(Reprinted from the Sunday Times of London)
February 13 2000 by – Nicholas Hellen, Media Editor
HE is known as the real horse whisperer, the cowboy who inspired the gentle hero in Robert Redford’s film – but now Monty Roberts is being denounced as a fantasist.
The publishers of his autobiography, The Man Who Listens to Horses, are under pressure to withdraw his account of his remarkable gift after the best-selling book was criticised as a “made-up” story.
Joyce Renebome, who spent much of her childhood with him on his father’s ranch in Salinas, California, is lobbying Random House, the publisher, to withdraw his book or reissue it as fiction. Although she is his aunt, she is, at 65, just six months older than him.
This weekend she said she was performing a public service with her campaign, which has been taken up both by a horse owner upset by his treatment of their animal and Citizens for Justice, a lobbying group.
In the book Roberts claims he suffered regular beatings at the hands of his late father, Marvin – once with a 4ft chain. He also described a childhood incident in which he saw his father, then a policeman, disarm a man wielding a knife in a bar fight. The eight-year-old boy’s pride turned to horror when he saw his father beat the man, then haul him to the police station, where he died. He decided to escape from his father.
Renebome says she is no longer prepared to put up with the “smearing” of the memory of Roberts’s father. She was driven to demand withdrawal of his book because her counterblast, a privately published book titled Horse Whispers and Lies, had failed to deter him.
“Monty depicts his father as cruel to him and to horses,” she said. “It was so false and has been repeated by so many people that it has evoked strong passions in Salinas.
“His brother, Larry, told me Monty rang him to ask him what it would take for me and other critics to back off. Larry said, ‘Just tell the truth.’ “
Larry has already questioned Roberts’s account of his “close friendship” with James Dean, star of the film East of Eden, which was made in Salinas and released in 1955. He claimed that he was the first person to be called by Dean’s mechanic with the news of the actor’s death in a car crash and said: “It was a freezing experience.”
According to Larry, the story is totally untrue: “Monty had a small part as an extra in East of Eden but there were 300 or 400 Salinas kids in that movie. I guess he met him, but there was no friendship.”
In his book, Roberts said he learned his techniques by studying the herds of horses that ran wild in the Nevada desert. As a teenager, he worked out the secret signals they used to communicate with each other and realised he could tame horses with a gentle touch, rather than the brutal technique of breaking their spirit.
He wrote: “By copying the horse’s language with my body, I discovered that eventually any horse would want to be with me of its own choice.” He evolved a horse language, Equus, and could communicate with the animals through 170 signals.
Roberts now runs a ranch which employs “horse whispering”, but it has come under attack from a disgruntled client, who claims she was left partly disabled when her mustang trampled her shortly after it returned from several months’ treatment at Roberts’s ranch and promises of having been totally reconditioned.
“I read the book and believed it all – that is why I entrusted our horse to him,” she said.
Her fiance said: “I see the pain and suffering caused to her and I am going to be on his back for the rest of his life.”
Even Roberts’s reputation as the real inspiration for Redford’s 1998 film The Horse Whisperer is in question. Nicholas Evans, who wrote the screenplay and the novel on which it was based, said yesterday: “Contrary to what Roberts has claimed, he was not the model for the main character in my book. There were several astonishing horsemen who I met in America who were in one way or another the model.
“I’ve never seen Monty Roberts working with a horse, never been to one of his clinics, although he has claimed that I have. He seems to have some difficulty in distinguishing fact from fiction.”
But he said that Roberts’s rise to stardom had done some good: “The interest that has been generated in working in a gentler way with horses has been of great benefit to horses all over the world.”