Monty Roberts: Horse Whispers & Lies Book Review

The Book That Trumps Monty Roberts’ Own

John Dolan

“Horse Whispers & Lies” answers the question it has emblazoned across its cover – Did Monty Roberts Trade Truth for Glory? – with a resounding ‘Yes’!

It details Monty Roberts’ life and times in his early years, the years in which he says he was viciously abused by his father, a man he describes as a racist and a murderer as well as an abuser of horses. The new book, written by Debra Ann Ristau and Joyce Renebome, Monty Roberts’ cousin and aunt respectively, successfully counters, point by point, tales told by Monty Roberts himself in his own best-seller “The Man Who Listens To Horses”.

“Horse Whispers and Lies” is remarkable for the wealth of historical research and interviews with people who knew and loved the Roberts during Monty’s childhood. If you can believe what each and every person quoted in the book states, then Monty Roberts’ parents were truly larger than life. They appear as extraordinary role models for all their horse riding students, friends and associates. They taught their students self-esteem and moral values that these children carried into adulthood and then passed on to their own children. Monty Roberts’ parents were so revered, in fact, that the Red Pony Stall Exhibit at the John Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California has been recently dedicated in their honor.

So the question comes, how is it that Monty Roberts is the only person not to have been so positively affected by Marvin and Marguerite Roberts? It is indeed an interesting question and I’m not sure that Monty’s own brother, Larry, who is heavily quoted in the book even knows the answer.

Although Larry did not contribute in the writing of the book, he may as well have, because his quotes are some of the most powerful in their indictment of Monty’s tall tales and forgotten memories. It is Larry who sets the record straight on important points from Monty’s imaginary trip to Nevada where Monty says he learned the behavior of wild mustangs, to an imaginary boxcar that hauled Monty and his best horses to shows around the country to imaginary parental abuses, to the imaginary abuse of horses by his father to myriad other issues.

The authors even cast doubt on Monty’s story of how he came to own his state-of-the-art training facility Flag Is Up Farms in Solvang, California. What is especially remarkable, though, is reading the words of Marvin E. Roberts in his 1957 book “Horse and Horseman Training” and seeing how Monty’s own training techniques merely parrot what his father had previously established: fair and safe methods using line work in a round pen for starters. Perhaps Monty Roberts thought no one would ever drag out a old copy of his father’s book to compare notes.

Monty Roberts is painted as a spoiled child who was never happy enough with all the sacrifices his parents made for him. He is painted as a temperamental and greedy soul whose own actions caused death to one of his own horses and an injury to another¹s’ horse. And lastly he is painted as a man with an enormously unnatural ego. There is a passage at the end of the book, a letter to Monty from another cousin of his named Cheri, it does answer the question of “Why” Monty Roberts would choose lies over truth, it is because his parents were larger than life, people whose talents Monty knew he could never exceed. And yet he so much wanted to do to just that. So he tore them down to build himself up to be larger than life as well.

But as much as the book is an indictment of Monty Roberts, it is also a glorification of two remarkable people, Marvin and Marguerite Roberts, his parents, and a mini-history of Salinas, California in the forties and fifties during which time his parents ran a horseback riding school on the rodeo grounds there. The parents’ history itself spans fifty years, however, and the book is chock full of interesting first hand accounts by relatives, friends, students and business associates.

I have heard charges by Monty Roberts’ supporters that the authors of “Horse Whispers and Lies” are ‘greedy’ or that they are trying to ‘cash in on Monty Roberts’ fame and want to make a killing by selling their book.’ But, isn’t that precisely what Monty Roberts himself has done in defaming his parents and exaggerating or simply making up stories in order to sell his own ‘non-fiction’ book (not to mention videos, caps, tee-shirts, posters, live demonstrations, etc.)? There are some people who insist that the ends always justifies the means. Others cannot fathom such a corruption of truth and honesty. Monty Roberts has claimed that his ends – the humane treatment of horses – is all that really matters. Whatever happened to: “Honor thy mother and thy father” and “Thou shalt not lie”? Exaggeration, lying, omissions and defamation: what an extraordinary means to an end! And money, while being a formidable motivator to many, is not the sole motivator to all.

I previously read “The Man Who Listens To Horses” and found it an interesting, even, exciting at times treatise but it is clearly a fiction as is the man himself. So, for all those people who read and loved “The Man Who Listens To Horses”, I urge them to read “Horse Whispers and Lies”. Because, as Ristau and Renebome so eloquently put it, ‘truth matters’.

John Dolan is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles and Washington DC.