happened. Sometimes he asks a question including already the answer, because he knows it anyway. The social workers are wondering how quickly the young people can trust and how frank they are. Some of the details the teenagers are telling, the social workers have experienced after weeks or months. "Has anyone ever told you that you are precious," Monty asks the teenagers. The answers cause goose bumps, they have not been told very often, some of them ever. “Each of you is a precious person”, says Monty. “Everyone can make a difference. Everyone can create a better life, if he is willing to work hard and learn.” He asks them about their future plans and talks to them about the desire for family and professions that have to do with computers or shoes.

Monty Roberts patiently answers all the questions, because he knows from his own experience how important it is that someone takes time and listens. A dark-haired girl is backing away during these discussions. Angry looks, folded arms, lukewarm answers, no goals and small future plans. “You live in Western Europe”, Monty tells her and “you will always have something to eat and opportunities to learn and to earn your own money. In other parts of the world people would not give you a chance, so use this here!” The girl looks at him and knits her brows.

Then, the young people work with the horses, and all together they want to move the mare and the gelding from one side of the arena to the other - without halter or rope but with body language, with light touch, not by force or loud. They act seriously and gently, with infinite patience. They pay attention to what the horse might hurt and to communicate properly. Stick with it until the goal is reached! These experiences they should transfer to their everyday lives and to relationships to other people - because with the horses they get a feeling how relationships work. And all we do is hope that they will not be disappointed too often, find someone who cares about them, listens and does not judge rashly. For the final group picture, the dark-haired girl wants to stand next to Monty.

And then things happen exactly as they always do: there is one horse in the stable which cannot do the Join-Up, so Monty Roberts is asked for help.
For the Join-Up, human and horse meet in a round pen. The horse will not be held or tired on and has the alternative to move away. If it decides to leave, the human gives signs with body language and eye contact
"I agree with your decision to run away, but do not go just a little, go away a lot.” The natural flight distance of horses is about 600 meters. After that they check their decision whether it makes sense to continue to flee and use more physical energy, or whether there are other options. The horse can choose between further flight, or contacting and communicating with the human. Alone in the wild a flight animal would die, therefore the horse would always instinctively come back to the herd. Indications of the willingness are the ears movement, lowering the head, licking and chewing and a smaller circle. When the animal shows this gestures, the human turns into a passive attitude, turns off easily, lets the shoulders drop, lowers his arms and looks the horse no longer in the eye. This body language signals the horse that it should approach and have no fear of being attacked. With its approach the horse shows that it accepts the human as a leader, and offers his confidence. For positive reinforcement and confirmation the human rubs the horse on the forehead. This is the moment of Join-Up.

The horse’s owner has tried everything as explained in the textbook and the horse has also shown all signs of communication. But it will not join, it is not close to the shoulder, it does not get it.
"Has the horse it not done correctly - or you?" Monty asked the girl, smiling at her because the horses do it instinctively, all 20,000 he worked with.

Quickly the paddock is divided, a round pen improvised and people stand as a natural boundary behind the red and white barrier tape. The horse comes in with the halter and a lunge is borrowed. Monty enters the round pen and when he runs through the deep sand of the arena you don’t realize he is 76 years old. By the way he explains quickly the theory: the horse escapes in both directions, shows the four communication signals he is waiting for and which can be seen promptly. Then he turns inward, passive, with downcast eyes and drooping shoulders. The horse turns, approaching a bit and stops a meter away. It is absolutely quiet. Monty makes a few small steps into the horse´s direction and shows again clearly the inviting gesture. He is not disappointed or angry; he gives the horse just one more chance to reconsider its decision and make a new one. And then, very gently, the horse comes near to Monty. As a reward, it receives a rub on the forehead between the eyes - this is the moment of the Join-Up. No "Finally!" or "Come on!" can be heard or other sobering comments. There is just an immediate positive consequence for the requested action. The teenagers observe Monty’s gentle nature, but also his patience. He lauds positive reactions and stays relaxed when negative behavior is shown. The horse got enough time and he communicates patiently quiet invitations.

And that's what these young people also need: a second chance to make the right decision. That is absolutely clear at this moment. The misconduct of young people is unfortunately often treated in a similar manner, like the conventionally work with horses. Enforcement, pressure and narrow therapies with the goal to break the ego of the teenagers are similar to the methods used to break horses. But only if oneself is involved in the decision, a lasting change in motion can be achieved. You do not have to tell them what they are doing wrong; they realize that with some support. On the other hand, when they are encouraged in right things and get offered real opportunities, they can make positive, intelligent decisions, both horses and humans. Training of people with horses is more than horse stroking, cowboy romance and outdoor survival. Horses make a connection to people, they are very good teachers, humans only have to listen to them. The legend says, from the moment in history when the first horse had to wear a halter, there were a few people who looked into the soul of the horse and could understand their fear. Because it was assumed that these people were whispering secrets in the horse’s ears, they were called the Horse Whisperers. This is a myth, because truth and reality are evident. Violence against others arises from our own fear and that fear is caused by insecurity and ignorance. Only through peaceful communication we can reach knowledge and confidence, this is the way to tolerance and against violence. Because violence is never the answer. It serves only the perpetrators, never the victim. No one has the right to say “you do what I tell you, or I’ll hurt you”. That is the lesson that Monty Roberts learned from the horses, and published in his books, read by millions of people; shown in his demos with only four horses but an audience of 2000 people per evening as well as with a very small group on a day in springtime in Tirol, Austria.


„Horse sense for people“ by Monty Roberts

Very special thanks for translation assistance to Dr. Julia Schwarz and Eveline Doll.