THE AMERICAS: Washington hears horse whisperer talk about trust
By Deborah McGregor
Jun 24, 2002 (Financial Times, FT.com site)
It is not every day that a cowboy gets invited to the US Central Intelligence Agency.
Yet, during a recent visit to Washington, Monty Roberts, the famous American horse trainer whose gentle methods inspired the novel and movie The Horse Whisperer, made a quiet and unpublicized stop at CIA headquarters.
Intelligence officials wanted to hear more about his ideas – based on many years of observing animals and people – relating to body language and how to tell when someone is lying.
Besides visiting the CIA, Mr. Roberts lectured a group of Washington business and government executives on the art of improving communication based on his experiences with wild mustangs.
He was even invited to share his ideas with a senior White House deputy to Karl Rove, the president’s political guru, who wanted to hear more about fostering confidence and loyalty – not that anyone in the White House needs such tutoring, of course.
“There were some folks over at the CIA who were saying what the hell are we doing, getting some cowboy in here to talk to us?” Mr. Roberts says, chuckling. (Neither the CIA nor the White House returned telephone calls – apparently not having fully absorbed his message about the value of openness.)
For the 67-year-old cowboy, it is just the latest in a remarkable string of events that have left him shaking his head in wonder at the power of simple ideas.
With his trademark leather jacket and red neckerchief, the soft-spoken Mr. Roberts seems an unlikely adviser to a government waging a war on terror. Yet, at a time when trust is a rare commodity – in post-September 11 Washington or post-Enron Wall Street – his trust-based training techniques are finding fresh resonance.
Quite simply, he believes that all living things – whether horses, bureaucrats or corporate executives – thrive in a co-operative environment and falter in a climate of fear and coercion.
In truth, his work is not all that far afield from the world of spies and espionage. After all, he cracked the code on the silent language of horses and has spent a lifetime winning converts to his commonsense ways.
Nor is Mr. Roberts troubled by skeptics. They have often greeted him along the unusual path from his teenage years spent observing wild horses on the American plains to Buckingham Palace, where Queen Elizabeth II is one of his biggest fans.
He has performed his horse-gentling techniques before hundreds of thousands of people around the world and is the author of three best-sellers, including his 1996 autobiography The Man Who Listens to Horses. It has sold more than 4.5m copies.
He has also worked with teachers and social workers. He and his wife Pat, besides having three biological children, have raised 47 foster children. His operation is non-profit and he donates large amounts to local charities in the communities he visits.
The idea that animals – and people – want to please but are often confused by mixed messages or made resentful by harsh treatment has gained Mr. Roberts considerable fame in business circles. He has hosted dozens of corporations at his Flag Is Up Farm in California.
Bob Foxworthy, a consultant who was a co-presenter with Mr. Roberts at one Washington forum, suggests the bureaucratic infighting and withholding of information that have recently landed the FBI and CIA in the headlines are classic examples of the type of behavior that costs governments and businesses dearly – and reversing that behavior can have immediate positive effects on the bottom line.
“Leaders who foster trust within their organizations create conditions where people will choose to do their best work,” says Mr. Foxworthy. “The results are often quite stunning.”
“I rely on 120,000 independent contractors for my sales force,” says one manager who attended the Washington session and took copious notes. “It can be pretty hard to motivate people.”
At a recent demonstration in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Mr. Roberts gave a sampling of his methods.
Working in a round mesh pen, he used hand signals and body language to “speak” to four different horses, winning their trust and causing them to “join up” with him. That meant a nuzzle in the back to signal their acceptance.
Each horse presented a unique challenge. One mare habitually refused to get on a horse trailer; it would take up to eight people – pushing and pulling – to load it. “So you like to work, do you?” Mr Roberts smiled benignly. He proceeded to back the horse up, repeatedly, letting it advance toward a waiting trailer only a few steps at a time.
After a few minutes, the mare was begging to go forward to the trailer. Mr. Roberts would not let her. He backed her up. Then two steps forward. Several back. Two more forward. Finally, he relaxed the lead shank and she followed him, gratefully, on to the trailer. When the audience laughed and applauded, the mare looked over, surprised, as if to say: “Well, if that’s what you wanted, why didn’t someone just say so?”
Washington power-brokers aside, Mr. Roberts reserves his highest praise for his four-legged friends. “I’ve been traveling all over the world,” he says enthusiastically, “and I’ve met some of the most wonderful horses.”