Monty Roberts: Horse Whispers & Lies Excerpts

Debra Ann Ristau & Joyce Renebome


It seemed like any other day. There was no magical sign or prophetic omen to indicate her life was soon going to change forever. Through towering eucalyptus and slatted miniblinds, the late afternoon sun filtered across the heavy oak desk.

Outside, the resonant bellow of a bull could be heard over the chattering wrens. Joyce’s home-based office was perfect for her. A real estate broker who also raised purebred bulls with her husband, Pete, Joyce had little spare time, and she wasn’t about to spend it commuting. Joyce would be sixty-two on her next birthday. She rarely took time off from work. Work keeps me young, she told herself often. She was lucky to be blessed with good health, a stimulating career, Pete, and the cattle they loved.

Seems like I’m working harder as I get older. Maybe I should think about retiring. A smile came to her lips. No, not yet. There’s always a challenge . . . always something new, she thought as the telephone rang.

“Hello, Joyce speaking,” she answered in her customary manner, closing the open file on the computer to concentrate on the caller.

“Hi, Mom, I’ve got the video recorder set to tape Monty tonight. Eight o’clock, right?” It was her oldest daughter, forty-two-year-old Debra. “Yes. That’s when the show starts. Cheri gets it an hour earlier in Idaho. She’s going to tape it too.”

“Good,” said Debra, adding, “I’m so excited, Mom. It’s hard to believe Monty wrote a book and we didn’t know about it until now! Imagine—a bestseller! I can’t wait to read it!” “I was thinking the same thing,” Joyce responded. “I’ll call him tomorrow and try to get copies for us,” she added before hanging up. Joyce let her eyes drift for a moment to a photo of her sister’s son, Monty, among those displayed on the wall in her office. I miss Marguerite, she thought. If Marguerite were alive, she’d have been the first to call and tell me about Monty. Why didn’t Monty tell us? The thought was puzzling, but not worth a lot of mental energy. She had work to do. Where does the time go?


The Man Who Listens to Horses: It was 1939, and I was four years old . . . . (p.41) I cantered the gelding over the sandpit and took a dive off the right-hand side. The sporadic outbreak of applause was no doubt led by my father. . . . I had literally tumbled into the movie business, and over subsequent years I would appear in a hundred or so films. (p.43)

I doubled for Roddy McDowall many times. . . . (p.43) I was Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet . . . . I was Mickey Rooney, Charlton Heston, and Tab Hunter . . . . my father made all the decisions in dealing with the studios. He negotiated and signed the contracts. (p.44)

In the American book he said it started in 1939; he said 1940 in the British book. He would have been either four or five. Monty tells of being asked, and later directed, to fall off a horse. In time, he claims to have appeared in a hundred or so films, including Thunderhead, National Velvet, and My Friend Flicka. Monty claims he doubled for the likes of Mickey Rooney, Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, and Tab Hunter.

If his account were true, it would mean that Monty, then between the ages of four and perhaps six, was expected to double for much older actors. Mickey Rooney was born September 23, 1920, fifteen years before Monty. Heston’s birthday on October 4, 1923, makes him twelve years older. McDowall was born on September 17, 1928, six and one-half years ahead of Monty. Hunter, the closest to Monty’s age, made his acting debut in 1952, when Monty was seventeen. It’s hard to imagine that so young a boy could be used to portray the older actors.

“When I heard that Monty claimed to be a stand-in for Elizabeth Taylor, I was certainly surprised. Marguerite would have been in seventh heaven and would have been bragging to everyone about it. She would have been so proud.”

Proud indeed, but National Velvet was only one movie. Monty said in an interview with Eric Brazil of the San Francisco Examiner that he worked on about thirty films, stunt riding for child stars in the early 1940s. Brazil’s article read: “I saw a camera, but I hardly knew it was a movie,” he [Monty] said of his work on National Velvet. “I remember my dad saying, ‘We’re going to Mendocino County, and you’re going to make the horse go over some jumps in a field.’ We didn’t know Elizabeth Taylor. Who had heard of her then? Nobody called the paper to say that Monty Roberts went to Mendocino County and jumped a horse over a fence.”4 According to Mendocino historian Bruce Levene, no part of National Velvet was filmed near Mendocino. In Liz, An Intimate Biography of Elizabeth Taylor, C. David Heymann quotes Mickey Rooney, then twenty-three, Elizabeth’s costar in the 1944 film:

“Whenever they shot the jump scenes, Elizabeth sat on the sidelines. Billy Cartlidge, a stuntman with long hair who looked like Elizabeth, rode the steeplechase. It was he—and not she—who was thrown and whose back was injured.”

“I can’t imagine how Monty thinks he can convince people he was a stunt double. I know he never did that, because I was there. It’s not like his life was a big secret. Besides that, Monty never liked to get hurt. He didn’t like to ride steers, and he darn sure didn’t want to ride a horse that might hurt him. “The only stunt riders I know of in our family are my daughter, Marguerite [Martins Happy], her husband Clifford [Happy], and their two boys, Sean and Ryan. They’ve been in countless films and television shows. “The walls of our house and theirs are lined with their photographs next to the stars they’ve doubled for. With all the pictures of my sister’s boys, I would think that someone, somewhere, would have a picture of Monty in this capacity. One where it is clearly visible who the [stunt] rider is! “But we sure don’t know of any [photos] and we never even heard about him being a stunt rider until his book came out. He never mentioned it when our kids got into that line of work, though we spoke often.”

“Marguerite confided in me about everything, and I in her. She was always so proud of her boys and everything they did. I know Monty never went to Hollywood and never did any stunts for the movies. Marguerite would have had it put in the paper; at the very least, she would have bragged about it to her friends. It’s what she did.”

Monty says his father exploited him for publicity. If that were true, why would Marvin keep this exciting news about Monty being a stunt double a secret from every single person that he knew?

HORSE WHISPERS & LIES — pp. 127-129

The Man Who Listens to Horses: Later that same summer [1949] I witnessed a fight between two stallions. . . . A bachelor clashed with the alpha male of a family group . . . . [They] reared and pawed each other with their hooves, plunged and kicked and bit. It continued for five or six hours . . . . [The loser] finally left and did not return. . . . A vanquished male will often commit a kind of suicide, deliberately seeking the areas where the cats are, lmost offering himself. (pp.25,26)

There are few people in the world who can legitimately claim a career of wild horse observation. Robert Vavra is one. He is not only universally recognized as the world’s premier photographer of equines, but an expert in horse behavior. He is the author of more than thirty books published in eight languages.

Vavra’s classic study of equine behavior in words and pictures, Such is the Real Nature of Horses, was featured in Life magazine, has been published in six languages and has been in print for almost twenty years. This singular study of how equines relate to one another in the wild, backed up by photographs, has been praised by the world’s leading animal behaviorists, including Dr. Jane Goodall, Dr. George B. Schaller, and Dr. Ian Douglas-Hamilton. When Robert Redford was ready to film the dream sequence of The Horse Whisperer, he personally asked Vavra for advice, not only artistic advice, but advice on horse behavior. Also, since it was a Vavra horse image that appeared on the cover of Nicholas Evans’ novel, Redford said he wanted to “loop it” by having Vavra also create an image for the movie posters, print ads, and billboards.

Like Monty, Vavra is in his sixties. For over twenty years he has studied primitive equine behavior in Spain, France, Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania. When asked to describe the many serious horse battles that he has witnessed over the years in the wild, Vavra commented:

“During my years of photographing and observing serious horse battles in the wild—excluding young bachelor intermittent skirmishes—I can’t recall an intense combat between mature stallions that lasted over two-and-one-half minutes.

“If they are really engaged in uninterrupted serious rearing-biting combat, horses simply don’t have the stamina to go at it much longer than that. Regarding your question of whether a wounded horse would commit a kind of suicide by seeking out predators, offering himself to them: even a herbivore that had all of its limbs bitten off would try to squirm away from a predator’s scent. “If you would like another opinion on this, I can phone Dr. Claudia Feh in France, who has intently, and without pause, studied equines for more than twenty years. She is now involved in reintroducing Prizwalskis back into Mongolia, partly sponsored by the National Geographic Society to whom she, as an equine behaviorist, was recommended by Dr. [George] Schaller.

“[Dr. Feh] has literally seen hundreds of serious horse battles in the Camargue and other places where she has done her research. Her credentials are impeccable.”

“You ask about all of the serious fights that I have seen among wild horses during the past twenty years, which I always tried to time with a stopwatch. The very longest one, timed with a stopwatch, lasted exactly four minutes. And horses, wild or otherwise, unwounded or seriously wounded, do not seek predators, an act that would be completely contrary to their nature.”

Whether wild stallions fight for three or four minutes or five or six hours may seem relatively immaterial. Whether Monty Roberts knows how long they fight is of great importance. If Monty’s dissertation regarding the behavior of wild stallions is completely contrary to that of the world’s leading experts, should Monty’s other statements about wild horse behavior be taken seriously? Should he be considered credible? Or is Monty an example of an individual with a vivid imagination and a large need for glory?

HORSE WHISPERS & LIES — pp. 136-138

The Man Who Listens to Horses: [At my father’s funeral] I will not forget the triggers that set [my father] off—when I forgot one of his orders, or defied him. . . . [I’d receive] another bloodied skull, another trip to Dr. Murphy. (p.175) I knew the triggers that led to violence. I, too, have felt that anger rise in me, felt the urge to strike out at someone in my family. But I put my grip on that anger. I swore that this man in the box would be the last link in the chain of violence and anger aimed as much at humans as at horses. (p.175)

Throughout his book, Monty paints his father as a man prone to anger. It would seem reasonable that such a man could not forever hide this tendency from the people who were around him on a daily basis. The Roberts did not lead a life behind closed doors. Their home and their hearts were open to all. Many people were recipients of their love and generosity over the years. A majority of their students spent much more than a night or two with the family. Others were with them from early morning until late into the night.

With so many people around their house and stable all of the time, surely someone might have, at the very least, suspected that Marvin was prone to anger as Monty says. Someone might have suspected or known that he possessed a trait or two of those described by Monty. Someone might have suspected or known that he could be cruel or abusive to horses as Monty claims. Surely not all of these people would be wanting to hide such a terrible thing as Monty describes. After nearly three years of searching for someone to confirm Monty’s allegations against his father, no credible source has been found.

By now, the question may come unbidden: Could Marvin have hidden these traits from his relatives, his best friends, and the others who were around him all the time? Could he have been thoughtful, caring, generous, and loving to everyone but his oldest son, Monty? If so, then Marguerite would also be guilty of hiding her true nature.

Behind her obstreperous alpha female personality and take-charge attitude, did there lurk a meek, subservient woman, whose spirit was subjugated to that of her husband? Did she allow Marvin to beat their child and treat their horses in a cruel manner? Are these reasonable possibilities? A search by family members, friends, several investigative reporters, and a team of attorneys to find a truth based in reality about any anger, abuse, or cruelty in the Roberts family brought a yield of only one name—Monty Roberts.

If there is any link between the Roberts family and violence or anger expressed toward horses or humans—it began with Monty Roberts, not the father on whom he tries to lay the blame.

HORSE WHISPERS & LIES — pp. 185-189

Monty tirelessly purports his desire to end cycles of violence. He sells a lesson in nonverbal communication to convey messages of kindness and ease fear. It may seem almost mystical. Abused humans find comfort in charismatic words that offer hope.

Those words drip like honey as he paints an eloquent vision of an idyllic world where everyone gets along, violence is gone forever, and relationships can be established in thirty minutes. The concept is brilliantly beautiful. Humans crave it, wanting all to be right with the world as quickly as possible. Monty is embraced by adoring fans around the globe. He convincingly demonstrates the theories and methods he claims, in part, to have discovered while living with wild horses in the Nevada desert.

It’s a marvelous concept. In reality, however, it’s promoted on a carefully cultivated history of imagined experiences and premises. It’s an ingenious scheme.

If this scheme ultimately brings about a societal change for the betterment of humankind and equines, is it wrong? Does anyone care if the reputations of two good and decent people are sacrificed on the altar of greed? Yes. There are people that care deeply. Those family members and former friends who had their hearts ripped out by Monty’s words that cut as surely as Jack the Ripper’s knife cut the flesh of his victims. Those family members and former friends who stood by Monty, believed in him, and cheered for him from the sidelines for sixty years were the first to be carved. He cut none so deep as his deceased parents, his confused brother, and his feisty aunt. The question so often asked is, “Why?” Why did he do it?

Is Monty Roberts really making the world a better place for horses as he claims? Is that his true mission? How long have Equus and Join-Up been part of his repertoire? This is, perhaps, the best time to examine the questions, answers, and patterns of a life that appears to have been built on craftiness and greed. It seems there is a chasm between fiction and nonfiction in literature. Monty Roberts wrote a nonfiction book published by Random House. The book was interesting, but the book was fiction. Those who knew Marvin were upset by Monty’s allegations against his father, but in reality, that was only one of the many fabrications plastered across the pages of his book.

Agents, publishers, and those “in the know” said not to write a book to refute another book. The following is a composite of several conversations that this book’s authors had with editors, publishers, and attorneys. It is included here as a single conversation only to provide a sense of understanding.

“You cannot write a book to refute an already published book.”
“Why not?”
“Because it’s not done.”
“Why not?”
“Because. That sounds more like a magazine article or an exposé.”
“It’s more complicated than that.”
“Then what’s the pitch? Why would anyone want to read it? What’s the story?”
“It’s complicated. It’s a story of two people who dedicated their lives to horses and humans.”
“That’s not good enough. Nobody will publish that. You’re wasting your time.”
“It’s a story about life. It’s a story about love of humanity. It’s a story about greed. Most of all, it’s a story about relationships.”
“Yes, relationships.”
“Between humans and between humans and horses.”
“Isn’t that what Monty is trying to sell?”
“Yes, but he is selling the Cliff Notes version of relationships. He is selling a relationship that takes thirty minutes to establish. Many people believe that relationship is supposed to last a lifetime.”
“Does his system work?”
“It appears to. But there are men who can charm a woman right out of her panties. It doesn’t mean they have established a meaningful relationship. In time, she’ll wise up. That’s when the explosion hits.”
“Do you think that same thing will happen with horses? Is that your book’s premise?”
“We don’t know what the long-term effects are on a horse from a thirty-minute love affair with Monty Roberts. He says there are ten thousand or more horses he started this way.” “The guy gets around.”
“The point is not whether or not the relationship can be established with the horse. The point is the importance of meaning in our lives. Where does it come from? Do we derive our reason for being from the accolades received through shallow, thirty-minute relationships and the dollar amount of our bank accounts? Or should we be defined by who we are when all the layers are peeled away and we are willing to bare our most inner selves to those with whom we have established a meaningful relationship?”
“Is this a psychology book? You have no credentials for that. Are you talking about marriage? I’m a bit confused.”
“It’s a book about people—ordinary people and extraordinary people. It’s about relationships—all relationships, not just those between men and women. Humans can and do establish core connections and deep emotional relationships with horses. They bond.”
“Are you telling me that Monty bonds with a horse in thirty minutes?”
“So it appears. We don’t challenge that. We challenge his life history and that of his family. We challenge his true, deep, core, when-no-one-is-looking methods of getting to the top. We challenge his right to publicly, and knowingly, make false, unsubstantiated statements that ruined the valued reputations and good names of his deceased parents.”
“Aren’t there courts for that?”
“It’s reputed that his book has sold more than two million copies around the world. Who is going to tell all those people the truth? Don’t they have a right to know? Isn’t the publishing industry under some obligation to insure that nonfiction literature is somewhat close to the truth?”
“Yes. Most publishers require a signed statement of truth from the author when printing nonfiction. That doesn’t mean the author can’t lie. People lie all the time.”
“Instead of taking him to court, which only a handful of people will ever hear about, three generations of humans who were shocked and outraged by Monty’s lies about his parents united to write a book that tells the real truth about his life and that of his family.”
“It’ll never sell. You’re wasting your time.”
“Maybe we are. Maybe the entire family and all of Monty’s old friends are wasting their time too, but this is something we have to do. We have to do this for Marvin and Marguerite and for everyone who believes that readers of nonfiction deserve the truth.”
“Good luck to you. You’re going to need it. Have you thought that he might file a lawsuit against you?” “Yes, we thought of that. We also thought we should be the ones filing the lawsuit against him. He can and will do whatever he wants. Everything written in this book has been thoroughly documented. There are hundreds of people willing to testify, under oath, as to the validity of the statements made here.”
“Aren’t Monty’s exploits also supposed to be well documented?”
“So he makes people believe, but he cannot document things that never happened.”

HORSE WHISPERS & LIES — pp. 244-246

1972-1976, THE FLAG IS UP
Early in 1972, Monty Roberts was arrested and put in jail. Hastings Harcourt alleged that Monty Roberts breached a fiduciary relationship with him, that he acted with the intent to deceive and defraud, and that he conspired to deceive and defraud. Resulting from the deceit and fraud, Harcourt alleged he had been financially damaged.

The evidence against Monty, which is part of the public record in those proceedings, is overwhelming. In the formal complaint filed in the Superior Court of the State of California, derivatives of the words “deceit and fraud” appear no less than fourteen times.

Though Monty was under a contractual agreement with Harcourt that included a fiduciary relationship, the compliant contends that Monty misrepresented the dollar amount on several business transactions. Actual sums Monty received, acting ostensibly for Harcourt, appeared to have been converted for his own benefit.

The names of numerous horses and dollar amounts are included in the complaint. To his family and friends, Monty said it was a giant misunderstanding. He filed a wrongful prosecution suit against Harcourt for thirty-million-dollars.

For twenty-five years, Monty’s family in Salinas believed that he gained title to the farm in an out-of-court settlement with Harcourt. However, court records, property deeds, and other documents do not support that assumption.

Searching for answers to a twenty-five-year-old question seemed impossible. The trail was cold and carefully covered. Countless hours were spent at the Santa Barbara County courthouse and on the telephone. A bit of information here led to a contact there. Interviews with those connected to Monty during the Harcourt years took on the same general hue. The emerging portrait was dark and ugly. Pieced together bit by bit, the accumulated evidence shows that in the end Harcourt walked away from confrontation and allowed Monty to plead nolo contendere to a lesser charge. Harcourt then sold the farm to a group of investors and tried to get on with his life.

Why? Why would Hastings Harcourt walk away? There was strong physical evidence that Monty had been dishonest in his dealings with Harcourt. Why would he let Monty plead to a reduced charge? Whispered rumors were tracked, paper trails were followed, and statements were taken. Eyes welled with tears, and slowly an ugly portrait was bared to those who dared to look beneath the surface.

Harcourt’s dream evaporated like the trust he had placed in Monty and Pat. He prayed it would be over—a nightmare from which to wake.

Quietly, though, the players were changing sets on the darkened stage. The property’s ownership moved through several unseen hands. New names went on the land’s title. Quitclaim deeds were filed. The names kept changing. The tweed cap was back in the barns in a year.

Monty leads readers to believe that he was arrested, in part, because he tried to save the lives of five horses that Harcourt ordered, through his emissary, to be killed. Monty said it was Harcourt’s desire to destroy Flag Is Up Farms and all they had built together.

Horrified readers found sympathy for Monty. Obviously, they said, he did the right thing. He saved the horses, did he not? What could be more important? Their adoration grew as they envisioned his compassion and gentle manner. How can the truth be such an elusive enigma?

Truth: There were no horses to save. There were no orders for Monty to kill any horses or anything else. Monty did not purchase Flag Is Up Farm with compensation paid to him by Harcourt. The nameless emissary in the United States edition of The Man Who Listens to Horses is named in the United Kingdom edition. He was interviewed in 1998.


Marvin and Marguerite never asked for much. They dreamed of a world where horses and children could enjoy one another. They did their best to bring joy to others, and to them, that brought happiness.

“At its finest, rider and horse are joined not by tack, but by trust. Each is totally reliant upon the other. . . . Each is the selfless guardian of the other’s very well-being.” —Michael J. Plumb