A Fair Trade Book
Title: Horse Sense for People
Title: Horse Sense for People
Author: Monty Roberts
Author's web site: http://www.montyroberts.com/
Length: 220 pages including endnotes and appendices
Quote: “No one has the right to say ‘You must or I will hurt you,’to any creature.”
Monty Roberts was the son of a traditional horse trainer. There's some controversy about some things he's said about his early life, even a book about whether his claim that his father was abusive is a lie...from the fact that that claim does not appear in his earlier books, where he describes his father as distant but not abusive, I wonder whether the alleged abuse might even have been a Prozac pseudomemory...but this is one of those earlier books where there's no mention of Marvin Roberts having been an abusive father. I mention this issue because it is a childhood memory of Marvin Roberts having snubbed Monty Roberts that I pick on as the "bunk" in this book. I think it's a valuable and enjoyable book but it needs a bit of debunking.
Repelled by the conventional wisdom that “horses are wild, dangerous beasts that must be broken into submission,” Monty Roberts set out to demonstrate that these big, dangerous animals can instead be persuaded to become humans’ friends. Hence his success as “the Horse Whisperer.”
In my opinion Roberts’ contribution to human knowledge has been tremendous. It seems unlikely that the first humans who domesticated horses thought “Here is an animal at least ten times bigger than I am—obviously the first thing to do is to tie it to a tree and beat it into a state of ‘learned helplessness’.” Humans who depended on that method have, in fact, always muttered about people—usually socially disadvantaged people, Native Americans or Gypsies, sentimental rich ladies or idealistic teenagers—who somehow, it wasn’t faaair, made friends of horses. There was a belief that, since horses had to be “broken” and bullied into recognizing their legal owner, making friends with horses was a kind of witchcraft practiced by horse thieves. There was also a genre of legends about “crazy” horses that would die fighting or fleeing from anyone who tried to “break” them, a hopeful fantasy that some of those horses could be “gentled” by a friendlier approach, as in My Friend Flicka. Before Horse Whisperer became famous, we all knew that there were people (my brother was one) who had made friends with “unbroken” horses and ridden them, bareback, just as there were people who made pets of feral cats, but we thought they’d just been lucky. Roberts was the first to identify and document the nonverbal communication that allowed him to “join-up” with almost any horse, anywhere. Horses aren’t the brainiest animals on Earth but they do have a rudimentary nonverbal “language,” which humans can learn and use. Roberts not only proved that that language exists, but wrote a “first dictionary and grammar” of it.
If you have just a little experience with horses, I highly recommend The Man Who Listens to Horses; this is one case where the movie might even be useful. I’m not nearly as horsey as my brother was and thoroughly enjoyed reading Roberts’ documentation of what my brother used to get right and I used to get wrong…
Anyway, Roberts says in this book that management types told him they wished they knew the secrets of “human whispering.” After a little thought he realized that his approach to horse training was part of the philosophy behind his approach to human relationships…so he could indeed write a book about “human whispering.” This is it…a book of radical nonviolence.
People who think they don’t like the “libertarian” philosophy are likely to be reacting to the devil-take-the-hindmost egoism in books like The Fountainhead, where the blonde claims she liked being raped. (Well, it’s fiction; Rand would have heard that women like that existed…) It’s always possible to find enough people for a party, even a political party, who want to practice aggressive egoism, but that’s not really libertarian. Far from it. Libertarianism is a philosophy of nonviolence. It has room for disagreement about how forcefully people choose to defend themselves against violence, but basically a libertarian philosophy is opposed to saying “You must or I will hurt you” to any person (not all libertarians recognize non-humans as persons).
Of course, communication among humans is more complicated than communication between a human and a horse. That’s the trouble with Horse Sense for People. It was written in 2001, when much recent research about brain differences was still being done, and it doesn’t go far enough.
Roberts obviously hadn’t read much, at the time of writing, about the permanent physical differences that not only distinguish introverts from extroverts but indicate that extroversion may need to be reclassified as a sort of brain defect. Roberts grew up, like all Americans his age, with a vague idea that introversion was a weakness that kept people from communicating and working together, rather than an asset that helps people to communicate and work together in a smarter, healthier, more rational way than extroverts’ fears and neediness usually allow.
I’m going to pick on one small point in a book that makes many points about various aspects of human communication, because it really seems like “horse sense” to me and I’m surprised that Roberts doesn’t see it. Humans who suffer from extroversion often have a big emotional need to vocalize whenever they see other humans, whether or not they have anything to say. It’s one of those annoying neologisms, but in this post I’d like to call this behavior “greeding,” to emphasize the difference between meaningless, annoying vocalization and the kind of “greeting” that opens an actual human conversation. Some introverts learn to participate in greeding rituals, and some even form emotional attachments to the idea that participating in these rituals is a very good, generous thing to do because (if they think about it and face the reality) it’s unnatural and unpleasant. Nevertheless, Jesus warned Christians not to “love greetings in the marketplaces.” (Three separate Scriptures: Matthew 23:7 and Luke 11:46, as well.)
Self-accepting introverts, whose families and primary culture groups did not demand greeding behavior, are bewildered by it. Many people think that greeding is “friendly” behavior. When we consider its effects—distracting people from their own thoughts, sometimes interrupting real conversations, and measurably raising everyone’s blood pressure—it’s hard to find anything about greeding that can really be said to express good will toward the other person. Some specific greeding rituals undoubtedly do express friendship, but greeding, generally, is a hostile behavior. In terms of cross-species animal behavior studies, greeding is a “threat display.”
“You must reassure me that I’m human!” is the real meaning behind the “hi, hey, hi, hello,” that doesn’t open a conversation. (Extroverts apparently live in some doubt about their species identity, possibly because in some ways, especially in greeding rituals, they do react more like dogs.) My mother’s theory about “outgoing” children was that they’d all been bottle-fed, prematurely weaned, and brought up in day care centers. Greeders do not, in fact, want to become real friends to the people for whose attention they’re greeding. They don’t want to join the conversations or participate in the thought processes they interrupt. They are trying to fill some sort of deep-rooted emotional need. Maybe a lack of intensive mother-infant bonding really is what compels these pathetic people to demand that co-workers, neighbors, or total strangers take the time to tell them that they’re human. I have to wonder, though, whether who’s anyone in that much doubt about it is fully human.
“I was walking down Main Street…I was about ten,” Roberts recalls. “I looked ahead and saw my father walking directly toward me. As he approached, I said, ‘Hi Dad!’ but he looked at me and kept walking…I shouted loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear, but he just kept walking. I returned to school, hurt and puzzled, trying to figure out” why Dad hadn’t participated in that mindless-greeting routine typical of extroverts and dogs. When asked, “He looked at me and said, ‘I didn’t have anything to say to you.’ I let it go, because I guess that was an answer; by then I knew it would achieve nothing to point out that I had not been asking for a conversation…merely an acknowledgment of my presence…A parent refusing to acknowledge the presence of his child is like an animal refusing to allow a newborn to drink from its udder.”
If all or most humans were afflicted with extroversion that might be true. As it is, however, many humans feel no need for “acknowledgment of our presence.” How do introvert parents succeed in bringing up children who don’t feel a need to exchange greetings, without making those children feel like infants deprived of milk? My best educated guess would be that several forms of nonverbal communication are involved.
(1) The parents provide attention and affection when the children aren’t screaming for those things.
(2) Both parents and children are able to perceive each other’s presence, and each other’s awareness of their presence, without interrupting whatever they’re doing to belabor it. When family members walk past each other, some subtler form of nonverbal communication establishes that they’re not going to collide; there’s no need to stop, make noises, or sniff each other.
(3) Other aspects of the family relationship reinforce the basic idea that we-the-people-who-don’t-do-greeding are more familiar, nicer, more trustworthy etc. etc., than those-other-people-who-do-greeding.
But what was happening in the 1940s when Monty Roberts was about ten years old? North America was in the middle of a cultural war on introversion. Instead of being told the truth, “Whether or not you’re ‘smarter’ in terms of math or formal logic you are more perceptive and/or better able to use what you know than the average person, likely to live longer, and much easier for other nice quiet people like yourself to like being around,” introvert children were being told, “Oh dear, something is terribly horribly wrong with you! Why do you want to read or build things or spend time with animals when you could be running around playing games like aaalll the other children? What horrible thing happened to make you such a freak?”
As I read this anecdote, I imagine Marvin Roberts thinking, “All these years I’ve brought my child up to be a person who never speaks unless he has something to say, and there he is, yapping at me in the street like a spoiled dog!” Yet another example of the many ways the campaign to “sell” extroversion alienated people whom nature intended to be friends…Neither Monty Roberts—who can hardly be perceived as an extrovert—nor his Dad seems ever to have been able to acknowledge the violence external influences wrought on their relationship. Fortunately, because most introverts are truly awesome human beings, they did remain on speaking terms.
The belief that everybody could be happy if we just agreed to act like extroverts was common among Roberts’ audience; he didn’t have to argue at length in favor of greeding rituals. Why does it seem extraordinary to me that he supports them, or tolerates them, at all? Because this is a book about Horse Sense for People.
Dogs invented greeding rituals. Their social lives do require reciprocal noise-making, sniffing, and a whole dance of communicative gestures. The only alternative to participating in these elaborate rituals is a fight.
Cats also have greeding rituals. Their rituals are usually silent and seldom take up anything like as much time as dogs' greeding rituals, but cats go through a full ritual every single time they see each other. Again, not participating in the greeting routine is likely to mean a fight.
Horses, as Roberts has made a career of explaining, have very subtle, nonverbal displays that acknowledge one another’s presence without greeding. It’s not entirely clear whether horses always do anything consciously to acknowledge each other’s presence. The way to approach a horse without anyone fighting or fleeing is simply not to act like a predator.Beyond that, communication with any individual in the herd is optional and occurs when horses have something to “say.”
The difference in greeting behavior across species, in fact, seems to support a generalization. Elaborate greetings—threat/deference displays—are typical of predator species. Extrovert humans are thus closer to predatory animals, and introverts to non-predatory animals. Herbivorous animals are easily startled into flight when they meet anything that might be a predator, and the herbivores and insectivores vary from having a wide range of possible social relationships that humans can identify (as horses do) to leaving room for doubt whether they notice that their siblings are alive (as many insects do), but herbivores don’t have extensive greeding rituals. After a long separation horses do have ways of saying “Old friend! Where have you been so long?” that are unmistakable even to humans, but in everyday situations a flash of an eye or twitch of an ear is as far as the “acknowledgment” routine gets.
I can’t blame Roberts for having been told, “Something must have hurt your feelings terribly when you were a little child to allow you to grow up so [insert up to a dozen different disparagements for non-extroverts]. What did your parents do?” (Often there was a deliberate effort to “gaslight” over emotional traumas at school and focus on often purely theoretical traumas of earliest childhood.) I can’t blame him for remembering this day when he tried out a greeding display he’d learned at school, and been discouraged, as possibly contributing to his capacity for independent thinking. (Jonah Goldberg has found evidence that the purpose of the whole war on introversion probably was to try to reduce the incidence of independent thinking.) Considering how few other humans had his “horse sense” about horses’ nonverbal communication, I am in fact awestruck by Roberts’ ability to communicate with horses. But I’m also…astounded by his failure to extrapolate data. Roberts’ continuing to endorse greeding rituals between humans, rather than disparage or discourage them, is an example of really successful gaslighting.
Indirectly, Roberts does acknowledge the reason why conscious, self-accepting introverts may no longer agree with the old claim that “at least” greeding is “a harmless little thing we can do that makes others feel good. On pages 65-66 he reminisces about a horse who was ruined for life by playing a part in a Disney movie. In the movie the horse, then a little colt, was encouraged to rear up and rest its forelegs on humans’ shoulders. Once the colt became an adult horse, of course, it could no longer be indulged in this behavior…and although the behavior was unnatural and dysfunctional, the horse wasn’t able to understand that it had to change just one behavior pattern so that its relationships with humans would be rewarding again. That horse never trusted people who wouldn’t let it rest its forelegs on their shoulders and, since no human who wants to live can allow a full-grown horse to do that, the horse became a real mental case, never able to trust or work with anybody during its short adult life. Acting out one cute little scene for one cute little movie made a valuable horse into a monster.
For introverts who are tired of being bullied into acting as if we shared a brain defect we don’t share, indulging extrovert acquaintances in a little social display sets up similar unrealistic expectations and turns a mentality only slightly more sophisticated than a horse’s into a monster of “needy” bullying. Give this type of not-fully-humans the greetings they demand, and the next minute they demand that you convert to some bizarre religion, or maybe sleep with them, or give them all your money, or participate in the pretense that anybody would want to be like them. Even after retraining they’re likely to remain “chronically distrustful and mentally unstable.” No matter how hard people have tried to mistake it for “love,” extroverts’ compulsive urge to reach out and grab for control of others’ attention is fundamentally violent.
Meanwhile, Roberts’ fundamental philosophy of human relationships is consistently typical of introverts’ nonviolent mind-sets and orientation toward showing trust and respect by leaving other people alone. Roberts describes a football coach who yelled at students to “treat [the other team]…like…the worst people on earth…Knock him down and give him a knee in the ribs as you get up.” Roberts’ response, “Young players can…respect their opponent, play the game hard, but live within the framework of the rules.” Did one really need to be a football fan, in 2001, to remember Jerry Rice popping up and saluting the much bigger guys who’d knocked him down? Whether Roberts remembered Rice’s performance or not, his readers did.
“The…company will only work efficiently when those within…the team can justifiably trust one another….It is critical…[that] each employee is utterly confident that he or she will be treated in a fair and honest way.”
“The fact is that horses run slower when they are whipped than when they are not…[Horses] do love to race, and I love racing. But we should take the whips out of racing…because they are ineffective.”
“[C]leaning the stalls…was one of the most distasteful aspects of the entire horse industry…I told the team that I would clean and bed ten stalls. the men would time me. I would ask them to double the time that it took and to work out what their wage would give, given that amount of time. This would allow them to calculate the price per stall…Since they decided that the two men would do all the work that meant that each would receive $1300 per month. Mucking stalls instantly became a cherished position” (after wages calculated from an hourly rate were converted to a performance-based rate, allowing an instant pay rise).
For parents, Roberts recommends writing out behavior contracts on a blackboard, or whiteboard: “Child will not spit for a week…parents will take child to [wherever].” If a child’s behavior is very undesirable, contracts can be punitive; one parent made a quick decision, when a child failed to supply animals with water, that all other behavior contracts and household privileges began with the child’s filling the horse’s water trough—using a human-size cup. Contracts allow parents to set rules about behavior without physical force or the kind of emotional drama that can feel more abusive than a simple spanking to the child.
Roberts addresses family and office management issues more than academic or political ones, but it’s easy to extrapolate applications of his “horse sense” philosophy to any kind of social relationship. In political terms, they’re very close to Jim Babka’s “voluntaryism.”
If you're already familiar with this approach to human relationships, then you may not need Horse Sense for People, although it contains some nice horse stories (and one horrific, possibly Prozac-enhanced, story about one of Roberts' clients). If not, you should read it--noting that this is not the book that contains any of the "lies" for which Roberts has more recently been blamed. It's been out long enough to be offered as a Fair Trade Book on this web site's usual terms: $5 per book, $5 per package, $1 per online payment, to the address at the very bottom of the screen (down below the giftcard links; this web site does not encourage Amazon giftcards as payments, but can take them). You could fit at least one more book of this size into the package; if that book was, e.g., Shy Boy you'd send a U.S. postal money order for $15 (paying the surcharge directly to the post office) or Paypal payment for $16 for the two books, and from that we'd send $2 to Roberts or a charity of his choice.