Avoid stress on the animal. Avoid stress on yourself. Sounds like a good plan. That's the obvious result of Monty Roberts' method of "starting," instead of breaking horses in the traditional manner. Roberts is author of the popular book, "The Man Who Listens To Horses."
Less obvious is the trust built between the horse and trainer - trust that allows the horse to help its owner because it wants to, not because it's forced into doing so.
A similar trust can be created between cattle and their handlers, Roberts says. And, it's not hard to attain once you're in the right frame of mind.
"I've spent more time studying the psychology of the flight animal than anyone I'm aware of," Roberts says. "It is somewhat different than the work of Colorado State's Temple Grandin. My work slides into a gray area that overlaps hers and others in our respective industries."
He adds that the work Grandin has accomplished, as well as that of other handling experts, has laid substantial groundwork for the receptiveness of the message he presents.
Flight Animals Roberts says cattle, as well as sheep, horses and deer, are the epitome of flight animals. In addition to his lifetime with horses and time spent with cattle, he's spent more than 25 years observing wild and domesticated deer in England, Scotland and New Zealand. It's given him insight about how the flight mechanism works.
This flight response, or the desire to run from unpleasant stimuli, sets these animals apart from others. To a certain degree, this flight also can cost them their lives when they get ratcheted up because of trauma, such as getting caught in a fence, when the animal runs.
"Remember," Roberts says, "a flight animal has only two goals - to reproduce and to survive."
Though it seldom occurs with horses or cattle, deer can actually keel over dead from being literally scared to death because handlers don't know or understand their communication system.
"Because of this, whether deer, cattle or horses, it's important to respect the communication system of the flight animal," Roberts says. "Learn to understand their movements, their flight zones and their walking patterns." (See Handling Signals, page 48).
Temple Grandin, animal science professor at Colorado State University says Roberts moves similarly to other trainers.
"When working with horses in a round pen, Roberts stays just behind the horses' point of balance," Grandin says. "When he wants the horse to turn, he moves in front of the point of balance.
"Basically, all the trainers before and including Roberts, do one thing that's similar and that's use the flight zone and point of balance," Grandin says. "Roberts is able to demystify how the animal communicates and responds. This hasn't always been done in the past."
Roberts recommends we "de-complicate" our human thought process and try to "think" as much like flight animals as possible when handling them. Try to understand their needs of light, quietness and slow movement.
The Human Side His understanding of the need for greater efficiency in handling cattle motivates Roberts to encourage others to observe how they truly handle cattle. He respects the way animals have been moved in the past and the need to do it quickly. It's the "get 'em in the lot and run 'em on in" work style that Roberts says can effectively be changed.
He admits handling experts, including himself, haven't made changes in practice as palatable as they could have.
"We've often suggested handlers of any species manage animals differently," Roberts says. "However, we've met resistance because we've just said 'you should do it this way.' We've not demonstrated how much easier and more efficient it is to move animals using their own natural tendencies to get the job done. For those of us in positions to do so, it's in the industry's best interest if we present our recommendations in the right manner.
"It's not a case of my seeing something as the better way. It's a case of me or some other expert helping the owner or manager make up his own mind to incorporate different practices because it benefits him and his operation," he says.
Roberts' recommendations don't include a complete overhaul of most operations. In fact, he freely admits there are times when working cattle with horses is highly preferable to using mechanical means - primarily in range situations and moving cattle from pen to pen. But, he cautions against using horses and hot shots to load cattle. He prefers a good mechanical setup with solid sides, much like those designed by Grandin.
"Every human in the chain must be responsible," he says. "We have to develop methods to communicate to everyone from birth to slaughter that trauma of any kind creates loss in the animal. And, when an animal is hurt or killed, it should hit in the pocketbook."
Recommendations So, what does the world's most famous animal handler recommend when it comes to handling cattle? Roberts has a few suggestions.
* Animal comfort - "The absence of pain is exceedingly important - that should be our number one priority."
* Lighting - "The presence of light is critical too, as is a feeling of safety. Light has a lot to do with this. It can be artificial light, but natural light is far more superior. The flight animal that has no feeling of light, or of a space to go to, is truly a traumatized animal."
* Noise - "Get rid of as much unnecessary noise as possible. Try not to have metal gates slamming against others. Use rubber stops to minimize the sounds."
* Movement - "Quick movement causes stress, too. Make your moves deliberate and visible so animals can see you."
Transportation "It wasn't that long ago that we slapped wooden sideboards on a pickup and moved cattle up and down the road a few at a time," Roberts says. "In my estimation, they rode much more comfortably then than they do now, if for no other reason than the ride was much quieter than the trailers we use today.
"For the money we spend on transportation, we could spend a little more and make the cattle more comfortable from Point A to Point B, even if it is just from the feedlot to the packing plant."
Recommendations aren't just for the animal. They include pocketbook reasoning. To avoid costly bruising, Roberts suggests rubber bump plates where cattle typically rub as well as rubber stops where gates slide shut to keep noise down. As for the trailer floors, rubber floor mats would make for easier standing and lower the noise level as cattle load.
"If we could invest just a little more per head on transportation, I believe it would provide a substantial payoff in the long run," he says. "We'd have fewer bruises and fewer stressed cattle."
Judgment Day "Realize the horse will judge you for what you do," Roberts says. "So will other flight animals. If you make the necessary tasks more natural for them, they're more likely to go along with the need at hand. And, they'll do it without trauma.
"For 8,000 years, humans have dealt with horses (and other animals) on the basis of 'you do what I tell you or I'll hurt you,' " he says. "That's wrong. The flight animal has never had an agenda to hurt anyone. And not one of us was born with the right to say, 'you must or I'll hurt you,' toward animals or humans for that matter."
Roberts' methods work. Though he provides step-by-step instructions in his book, the proof is impressive when one sees him take a wild horse and in a few minutes have it completely in voluntary control. The horse didn't kick. It didn't buck. It and Robertsactually developed a form of communication. And the horse did it because he wanted to.
Cattle will move in the same manner by incorporating Roberts' recommendations and those of Grandin and other handling experts. More people are doing so. Grandin says requests for her training sessions are up considerably compared to years past.l
Born in Salinas, CA, during the Great Depression, Monty Roberts spent his entire life with or on horses. Ironically, at times his upbringing sometimes mirrored that of the characters in John Steinbeck's, "The Grapes of Wrath," set in the same region.
His rearing consisted of hard work, economic challenges, a fearsome father and opportunities many others of the time didn't enjoy.
As a youngster, Roberts seized the chance to go to the high desert of Nevada to round up mustangs. It was here where he began to learn his way of "whispering" to horses. He was winning horse shows as early as age four and still continues.
He witnessed horses being broke in as many ways as there are horses and soon realized there must be a better way. As he developed his communication system with horses, he resolved there was no need for the rough methods he'd witnessed. This resolve is still with him today and is evident in Roberts' presentations, his touring appearances and even in his conversations. One can quickly tell there is a great "initiative" that motivates him, that causes him never to stop showing how to gain a horse's loyalty. To hear him tell it, he has no choice but to continue.
His work goes on, not just with horses but wildlife and cattle as well. He credits other "whisperers" who've gone before him and handling experts of today for breaking ground.
"There was a time when people weren't ready to understand a gentler way," Roberts says. "Now they are."