If you have someone in your acquaintance that happens to have a connection to royalty, it’s best to hope that person also lacks a sense of humor.
Unfortunately, for legendary horseman Monty Roberts, the odds weren’t in his favor.
“The call [from the Queen] came to us from an old friend of mine,” Roberts says of Rexall Drug Company executive John Bowles, his neighbor in Santa Barbara, California. Bowles, an avid driver, had campaigned his team of horses across Europe and the U.K. There, he’d struck up a friendship with Colonel Sir John Millar—who was also in charge of Queen Elizabeth II’s private horses.
As luck would have it, the Queen had been reading about Monty Roberts’ non-violent, join-up training methods in racing magazines, and she wanted to know more. It being 1988, and the advent of Google still a decade away, Her Majesty asked Millar if he knew of anyone in the California area that could assist with an introduction. That man? Roberts’ neighbor and renowned practical joker, John Bowles.
“[Bowles], the American guy, [played] jokes on people all the time,” explains Roberts. “He called me on the phone and he said, ‘Morning, [Sir John Millar] is here, and [we] want to talk to you because the Queen would like to see your work.’
“I said, ‘Well, John, I’m easy to find,’” says the laconic Roberts, who, coincidentally, lived just six miles down the road from Bowles. “[Later], I went to the guestroom window, and watched a limousine Mercedes show up in the front door. John [Bowles] is 6’6”, and he got out the [one] side, and this little guy, 5’3”, got out on the [other] side, with a tweed suit, and a white mustache, and a hat that was from England.
“[I thought], He went right to central casting and got this guy!”
Roberts, determined to play it straight, gamely went on with the charade, giving the men a tour of his Flag Is Up Farms in Solvang, California in the Santa Ynez Valley. Afterward, he introduced Sir John Millar to his training system and, after watching a few previously untrained thoroughbreds making big breakthroughs with Roberts in real time, Millar had seen enough. He informed the two men that the Queen would want to see all this for herself, and a date was set for Roberts to visit the U.K. in April of the following year.
“About ten days later, we got an invitation to go to Windsor Castle to work horses for the Queen,” recalls the cowboy, who was forced to concede that the intricate gag wasn’t a gag after all.
If this scene seems ripped straight out of a Hollywood movie script, it’s just par for the course in the extraordinary life of cowboy Monty Roberts.
Born in 1935 in Salinas, California, Roberts’ own father was a horse trainer, and he learned to ride and rope by the age of four. Though he won numerous rodeo championships as a child, and later as a member of the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo college rodeo team, Roberts began to have doubts about the harsh, sometimes violent methods employed by his trainer father and his contemporaries while breaking horses.
At 13, Roberts was sent to Nevada, where he had the opportunity to observe wild horses during a round-up for the Salinas Rodeo Association’s Wild Horse Race. By studying the horses’ body language while interacting with one another—how they turned their bodies and heads, for example; or how they moved their mouths and flicked their ears to show relaxation, annoyance, fear, or affection—Roberts was laying the groundwork for his own join-up methodology.
Many years later, in April of 1989, that method had garnered enough attention in the states to earn Roberts an audience with the Queen. And, true to form, in a scenario that reads as a kind of horseman’s fairytale, the queen’s staff had laid out a kind of gauntlet of challenges to ensure that the California cowboy was the real deal.
Upon arrival at Windsor Castle, Roberts found more than 20 untrained horses awaiting him the fields outside the castle. And, though his training sessions were to begin two days hence, he was not allowed to go anywhere near them.
“We had to stay [some] 20 miles away in a particular house where [Sir] John Miller was, so that I couldn’t be anywhere near the horses,” Roberts recalls, noting that the first horse in the ring on Monday morning was an unbroken three-year-old Thoroughbred that belonged to the Queen Mother.
Although the soundproof glass gallery in the royal riding hall prevented Roberts from hearing what was being said throughout his session, he did his job as promised, ‘joining-up’ with the Thoroughbred and getting it to accept a saddle and a rider in just under a half-hour’s time. From his vantage point, things were progressing quite routinely for the cowboy—that is, until the session ended.
“[When it was over] the Queen Mother came down from the soundproof
But the cowboy quickly remembered he wasn’t stateside anymore when he reached out his hands comfort the Queen Mother—and was instantly rebuffed by the royal bodyguards.
“I took my hands away. [Boy, did I feel] like some California idiot,” he says, laughing.
A short while later, the Queen herself descended from the gallery. “She was absolutely flabbergasted with what she saw, and she said, ‘Monty, [there’s] a lot to say, but I have to tell you that I never dreamed [your work] would be this far from the reality of horsemanship today.’”
Throughout the course of the week, the Queen’s devotion to Roberts’ cause only grew as he proved his worth with the 23 horses arrayed for him at Windsor. Later, the Queen personally arranged a tour for the cowboy, introducing him to a total of 98 unbroken steeds during a month-long journey around the U.K.
Though the horses Roberts encountered were all different breeds and types, none, he says, were particularly memorable—and that’s in no way an insult to them. After all, the cowboy explains, whether it’s a million-dollar royal racehorse or backyard pony of no breeding at all, horses are horses.
“[I remember] they all had four legs!” he jokes.
There’s no perfect way to explain the philosophies of ‘join-up’ unless you’ve witnessed one first hand. And once you have, you’re not likely to forget it.
The basic principles are rooted in the ideas of trust and communication; most of the work takes place in an enclosed ring or round-pen, which allows the horse to move forward at will (essential to flight animals), while the trainer directs the horse’s movement from the center of the circle.
In essence, how the trainer uses his or her own body language in response to the horse’s behavior, and vice versa, mimics the way horses naturally communicate with one another in the herd. When done correctly, it is the horse that ultimately chooses to have a relationship with the man or woman at the center of the circle. Because of that, Roberts’ “violence-free” training often takes much less time than traditional methods of breaking, in which the horse is sometimes forced to submit due to exhaustion, fear, or pain.
Thanks to Roberts’ work and the proliferation of natural horsemanship in recent decades, join-up training is far more common these days than it used to be, and—as the Queen Mother’s tears will attest—it is, like a pitch-perfect opera, something beautiful and moving to see. The term ‘join-up’ term comes from the moment in which the horse accepts the human at the center of the circle, beginning to look at him or her not as a predator, but as a lead horse offering protection and guidance.
Back in the 1980s, however, traditional horsemen had little if any exposure to natural horsemanship and nothing to compare it to. And, even as the Queen accepted Roberts’ work at face value, her military entourage was far more skeptical.
“One of them stepped up and said [to the Queen], ‘It’s a trick—it’s all a fake,” recalls Roberts, adding that this particular Corporal Major had his own theories for how join-up training worked.
The man—Corporal Major Terry Pendry—told Queen Elizabeth II that Roberts, who often trained with his hands in his pockets, was concealing a special tranquilizing powder in his thumb, which he used to docile the horses, sticking it in their noses unobserved.
Fortunately, according to Roberts, Queen Elizabeth, by this point a believer in what she was witnessing, had a rye retort for the soldier. Says Roberts, “Apparently, she said to him later, ‘Wouldn’t that be incredible if that stuff that he has in his pockets could tranquilize a 1,200-pound horse. What do you think it would do to him?’”
She then directed Corporal Major Pendry to accompany Roberts on the road for every stop of his 30-day U.K. tour in order that he might return and, “show [her] the trick.” Pendry did as asked, but the trick was ultimately on him.
Like any good trainer of horses or humans, Roberts didn’t give up on or disparage his skeptical companion, but instead set out to win the military man over to his side.
“Terry Pendry was with me for every single horse [during that tour], and at the end of it, he could do my work as well as I could,” Roberts says.
In fact, it was Roberts who eventually recommended Pendry—now a master of non-violent training methods—to be in charge of the Queen’s private horses.
If Queen Elizabeth II was predisposed to Monty Roberts’ methods when it comes to horse training, she may have come by it honestly. According to Roberts, the Queen once told him that during WWII, when her horses were secreted away to Windsor castle to protect them from the bombings, she had a beloved riding master who shared Roberts’ way of thinking.
“[The Queen] didn’t know my concepts, so that was a surprise to her. But she traveled through the younger part of her life believing that violence was not the answer to training horses,” says Roberts. “She was so pleased to find that [non-violence] was also the answer [to my methods], as opposed to just being a good thing to do.”
Unlike Roberts, however, the Queen not only wanted to adapt natural horsemanship methods, she wanted to share them with the world—using the American cowboy as her ambassador. “She said, there has to be a book,” Roberts recalls, “and not only does there have to be a book, but you have to take this to the world. I command it.”
Monty Roberts didn’t need to be asked twice. In the years that followed, he visited more than 40 countries, working with some 3,000 horses, providing live demonstrations of his methods and sharing his best-selling book, The Man That Listens to Horses.
“[I visited] Scandinavia, Germany, and all the Southern European countries [which] would never have just let me come in. [I went to] Africa and even Australia,” Roberts says.
“If it wasn’t for the Queen, I never would have been accepted in these [places].”
Roberts says Her Majesty’s support eventually opened doors for him in ways that he could never have imagined. Among them: An honorary doctorate in animal psychology at the University of Zurich; and later, a chance meeting in 1991 with the Jacobs family of Gestüt Fährhof stud racing farm in Germany.
There, Roberts worked with the famed racehorse, Lomitas, who had been all but banned from the track due to his dangerous antics. With the cowboy’s retraining, Lomitas went on to win Horse of the Year, and later sired three generations of offspring that, according to Roberts, have earned more than $50 million in winnings.
More recently, Roberts’ work with polo legend Adolfo Cambiaso helped to reinvent the way polo ponies are broken and trained for the game.
“Polo was [fatally losing] horses at a rate of 52 percent [during] the breaking process. They were the toughest discipline [on horses] on the face of the earth,” says Roberts.
The introduction of his non-violent methods and Cambiaso’s support of them has helped to mediate that astounding figure, according to Roberts, in many ways revolutionizing the game of polo for the better.
Their quest all but completed, the Queen and the cowboy stayed in touch during numerous visits and more than 200 phone calls for the three decades of their acquaintance.
In September of 2022, after Queen Elizabeth II’s passing, Roberts traveled to the U.K. to say his final goodbyes. And while it’s unlikely that the Queen ever needed to convince Monty Roberts of the gifts that horses can offer us—or him, her—she may have imparted an even more valuable lesson on him. Namely, a belief in the potential of his fellow man to be open to something better, something kinder, when it’s finally presented to them.
Says Roberts, “I’ve come to know and love human beings a lot better since I went to Windsor Castle and worked for the Queen.”