As Roberts discusses his life and career, he must speak loudly to be heard over the trucks driving into the Cow Palace and dumping loads of dirt on the floor. Shovel-wielding assistants spread the earth, slowly building a horse pen 50 feet around in the middle of the arena. Roberts chats away, his droopy, sensitive eyes watching the progress.
For three years Roberts has been touring the world, promoting his autobiography, The Man Who Listens to Horses, and giving demonstrations of his horse-training techniques. Roberts is just one of a handful of trainers who have cashed in on the success of the touchy-feely Horse Whisperer trend. But a weekend appearance at the Cow Palace suggests that he is perhaps the most adept at marketing himself.
After decades as a virtual unknown traveling the horse show and rodeo circuit, the 63-year-old trainer is going to ride the Horse Whisperer wave for all it's worth. A New York public relations firm handles all media requests, and his wife and son help produce each of Roberts' public appearances. He's financially secure now, and probably set for life.
Since the Queen of England embraced his training techniques, based on a lifetime of observing equine behavior, Roberts has ended up with a best-selling book, training videos, a nonprofit foundation, and a busy schedule of promotional appearances and demonstrations.
Right now, he's talking a lot about nonviolence, and positive-reinforcement education. He speaks to some group of people nearly every night of the week, from rodeos to schools to military gatherings. He's talked so much, in fact, that at this moment, his voice is a little funky, and his throat could use some soothing.
"I don't know how to handle it," Roberts is saying. "I was on the shelf for 50 years, and rejected of my concepts. To have this kind of acceptance moves you to ..."
An assistant walks up with a sack of items from a drugstore.
"Did you get the spray?" asks Roberts. The kid pulls out a bottle of throat spray. Roberts spritzes a few shots of the green fluid into his mouth, and continues.
"... it moves you to get your tail in gear, so I just haven't pulled up yet. When this all happened, when it went on the best-seller list in England three years ago, we really thought, 'I got a tiger by the tail here.' But I didn't realize that I had half the tigers in the world by the tail at the same time. I didn't know that we were gonna have to have 14 operators answering the phones. The farm was absolutely shut down by visitors and phone calls. My son stopped his legal practice completely, because he realized success was gonna destroy me."
From the looks of the Cow Palace, success isn't going to do Roberts any harm tonight. In the middle of the Palace floor is parked a Ford dualie pickup and a gooseneck Sundowner trailer, compliments of Roberts' corporate sponsors. One end of the arena is being set up with tables to hawk products -- embroidered denim shirts, leather-embossed canteens, sweat shirts, hats, posters, key rings, videos, and copies of the book, covers of which feature a sticker that says "A Real Horse Whisperer." More tables are laden with bronze sculptures of horses, rendered by Pat Roberts, Monty's wife. Waist-high lattice wooden dividers will funnel the spenders back and forth and up to the cash register area, like cattle being herded through pens.
Roberts chuckles that some journalists have described his tour as the greatest promotional effort since the Bible.
"The budget to promote this book is very minimal," he says. "It's been on the best-seller list in Poland, Yugoslavia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. It's a people-found book."
Three million people may have found the book, but some are also finding big problems with it. In particular, members of Roberts' own family, who have publicly stated that many "facts" contained in the book are either exaggerations or outright lies -- for instance, Roberts' claim that his father beat him with a chain for years, and that his father beat a man to death. The British version of the book describes Roberts, his brother, and a friend taking a trip to Nevada to round up wild mustangs. The brother and the friend both deny such a trip occurred, so in the U.S. edition, the names of the two were changed. Last December, Time magazine investigated these claims, and referred to the book as "horse puckey for the soul." A rebuttal book titled Horse Whispers and Lies, put together by family members, is in the works.
Roberts brings up animosity without even being asked.
"You can't change the status quo of anything, in my opinion, without having extremely hostile factions," he says. "I have a list of relatives who believe that I was absolutely wrong in exposing my father's abuse of me. And they told me before the book was published that if I left him in the book they would see to it that my life wasn't worth living, from that point forward. So in addition to just a general sociological order of preserving the status quo, I have this incredible familial thing going on too."
Obviously, the criticism has toughened his resolve. He may be a sensitive horse trainer, but in his youth he was also a tough cowboy, and rodeo champion.
"Do I walk away from that kind of thing, as a coward would, or do I stand up and get some spine and go for it? And obviously, I'm doing the latter. And I like myself for that, but it ain't easy."
Roberts soon gets an opportunity to prove his worth. The crowd files into the Palace, greeted by a video monitor showing film clips of horses being trained at the Monty Roberts International Learning Center near Santa Barbara. Orchestral versions of "I'm an Old Cowhand" and the theme from the old Rawhide TV show blast from speakers.
The audience of families, children, and an abundance of 12-year-old girls takes seats and waits for the show. Everyone's dressed up a bit -- cowboy hats, Wrangler jeans, those new buckaroo-style boots with laces and the little golf-shoe leather flap. Nearly everyone in the horse world has read the Nicholas Evans novel The Horse Whisperer, or seen Robert Redford's filmed version. Or perhaps they've heard of other sensitive horse trainers, like Dr. Stan Allen from Utah, or Frank Bell out there near Denver, Colo., or Wyoming's Buck Brannaman, who was the inspiration for Redford's character, and whose staff advised the film crew.
Being a Hollywood movie adviser himself, Roberts knows enough about show business to pay close attention to appearance. Instead of a cowboy hat, he wears a newsboy cap, which he says appeals to an English audience without alienating the cowboy crowd. His voice also changes in the ring, developing more of a drawl, and indulging a long-winded sense of story. Facts that a few hours earlier were interview soundbites become anecdotes and homespun jokes.
Roberts works the horses through a compelling demonstration of his technique -- first putting them off, ignoring them and flinging a rope at them, then waiting for them to come back. Roberts understands the horse is a herd animal and hates to be left out, and knows the animal eventually will approach him, in a moment of truth he calls "joining up." During the show, Roberts keeps up a steady stream of patter, either commenting on the process or gabbing about whatever else comes into his mind.
When an appaloosa 2-year-old finally accepts a saddle and rider for the first time in her life, a staff member walks up to the horse's owner, standing just outside the ring, and hands her a microphone.
"I can't believe it!" she exclaims.
Trained to take a saddle and rider in 19 minutes, the horse exits, the crowd goes nuts, and Roberts takes off his hat and whips it high into the air. All that's missing is fireworks, flash pots, maybe the band Kiss at the other end of the arena.
He goes through more horses with problems, announcing with confidence: "I've worked with 2,250 horses in front of audiences. If any one had been a failure, you would have read about it."
It's actually amazing to watch for the first time. But if people have any criticism of Roberts' demonstrations, it's that the act becomes repetitious. Each horse is quickly calmed and trained, and Roberts' anecdotes and spiel are carefully delivered. Some find his patter even preachy.
During one tirade about the education system, he declares: "You see kids shavin' their heads, walkin' around in a pair of pants that would fit Andre the Giant. It's the fashion of our prisons, because we've made heroes of those who break the law."
But he has credibility, and his techniques, along with those of other nonviolent instructors, are revolutionizing the horse-training world.
"Give him two or three years," says one part-time trainer, "and they'll all be practicing this to some degree. He probably reads people pretty well too."
During intermission, the publicity arm swings into high gear. As people wait in line, one woman opens books for Roberts to sign, and another shows him questions written down by audience members. He simultaneously signs books and answers the questions via wireless mike.
People mill about, buying up the shirts and videos, serenaded by the voice of Monty Roberts, booming over the public address system:
"Don't forget to pick up that videotape.