Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Man Who Listens to Horses

I feel like I've been given a gift.

I'm in the back of a used book store and this book tumbles off the shelf: The Man Who Listens to Horses: The Story of a Real-Life Horse Whisperer.

The Man Who Listens to Horses: The Story of a Real-Life Horse WhispererNow when books throw themselves off the shelf at me, I tend to take a moment and wonder if they're somehow important to my life and understanding of the world.  I've pretty much never been wrong in following this clue.

It's cliche to say I couldn't put a book down, and in this case it's not true anyway.  I had to put it down more than once.  Some messages are so powerful that you need to step away for a moment to think and breathe.  Some realizations are so intense that you have to stop and turn to your partner and describe them.  And the stories in this book are sad, tragic, funny, uplifting.

This particular book isn't just about horse training.  

Instead it's the biography of a phenomenal and interesting man on his journey of discovery into horse language and psychology.  The paperback copy I have starts with a long (but fascinating) introduction by another author, and by the time I made it through the first few pages, I was wondering who in heck Monty was, and why someone was spending that much energy glowing all over him.

Probably for the same reason I am.

It's the story of a man who learns a new way to communicate.  With horses and with the world at large.  It's about courage, persistence and a vision of a world that is more gentle and loving than it is now.

As a writer since I was eight, I'll tell you that it's incredibly well written.  We start with Monty at age fourteen, already a ten year rodeo/horsemanship professional, out in the Nevada desert watching wild mustangs.  He actually bothers to spend his time watching how horses talk to each other in the wild, and begins to use what he's learned in "breaking" his own horses.  His dad, a horseman from what sounds like a long pedigree of horsemen is not impressed with the technique, beats him, in fact, but Monty persists. 

If you don't know much about the traditional techniques of horse "breaking" I should probably give you a clue.  They are horribly cruel.  The horses are subjected to "sacking" which consists of tying them up to a pole and pelting them with feed sacks or other items, being tied in uncomfortable positions and all sorts of other abuse.  Think about Guantanamo for horses.  The entire process is designed to break a horse's will and create them into a fearful slave. 

Thanks to Monty, I've watched some videos now, and I'm stomach sick from watching the traditional process. 

And remember now, we're talking about the Horse.  The animal that is iconic to our image of beauty, power and freedom.  The creature that "Won the West".  Having studied horse theory from a young age, I knew the practices in the past were cruel (and were damn well nothing I'd ever use) but this book made me sit up and face it.

But this book isn't even ONLY about that.  Right now I've just watched him go from early success to nearly being completely devastated by a business partner, who - no fooling - almost had him killed because he wouldn't murder perfectly fine horses or lie in court.

From that very funny, sad, provocative emotional roller coaster - the kind of story writers DREAM about conceiving, except folks would think it was contrived (except it happened real-life), we go to the death of his longtime favorite horse Johnny Tivio. And the story of a friend who became a quadriplegic and nursed himself back to sanity because Monty helped him manage to stay involved with horses. 

If I hadn't been so inspired, I would probably have read it straight through.  I started this article when I was only 3/4 through it.

The guy I dated before I met Quantum was a double amputee from early childhood.  Several other friends are in a wheelchair.  If none of the other chapters had done it (and of course they already had) this scenario elevated the book to iconic status.  Oprah take note!  This is a book I'll be recommending for the next several decades, when it comes to people facing challenges.  Almost more than wanting to meet Monty, I want to meet his buddy Crawford, the guy who went from being what my friend Karl called a "gimp" (Karl broke his back in a motorcycle accident when he was young, but despite what the doctors said, managed to walk again.  He's since a confirmed master in his automotive field, but a born cynic, Karl slams himself and his physical difficulties left and right.) to an imperatively needed and useful member of Monty's horsing operation.  

Monty is still training horses out in California at Flag Is Up Farm.  You can find Monty's Join Up video on the web. Take note that I've found several "join up" videos by his admirers who don't follow Monty's full procedure, so be sure to watch the original.  

Meanwhile I should probably say a little about his "Join Up" technique.  Monty doesn't "break" horses, he befriends them in the manner of our Native American ancestors, with love, kindness and an in-depth understanding of how horses talk to each other.  I'll try to do justice to the practice:

He starts out with an understanding that as both herd animals and flight animals, a horse needs to be part of a group (strength in numbers) but also runs away from the unknown as their first tendency.  Think of it like Dr. Doolittle's "Push-Me Pull-You".  The horse is curious and wants to investigate, but also wants to flee from a potential predator.  So he chases the horse away and then lets it follow its natural tendency to come back, investigate the situation and "Join Up" with a leader who will keep it safe. 

For any herd animal, being excised from the herd is tantamount to death.  Two years ago I called to ask somebody about the yaks we were contemplating.  They basically told us, "no you can't buy one, you can buy two". 

Its wired into their genes.  Herd animals need a herd to be happy and sane.  And if you offer yourself as the leader of their herd…well it seems they'll follow you.

In about four months I'm going to have the opportunity to test this on a different species.  While reading this book I've done some searches on things like "cow whisperer".  There's not much to find except a few idiots making mooing noises at cows and potentially driving them to run and get hurt.  I didn't even bother looking for yak whisperers…yaks are just that rare. 

I've read that Monty uses his Join Up technique to befriend his local deer population, so I'm going to make the experiment.  It's a bit scary, because our yak mommy Yonkers has horns.  Despite that yaks are trained to use their horns for guidance, much in the way that reins are used on horses, I'm at least a bit wary.  Should she be inclined, this lady could gore me and have me for breakfast.  I'll probably try it first on her calf, Yazoo.  Yazoo will be barely a yearling when we finally move there and meet her.  If nothing else, she'll be less able to trample me.

I'm sure that there are some differences between horse language and cow/yak language, but since there doesn't seem to be a lot of research on the latter subject, I guess I'll just have to be observant and hope to learn. 

So bringing it all together, brilliantly written, fascinating subject.  Even more, it’s a book about hope, taciturn belief and the ultimate realization of that dream.  As a writer, I'm floored.  As a book lover, I'm floored.  As an animal lover, I just haven't got the words to express the immense impact that this book is having on my life and potentially the lives of every single animal I will impact over the next 60 or so years of my life.  It gives me trust in my basic instincts (to train animals by befriending them, rather than through an organized campaign of terror) and even a plan as to precisely how I'll go about learning to talk with my horses, my yaks and every other critter. 

I'm an avid reader and writer, so it's not unusual for me to find plenty of good books.  Despite the multitude of books I've read during my life (at a rate of at least 3-600 pages per week and maybe more for a good part of my career)  there are very few that make the "I'll remember this and suggest this to others so long as I live" category.  The first book that I can recall which made that list was Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.  Maybe because I was horse crazy, or maybe because those books were just that good - no, definitely BOTH - the next ones that got on the list were anything by Marguerite Henry, the Fury books, Maple Sugar For Windyfoot and My Friend Flicka.  Every one of those I read when I was under fifteen.  Since then, maybe twenty authors and their works have made the "I will tell everybody I damn well know" cut.
The Man Who Listens to Horses is one of those books.  Brilliant.  Life-changing.  I who have dedicated most of my life to a darn good understanding of adjectives…there aren't enough good ones to describe this book.
Read it, love it, and for all the gods, please LIVE it.  Reading it will bring you into a healthier understanding of our relationship with our animal friends, a happier life for yourself and a better, more humane world at large.  Join Up with your animal companions and experience the ecstatic communication you'll get from that.

Or don't.  After all, if you do not wish to enjoy the pleasure of bonding with the creatures who share your life, then you certainly shouldn't.

But if you do, run screaming to buy this book.

No comments:

Post a Comment