The Full Monty

A Horse Whisperer's marketing caravan rolls into the Cow Palace

Monty Roberts is on a roll, granting another interview to another reporter about his book, and the techniques for horse training that have made him an international star of late.

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."

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