The Art of Forgiveness; The Language of Trust

The Faraway Horses written by Buck Brannaman and The Man who Listens to Horses written by Monty Roberts tell of two men and their unique quests to find something meaningful to do with the lives they have been given. Both books contain biographical accounts of experiences training and observing horses as well as critical life experiences that have led these men to develop their forward methods of teaching. Buck Brannaman and Monty Roberts experienced similar abuse in their pasts and have channeled their energy into their work with horses. Both men vowed to stop the perpetuation of this anger and abuse.

Horses helped them through difficult periods in their lives by providing them with confidence, companionship and a purpose.

“He could not hurt me anymore. I had escaped him, and his opinions were almost irrelevant. Even so, I felt anger as new as the day he created it. I never wanted any horse of mine to suffer the same fear, anger and resentment”, said Roberts of his late father (Roberts, 115).

If one quote could summarize these two books most concisely and accurately, that would be it. As a result of this and their love of horses they have dedicated their lives to understanding the language of horses, to communicate with kindness and clarity, and to build a mutual trust between humans, the ultimate fight animal and horses, a flight animal.

Buck and Monty were raised in a time, just following the Second World War, when horses were in overabundance and money was in short supply. The philosophy and view of horses at the time is self-evident from the name given the initial training of a horse; it was called “breaking”. However, there were a few individuals of the time that were starting to do things a little differently. One of these was Bill Dorence. Monty recounts, “You have to cause your horse to mellow” he once told me, “to be in unison with you not against you.” (Roberts, 27) “My aim was to refine a technique that used the horse’s respect and cooperation, not the one that forced its servitude.” (Roberts, 14) This was a foreign concept of the time and many people including Monty’s father strongly disapproved.

Monty and Buck emphasize, throughout their books, the importance of redirecting negative responses and encouraging anything positive. They attribute this firm belief in method to their own experiences with punishment and aggression, and its association with resentment and forced cooperation. Instead of punishment both Buck and Monty, put the horses to work when they are doing something negative and give great positive rewards when even the smallest improvements are made. This system requires a very intuitive individual and one that understands the body language of the horse to gauge the proper time and magnitude of their reward. Timing is critical. They strive to keep the horses’ natural desire to work fully intact and, through subtle communication and a solid foundation of trust, harness this natural energy into a voluntary cooperative partnership between human and horse.

Monty Roberts methodically, through careful and extensive observation (much in nature, with little interference), has been working to “understand” the body language of horses; breaking it down to a step by step highly anticipatory conversation to establishing trust. Buck Brannaman on the other hand is less apparently methodical but has more a set of repertoire and intuitive understanding of equine behavior that in essence is very similar to what Monty Roberts describes. A fundamental commonality in their philosophy, as stated by Roberts: “instead of telling young horses “you must”, I wanted to ask them “will you?” (Roberts, 124) Buck similarly says: “discourage what is inappropriate, not by making the inappropriate impossible, but by making it difficult, so that the horse himself chooses appropriate behavior.”(Bannaman, 34) Furthermore, “knowledge is not to be forced on anyone.” (Brannaman, 33) Roberts emphasizes, “The brain has to be receptive, malleable, and more important, hungry for knowledge” (Roberts, 88). These two approaches with their subtle nuances, I think, complement each other effectively to create a good basis for developing and understanding cross-species communication.

Buck focuses on the attitude of the individual when working with the horse. Put simply, “You can’t conceal anything from a horse: he’ll respond to what’s inside you –or he won’t respond at all.” (Brannaman,134) Buck focuses on listening and then reacting but also treating the horse in the way in which you want them to behave. He talks about approaching similar situations with humans in the same way and achieving a similar response. In one particular instance, Buck encountered a man who had been “sentenced” to court mandated attendance of clinic as penetrance for having accidently, in a moment of uncontrolled anger, killed a horse by knocking him unconscious.

On the one hand, I wanted to hate the man for what he had done to my friend, the horse. But after considering the situation, I realized that the man most likely expected me to hate him. He was probably hardened himself to what was coming, and he was mentally prepared to get through whatever hostility he might experience. (Brannaman, 190)

The conditions of hatred and “hardness” are not those optimal for learning; possibly, because we are anticipating and bracing against the expected negative, we are unable to react in the present. It could also be more concrete, due to chemicals of stress in the brain, but whatever the reason, it seemed counterproductive to hate. The other people in the clinic were not as understanding; however, over the course of the clinic he and his colt were rather successful and the mood lightened. At the end of the clinic, the man approached buck. “’I don’t know what to say,’ he began. ‘This weekend has changed my life, and in ways that you will never know,’ with that he started to cry.” (Brannaman, 23) The man went on to say that it would not be easy to change his aggressive tendencies but he thanked Buck for giving him a start. This story, I think, is a testament to the importance of understanding and forgiveness in any learning process. It also helps us to get feedback on the response to this approach. Buck observed similar behavioral changes as he would in a horse and later was able to hear in words from the man how the experience had affected him; a prime example, I think, of the usefulness of critical anthropomorphism.

Monty developed a method called ‘starting’ horses. “If traditional breaking was designed to generate fear in the horse, I wanted to create trust.” (Roberts, 35)

Monty’s work is founded in the belief that horses do possess a language; discernible and effective. Their language uses a different medium than our own and thus is frequently underrated; however, it is remarkably subtle, down to the smallest flicker of the eye, it is honest, unlike our own, and adaptable.

The language of Equus, developed by Monty Roberts, is founded in the basis of natural instinct. It uses natural threats that likely have come to be avoided as second nature to encourage good, ‘socially acceptable’ behavior in the young horses; the primary punishment, being, the exile from the group, which leaves the individual vulnerable to predators. If you, as the human, show the horse the same guidance and leadership, as the head of their heard would do, through your body language, they should eventually learn that you are their ‘safe zone’. As such, when you send them away for ‘poor’ behavior they want to come back; eventually, learning the association between the ‘poor’ behavior and the exile. You can then, as Buck suggests, make the ‘right’ thing more appealing. In this way, using their instinctive nature as a herd animal and a common body language (that despite anatomical differences has proven quite effective), a mutual understanding between horse and human can be built, making training both directed and free-willed.

“Any horse ever handled by humans comes with stories, perhaps baggage and sometimes terrible events etched on their psyches.” (Roberts, 213)

Horses can be mistrusting of humans from physical abuse but also from over indulgence and pity. Both Buck and Monty talk about this in their books. Monty recounts an experience with one horse in particular; “this horse was too far gone to even ask for his trust. From a very young age he had been spoiled, not through cruelty in his case but through unintentional psychological abuse. He had been trained as a lapdog, and something had gone terribly wrong.”(Roberts, 121) Monty does not talk about this however, Buck touches on it; I think that one possible factor in this improper development, due to over indulgence from such an early age, is lack of proper socialization with other horses. I think it is important to remember that while humans and horses can develop great social bonds, they are still, by nature, horses and must be given the opportunity to mingle with their own kind. Being able to communicate in their language does not begin to encompass all of their social needs.

The main difference between Buck Brannaman’s and Monty Roberts’ books as well as training methods lies primarily I think in slight differences of character. Additionally, Buck’s writing style more closely integrates his personal life and experiences with his equine knowledge and philosophies than does Monty’s. This makes it harder to separate crude observation from intuitive nature and “feel”; defined by Buck as “the spiritual part of a person’s being” (Brannaman, 234). “Feel” has less scientific association than does observation. Their philosophies, experiences, and motivations however, are on the whole remarkably similar in essence. These two men stand for the same fundamental principal: to promote positive communication and trust between horses and their humans.

For those who wish to use one of these two books as a training manual I would recommend The Man Who Listens to Horses by Monty Roberts as its purpose aims more to instruct than does The Faraway Horses. The Faraway Horses by Buck Brannaman however, will likely appeal to a wider less industry-oriented audience; it not only presents the reader with philosophies and accounts of training but also stories of life, love, and passion. As an equestrian, I found both books to be very thought provoking and inspirational. Realistically portraying scenes involving the horses, they engulf the reader into the moment. Even for those with little equine exposure, both books are well written, informative and insightful.


Roberts, Monty. The Man Who Listens to Horses. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.

Brannaman, Buck. “The Faraway Horses [Hardcover].” The Faraway Horses: Buck Brannaman: 9781585743520: Books. Lyons Press, 2003. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.