Learning To Listen

Monty Roberts SA Tour

Monty Roberts (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Monty Roberts (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

“I use the word ‘great’ very seldom but I attach it to Lomitas with confidence. He was great. It is not likely I will work with another horse that achieves so much. To have done so is a privilege I will cherish for the rest of my days.” – Monty Roberts, The Horses In My Life

Monty Roberts changed my life. That is a big statement to make, but it is a big thing to do. If I was born with anything of value, it was my unfathomable love of horses. Along with that came an unfathomable conviction that there was a better way of dealing with horses than I was presented for the first half of my life. Several chance coincidences led me to a drafty riding hall in Birmingham in 1997 where Monty Roberts showed me the connection between the two.

Nearly 20 years on, I could not imagine my life without him or his ideas in it. While Monty’s concepts opened a whole new door on horsemanship for me, they also opened a lot of new doors on life. I cannot imagine where I might be today if I hadn’t dropped everything to travel 3 hours each way to see him that rainy night, but I am fairly sure I would not be sitting here now, writing this.

SA Tour

Monty Roberts (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Monty Roberts hard at work (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Monty recently spent two weeks in South Africa, travelling, learning, visiting old friends and as always, sharing his message of non-violent horsemanship. Monty kicked off his tour in Johannesburg, where he visited Shumbashaba Equestrian Centre, which helps kids with challenging circumstances through therapeutic riding and outreach programmes. He ‘scuffed his boots’ in the Sterkfontein Caves at the Cradle of Humankind, before holding two demonstrations at the Equidome in Johannesburg. Down in Cape Town he visited Maine Chance and demo’d at Mistico Equestrian Centre.

It’s fun seeing people you know in completely different surroundings and my first South African encounter with Monty was in Milnerton, where the Western Shoppe held a meet and greet session. Spaces were allocated on a first come, first served basis and there was a waiting list as long as my arm. Multiple champion jockey Felix Coetzee gave a warm welcome speech and Monty’s team, including his daughter Debbie (who manages his on-line university) and son-in-law Tom were also there to chat to people and answer questions. The evening flew by as Monty regaled the audience with stories and anecdotes from his life. He spoke off the cuff for over an hour with the audience hanging on his every word. When he wound up with “well, I’d better stop talking and sign some books for you folks” there was unanimous protest from across the room.


Monty first visited South Africa in the mid 70’s on a business deal with Des Scott, but much more significantly, the real roots of his ties to us lie in Germany and a chestnut colt called Lomitas. Lomitas belonged to Walther Jacobs of Gestut Fahrhof (grandfather to Maine Chance Farms’ Andreas Jacobs) and was champion 2yo in Germany in 1990. Put away to mature, Lomitas came back to racing as a 3yo, however, with a significant problem – he wouldn’t go into the starting stalls and the Jacobs’ found their champion colt banned from the track. By a stroke of good fortune, Jacobs was recommended the help of Monty Roberts. Monty managed to set the colt back on the straight and narrow and from there on in, he won just about everything in sight. Lomitas has remained one of Monty’s all-time favourite horses.

Monty Roberts and Silvano (photo: Jeremy Nelson)

Hello, old friend. Monty visits Silvano (photo: Jeremy Nelson)

Monty continued his association with Gestut Fahrhof, visiting annually to help them start their young stock and when Lomitas retired to stud, Monty was commissioned to find him some broodmares. Among Monty’s selection was a cheap California-bred mare named Spirit Of Eagles. The stud manager didn’t particularly like the little mare and without consulting the Jacobs’, entered her on a mare sale. By a stroke of luck, Andreas Jacobs was at the sale, recognised the mare and raised the reserve. She was led through the ring unsold and returned to her paddock, which was fortunate as she was pregnant at the time with Silvano. Two years later, Spirit Of Eagles produced another Lomitas colt named Sabiango and the two would credit her with the unique achievement of winning two Gr1 races in a single week. Silvano won the 2001 Arlington Million in Chicago and in the same week, Sabiango won the Gr1 Rheinland-Pokal in Baden Baden. Not bad for a cheap Californian mare! With a sires championship and the first three past the post in the 2015 Durban July, Silvano’s legacy continues to grow. Monty started Silvano under saddle all those years ago and made time to visit his old friend and stroke him on the nose during his trip. He was full of praise for how youthful Silvano still looks and particularly interested to view Vercingetorix and some of Silvano’s younger progeny out in the paddocks.


While Monty is celebrated for his behavioural work, he has a formidable reputation as a pinhooker and counts among his credits, the selection of Alleged. He tells the story with relish. Alleged had suffered some health problems and thus, despite his royal breeding, was not an imposing specimen when offered at auction as a yearling. Monty has a special ‘triangle’ technique for choosing horses and judged the immature Alleged as one of the most skeletally balanced specimens he’d ever seen. Although he didn’t bid on the horse, he couldn’t get him out of his mind and when Alleged passed through the ring unsold, Monty approached the vendor, Lee Eaton. He was told the reserve was $50k, but that they would accept $30k. As it turned out, Monty didn’t have $30k either, but persuaded them to accept a deal of $10k upfront with $20k due after the 2yo sales. When he got the colt home, Monty’s wife Pat swore it was the last time he was ever allowed to attend a sale by himself! However, Alleged grew and improved and duly graduated to a 2yo sale where he caught the eye of Billy McDonald, an agent for Vincent O’Brien and Robert Sangster. When the hammer fell at $175,000, Monty was elated. “I threw a party for all my staff and told them they worked for a genius!” Shortly afterwards, McDonald approached Monty to say he had only been authorised to bid to $150k. He asked if he would drop his price, offering in lieu two breeding rights should Alleged ever go to stud. Monty was resolute and insisted on the cash. When Alleged was syndicated for stud in 1978, shares were sold for $400k a piece. “I’d lost $800k to save $25k. I never threw a party or called myself a genius again!” he chuckles.

Still learning

While most 81 year olds are content with a pipe and slippers, Monty is on the road approximately 300 days a year. While he spends most of his time teaching, he’s not done with learning yet by a long chalk. He was particularly interested in his visit to the Cradle of Humankind, which claims that modern humans have existed for approximately 200,000 years.

“Horses have been around for 50 million years. And we call THEM a problem?” he exclaims. “They own this place!”

Monty also continuously refines and develops his understanding of the language of Equus, although he doesn’t refer to it as that anymore. “Lingua means tongue, so I cannot call it a language as it is not spoken, but it is a communication system similar to signing for the deaf.” And this ancient language is still as strong and present as ever, even if we don’t realise it. Monty was channel hopping one evening, looking for something to pass the time and ended up watching a rerun of the Secretariat movie. The film features original race footage and Monty noticed something significant – time and again, Secretariat was slow out of the stalls.

Monty Roberts (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Horses are into pressure animals (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

“Horses are into pressure animals, all over their body. If you press into them, they press back. They can be taught to move away from pressure as one can see with dressage horses that are taught to move off the leg, but no-one teaches this to racehorses. Jockeys sit so high off the saddle that the first time they feel pressure along their flanks is in the starting stalls and what do they do? They push back. If they’re pushing against the stalls, they are not balanced and if they’re not balanced, they are losing lengths at every start. That’s millions of dollars, right there. They’ve been doing this for 50 million years and it’s taken me 81 years to figure this out!”

No slowing down

At 81 and with a recent knee replacement that is guaranteed for 25 years (‘now I just have to keep the rest of me going’, he quips), Monty was as energetic and enthusiastic as ever, committing as much time and effort to helping a little girl train her pony to stand quietly at the mounting block as he did retraining a difficult loader. He taught with patience, kindness and humour, explaining intrinsic vs extrinsic learning, repeating that violence has no place in training horses and reminding horse owners that

‘it’s not the equipment, it’s the hands that hold it’.

Monty Roberts (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Special audience with WC stud grooms (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Andreas Jacobs generously sponsored tickets for 175 Western Cape stud grooms and Monty gave them exclusive, behind the scenes access to his demo horse selection process as well as the VIP audience ahead of the main show. He chatted to fans, signed autographs and posed for photos until the last person left every night. I canvassed a variety of audience members for their opinion of meeting Monty Roberts and received an almost unanimous verdict: “bucket list”.

To borrow a phrase from Monty, I use the word ‘great’ very seldom, but I attach it to Monty Roberts with confidence. He IS great. It is not likely I will work with another person who has achieved so much and to have done so is a privilege I will cherish for the rest of my days.

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