Monty Roberts fights science with science

Monty Roberts
Monty Roberts

High-profile horse trainer Monty Roberts has responded to criticism of his training techniques in an Australian study, citing a study published in the journal, Anthrozoös, that found his techniques less stressful than conventional British training methods.

It found Monty Roberts’ methods to be less stressful on horses in a comparison with what the study described as a conventional UK technique for training riding horses.

Roberts was moved to respond after Australian researchers suggested this month that  two techniques in his training applied emotional pressure to horses, and their responses were based on fear and safety.

The training system of Roberts, who wrote “The Man Who Listens to Horses“, are used worldwide and is referred to as Join-Up.

Cath Henshall, a Master of Animal Science candidate in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney, who led the Australian research, criticised aspects of  round-pen horse training used in the Roberts’ method, saying their research indicated training outcomes were achieved as a result of ‘pressure-release’ and not the ability of the trainer to mimic horse behaviour.

“Put simply, pressure-release works because the horse finds the pressure applied unpleasant and therefore the removal of the pressure rewarding,” said Henshall. “Although it is appealing to think that horses in the round pen choose to follow their trainers because they are responding to us as though we are a horse, we believe that the use of fear has no place in genuinely humane and ethical horse training.”

Roberts responded to the criticism by citing a British study published in the peer-reviewed journal, Anthrozoös, which provided support for his techniques.

The study found that horses trained using the methods of Roberts had significantly lower maximum heart rates when taking their first saddle and rider when compared to a British conventional training method.

The paper, written by Drs Veronica Fowler, Mark Kennedy and David Marlin, is entitled, “A comparison between the Monty Roberts technique and a conventional UK technique for initial training of riding horses”.

“Initial training of young horses, in particular the first time a horse is saddled and ridden, has been recently reported in the scientific literature as a significant stressor in terms of the impact on the welfare of the horse,” Fowler noted.

“It is therefore vital that we fully evaluate the techniques which are practiced around the world to identify those which have the potential to cause compromised welfare and suffering during foundation training of horses.”

The study found that horses trained using Roberts’ methods had significantly lower maximum heart rates during both first saddle and first rider when compared with the conventional training method.

Horses trained with Roberts’ method also had lower heart rates during the period between first saddle and first rider – a finding never previously reported in the scientific literature.

“The heart rates observed from Monty Roberts-trained horses during first saddle and first rider are currently the lowest reported for any training regime reported in the literature to date,” Fowler said.

Fowler noted at the time the paper was accepted for publication that the use of the round pen and, in particular, the technique of Join-Up have been frequently criticised and reported to be another significant stressor due to the perceived opinion that this environment and method overtly activates the flight response.

Researchers used a remote control car to mimic the actions of a trainer using the Join-Up method, undermining the idea of a human-horse connection.
The Australian researchers used a remote control car to mimic the actions of a trainer using the Join-Up method, undermining the idea of a human-horse connection.

“Our study could find no evidence that the use of the round pen or, indeed, the technique of Join-Up, was fear-inducing and thus a significant stressor to the horse based on heart rate alone.

“In fact, we found that the heart rate of horses during this technique were considerably below the maximum heart rate for horses of this age and breed.”

After 20 days of training – 30 minutes per horse per day – the study horses undertook a standardised ridden obstacle and flatwork test and a ridden freestyle test.

Heart rates recorded during these tests for both training regimes were not significantly different.

However, Roberts-trained horses scored significantly higher in all three tests as determined by a panel of judges who were unaware of the study or the trainers involved in the study.

“Our manuscript therefore provides peer-reviewed scientific substance to indicate that the Monty Roberts’ training technique is highly efficacious in terms of the effect on the welfare and performance of the horse undergoing foundation training.”

The Man Who Listens To Horses“, a  New York Times best-seller, chronicles Roberts’  life and the development of his horse-training method.

He grew up on a working horse farm as a firsthand witness to traditional, often violent methods of horse training.

Rejecting that, he went on to win nine world championships in the show ring. Today, his goal is to share his message that “Violence is never the answer”.


Earlier reports:

Latest research and information from the horse world.

14 thoughts on “Monty Roberts fights science with science

  • July 24, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    I think there are more trainers using the kind approach now days than there ever were before, reports from people who have used these trainers are usually always positive.

  • July 25, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Monty Roberts learned everything he teaches from our Wild Mustangs….to bad he does not try and help save them from the BLM!!

  • July 26, 2012 at 10:55 pm

    A very interesting report. I would like to comment that I myself have taken Monty Roberts training principles and applied them working in a large open field where the choice and ability for the horse to get away was great, and the horses choice was to communicate with me and stay willingly with me. I have also started horses using Montys concept and principles of join up just simply working with a headcollar in a medium sized field and achieved very quick, non stressful results. I have also used his concepts and methods working in a round pen. The environment such as the round pen in this case, I don’t think should be a point of concern. It’s very simple, Monty communicates with horses in their language. The horses understand this and as a result have low heart rates as the trials proved. I can understand though how some trainers/people will find this hard to accept, maybe largely as they find it difficult to justify and accept their own actions from the past, but this is surely a separate issue. Gill Bradley (holder of the Monty Roberts Preliminary Certificate of Horsemanship 2009)

  • July 26, 2012 at 11:25 pm

    I would also like to add that when doing join up in a large open space such as a field, my experience is that horses choose to create a natural circle around you if you are skilled enough with your communication. This could be to do with the position of their eyes too? But generally circles are more appealing to their nature than straight lines. One could argue that domesticating horses in itself is cruel fullstop. Not something that I think, but never-the-less a valid point of view. While no WILD animal is likely to wish for a predator on its back, the fact is that a GOOD domesticated life whereby the horses needs are met, ie.,food, shelter, water,wormers, foot care, etc. are offered, then riding or working with the horse in return isn’t such a bad deal? Monty tries to achieve this relationship in the kindest way possible, not incorporating violence or ever inflicting pain upon the horse, just SIMPLY through communicating in the horses natural own language. Gill Bradley (MRPCH)

  • August 7, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    I have found the general principles of “join-up” to be most benificial in communicating and training horses, whether they are untouched/wild types or older horses for retraining – to fill in the gaps in their education and help them “like” humans. It is far preferable to the still well used methods of straight away leg rope them, drop them, tie them to the big post and scare them making them pull back and injure themselves..(say stupid/dumb horse on the way) and throw the gear on them and buck them out… still seen far to often in New Zealand and no doubt other places…

  • May 7, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    I have read Monty Roberts works and attended his clinics.
    Yes, I practice his methods as do many of the horse people I know.
    We all have well adjusted and happy horses.

    I think that there are some people who find it difficult to accept others success, particularly if they too have an interest in that field and perhaps do not feel as confident about their knowledge and ability.

    What I take from Monty Roberts work is primarily violence of any kind does not work.
    I take this philosophy with me when I work with my horses or dogs.
    I bring it into the classrooms that I teach in and in the counselling work I do with families.
    By violence I mean any behaviour that has a negative impact on the psychological, emotional and social well being of another.

    If there were more people who thought as Monty does the world would certainly be a kinder place for all its inhabitants.

  • October 11, 2014 at 3:26 am

    Clearly these scientists do not understand or have not appied significant knowledge about equine behaviour to there study. It contains many flaws.
    1. A romote control can does not in any way mimic a trainer; the noise of the car is aggressive and if used to chase a horse, a horse will use a flight response and a remote control car is allot more stressfull am emotionally damaging then a person.
    2. I have witnessed Monty Roberts technquies and whatched him in his clinics on many occations and he is not aggressive nor apply aggressive body language and he does not chase the horse around the pen in an aggressive manor.
    3. There is much evidence that is peer reviewed against your theory.
    4. You have not done your research or had any experiece of horse behaviour because you would have understood the signs and body launguage of the horse in order to interperate your data.

    • August 11, 2015 at 2:56 am

      Monty himself states that his opened claw handshape represents a predator to the horse, and that’s why the horse runs away. Not fear-based?

      And just because horses aren’t AS stressed by his methods as whatever they’re using to compare, doesn’t mean the horses and their learning process don’t suffer. There are lots of trainers doing things that are as far advanced from him, as he is from the Old West “blindfold, hobble, saddle, mount up and buck them out” action.

      • October 1, 2015 at 8:22 pm

        I do not particularly agree with the marketing Monty Roberts does about his work. I find it over-inflated and somehow covered with a layer of mysticism. His way of training horses are not news in many part of the world. My Grandpa would train horses in a very similar way. Having said all that, I prefer this method (or any similar method, see Clinton ANderson, for example) to other methods involving physical coercion, beating the animal, strangling it to a post until he “submits” to pain. I personally know a horse “trainer”, who would leave a problem horse in its stable for 4 or 5 days without water, so he can get in, take it out and water them, so after 2 or 3 weeks the horse associates being taken out with drinking. HE was once trampled by horse who rushed to the water fountain immediately as the stall door was open, but unfortunately didnt learn his lesson. Roberts method is still a way to submit an animal, but at least it is done in a much more gentle manner than traditional “cowboy” method I still see used a lot.

  • October 12, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    Everybody wants the most “natural” and non-violent training method possible. How much more natural can you possibly get than to mimic the methods the alpha female of any naturally occurring equine herd by employing the exact same action/consequence disciplinary techniques…? It is generally agreed these days that this is the best way to train horses as it is exactly how their own
    instincts dictate they behave towards EACH OTHER when in a wild herd situation.
    In fact, with the human-adopted form of this training method, the horse is actually in luck – if he were in his herd and receiving the same disciplining/training, the alpha female usually does far worse than flap a bit of rope around, wave her arms and shout “Rarrrr”… It is perfectly normal to observe chasing, biting and even particularly violent kicking in order to REALLY scare the particular horse out of the pack until he is ready to once again accept her authority and comply with her ‘rules’. It is how they survive and it is all they know.
    So Monty took the basic principles of this method, stripped away the unnecessary violent aspects of it and found it still works even when a human implements it. He also found he gained the animal’s trust much more readily as, in performing this “join-up”, the horse is essentially accepting the human as a replacement of the dominant alpha female, out of choice. HE IS CHOOSING THE HUMAN AS HIS PROTECTOR. As mentioned in a comment above, it works no matter how large the area is in which it is performed. This is because the lone horse is not fleeing a predator in this instance, but instead is being forced out of a group he WANTS to be a part of – by the leader of the group – until he agrees to play by the rules. It is non-contact, non-agressive and non-confrontational (at least when Monty does it!)
    All the BS about body language I think has always been a marketing ploy on Monty’s part. It’s not a body language that is tailored specifically for horses, it simply utilises careful body language and positioning to reinforce its point and is universally understood by ALL mammals, not just horses. He even says in his book he has also used it successfully on other species by varying the degree of sensitivity in which it is applied.
    We cannot go out of our way to domesticated a horse or ANY animal for that matter, in any way, without imparting some degree of fear somewhere along the line – even unintentionally.
    How are we expected to approach a foal for the first time without it being fearful of us? It cannot and does not happen. Why is nobody monitoring heart rates at THIS point in the process?! They are instinctually programmed to be apprehensive of animals they are not familiar with. End of story. It all comes down to desensitisation and this is what Monty is a huge advocate of. They do not start out life as fearless, trusting individuals – they become less fearful every time they engage in some form of contact which results in a positive experience. They live and survive on fear, they are a flight animal for Christ’s sake! The only reason they can comfortably and willingly reside within a given situation is through their own or our artificial desensitisation of them into some form of domestication.
    You don’t want to impart fear? Then I suggest you leave them well alone to begin with and don’t bother with equestrianism in the first place as it is entirely impossible. Domesticating and training a horse to be ridden is the most unnatural thing you could possibly do no matter which training method you employ…

  • October 23, 2014 at 10:07 am

    I say, Science is right till proven wrong, and it is Always proven wrong. i love Monty and His methods. But i also keep an opened mind on things. hey if his methods didn’t work for you and your horse than move on and try something new. what i don’t understand is why try to bring someone down and bash them to prove them wrong just because it did not work with you? it always starts with the human being honest with themselves. the horse is the mirror and is only trying to understand you. But when “ego” gets in the way well its always easier blaming the horse or someone else rather than looking at yourself first.

  • May 14, 2015 at 10:20 am

    I work with horses that have been harmed in some way or other at human hands, one of the things that they have to learn when entering a herd is to listen to the leader of the herd. Horses use join up themselves just as Monty learnt from the horses. Anyone want to see a horse join up with another horse with the same principles that Monty teaches I have it on video. Only different between a Monty join up and a real horse herd join up is the whole herd will attack the newbie and they do get hurt and unlike Monty’s several minutes in a round pen, natural horse join up in a herd between horses takes days.

  • April 27, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    Please see the Science Trial published in the respected Anthrozoos Journal authored by Veronica Fowler*, Mark Kennedy† and David Marlin‡
    *Institute for Animal Health, Guildford, UK
    †Department of Life Sciences, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge,
    ‡Department of Physiology, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater,
    ABSTRACT This study describes a comparison of the efficacy of the Monty
    Roberts horsemanship technique (MRT) in comparison with a UK conventional
    training technique (CT) for the initial training of horses.


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