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'Horse Whisperer' Helps Veterans with PTSD on Military Channel

By Jay Wertz 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: September 17, 2010 
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'Horse whisperer' Monty Roberts applies what he's learned with horses to help vets with PTSD learn new coping techiques in 'Horse Sense and Soldiers.' Courtesy Military Channel.
'Horse whisperer' Monty Roberts applies what he's learned with horses to help vets with PTSD learn new coping techiques in 'Horse Sense and Soldiers.' Courtesy Military Channel.

Discovery Communications owns and operates Military Channel and Animal Planet, cable networks with different programming mandates. It seems unlikely that their content would overlap, yet it does in a new documentary. Horse Sense and Soldiers follows a "horse whisperer" working with Iraq War veterans suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). The documentary premiers Sunday September 19 at 10 p.m. Eastern Time on Military Channel.

Arranged psychological encounters as "info-tainment" are a well-worked angle of reality television, and one must always approach these programs with a bit of skepticism. Horse Sense and Soldiers pays off, however, because it stays true to its design and succeeds in its execution.

Joe and Summer Tiani. Courtesy Military Channel.
Joe and Summer Tiani. Courtesy Military Channel.
Three Iraq War veterans, two men and a woman, are introduced to the Join-Up concept of horse training by the concept's innovator and trademark owner, Monty Roberts, at his Solvang, California, Flag Is Up Farms. The three veterans all suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and have voluntarily decided to devote a few days of their lives trying to relate to horses as therapy. In the documentary we learn that their success in coping with life back home, their families and surroundings is not going well, so they are willing to try something new.

Monty Roberts grew up around horses and made his passion a life's work in show riding, movie stunt work and horse training. In this program he is billed as "The Original Horse Whisperer."

The term "horse whisperer" comes from the concept that wild or untrained horses are coaxed into human direction and goals through non-violent training and interaction. Communication with the horses is through subtle body language, similar to how horses communicate with each other, says Roberts. He studied the interaction of wild horses while rounding them up for his family's riding school and wild-horse racing business. From this beginning he developed his style of "breaking" wild horses and ultimately training them for riding. Join-Up is deemed to be the moment that the horse voluntarily comes to the human and establishes trust.

As the three veterans arrive at the expansive facility, Roberts first spends a little time acclimating them to the farm and him. That's not hard to do. The farm is absolutely gorgeous and impeccably maintained. With doctorates in psychology and behavioral science, Roberts immediately creates a connection with each of the three prospective students individually. Then it's time to introduce them to the horses. Each begins by learning how to communicate orders to a willing horse in a closed corral and advance the interaction as each reaches a better comfort level with the process. One of the vets is eventually introduced to working with a much wilder horse.

Roberts has many supporters who have learned to use his horse-breaking and training philosophy, but he is not without detractors among horse people. Rather than being "The Original Horse Whisperer," he's really one among a number of trainers who have made names for themselves using similar methods. Some people say the basic technique goes back hundreds of years. The term was popularized by a book by Nicholas Evans that inspired a 1998 Robert Redford movie.

Other critics, including members of his extended family, also claim that Roberts' stories about how his father violently abused horses in his business and applied that violent abuse to Monty himself are greatly exaggerated or false. The truth is debatable beyond the limits of this documentary, however, and has no import in it.

With a twinkle in his eye Roberts, the psychologist and showman, demonstrates he knows how to get more out of people and horses than they might be capable of doing themselves. As the program goes through the steps taken by the three veterans during their sessions at the horse farm, a perceptible change develops in each of them.

Joe, the first student to work with the horses, goes from displaying a permanent frown to smiling a lot as he succeeds in getting the horses to do what he wants them to do. All three vets express how the experience affects their fears, memories and current feelings. They leave the farm happy, at least for the moment. Back with their homes and families the documentary shows them doing much better three months after their four days at the farm.

The corral at Flag Is Up Farms. Courtesy Military Channel.
The corral at Flag Is Up Farms. Courtesy Military Channel.
The filmmakers do their best to stay out of the way and let the background story and verité style of action drive the program. The narration is soft and unobtrusive. The cameras follow the action without influencing it. The program also shows the failures, such as when Joe's wife refuses to try interacting with a horse, and the female vet, Alejandra, leaves the training temporarily. These issues all seem to get resolved without Roberts or the filmmakers pressing them with phony TV devices. The one exception to this is the journey into Roberts' own controversial past that introduces some flimsy reenactment and uncredited archival scenes.

Whether or not Join-Up is a breakthrough horse training method or Roberts is just one among many horse whisperers trying to sell his expertise, I'll leave to those who spend much more time than I watching Animal Planet. It does appear from Horse Sense and Soldiers that he has an effective idea in trying to get troubled individuals to cope better by inducing them to put their problems aside and get into the challenge of working with horses.

How this succeeds in the long term is unknown, but this program makes a good case that three veterans suffering from PTSD are better for the experience of trying.

Jay Wertz is the producer-director-writer of the award-winning 13-part documentary series Smithsonian's Great Battles of the Civil War for The Learning Channel and Time-Life Video. He is also the author of The Native American Experience and The Civil War Experience 1861-1865 and co-authored Smithsonian's Great Battles and Battlefields of the Civil War with prominent historian Edwin C. Bearss.


10 Responses to “'Horse Whisperer' Helps Veterans with PTSD on Military Channel”


  1. 1
    John says:

    Watched this and found it hard to believe that PTSD from many years ago was healed "After four transformational days" and that the veterans were ultimately better at understanding "how to control their anger, confront painful memories, cope with real-life situations and move on with their lives and relationships." PTSD doesn't heal over night and for them to make believe that a horse whisper fixed everything in 4 days or that their lives improved so significantly in 4 days is absolutely ridiculous! What did the horse whisper really want from making this show? As I am sure the veterans were not compensated for this so it is more like explotation for the gain of one person, the horse whisper. Very sad that someone would exploit those that have already served our country and still have issues from doing so. What kind of person would exploit our veterans like that for personal gain? Disgusting.

    • 1.1
      Mark says:

      John, You must have been watching another show. Monte did not exploit the veterans and said 4 days was not enough time to to help or cure them.What he did do was to give them a starting point to begin to get their lives back together. He showed them that horses will not trust you just by stepping in the ring with them. You have to earn their trust. All 3 of the Veterans said the biggest problem that they had after came home was that they couldn,t trust any body, their wives , parents , life long friends.Monte showed by earning the horses trust the horses would trust them as well. Trying to get an abused horse to trust you is equally as difficult as person suffering from PTSD. to trust anybody.That was purpose of this show. Monte has kept in contact with all 3 of the veterans months after the show was filmed and they are making progress. Although they are not cured , they are much better then they were using conventional methods. Monte and the Horses gave them the first step to getting their lives back, giving and receiving trust. Try not to be cynical John.

    • 1.2
      Kerry Burke says:

      Had I not been put through the rigors of training and experienced the power of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy I would not have believed it myself. Part of becoming a facilitator is actively participating in various roles during training. What I discovered first hand was that even a simple task with a horse can bring up an avalanche of emotions. Many of these feelings might not ever have been tapped into with traditional "couch" therapy sessions.

      Being a true believer in Natural Horsemanship as well, I hardly believe that Roberts was exploiting anyone. When you have PTSD you are willing to try anything, even a horse, if that is what it takes to get your life back. I commend those veterans brave enough to try something unconventional in order to heal the wounds they incurred while serving our country.

  2. 2
    Dr. Yolanda C. Leon says:

    I've seen a former mentor help veteran's resolve PTSD in less than 4 sessions. The use of equine therapist is invaluable and in his program, Dr. Roberts exhibits perceptive, empathic abilities with both human and horse. I'm glad the special was aired to reveal how this modality can bring healing.

  3. 3
    Shirley Zutes says:

    This is a wonderful article. Yes, I love horses and I have one in my back yard. Yes, they do heal, God gave me my horse, Angel, and she is my best friend. I work a lot with "Coalition to Ban Horse Drawn Carriages", especially in NYC. These horses suffer a lot of abuse and we are trying to expose the teamsters and the carriage businesses. Maybe when your vets are healed they can help the horses that are imprisioned by their blinders, straight jacket carriages, working 9-10 hours per day 7 days a week, all kinds of weather up against buses, traffic in NYC . The list goes on and on. When they can't go any further, they are shipped off to New Holland so called auction and then taken to Canada or Mexico to be slaughtered. GOD BLESS YOU, MONTE. YOU ARE DOING A WONDERFUL SERVICE. THANK YOU.

  4. 4
    Shirley Zutes says:

    This is a beautiful quote and I want to share it with you and your vet friends. IN THE QUIET LIGHT OF THE STABLE, YOU HEAR A MUFFLED SNORT, THE STOMP OF THE HOOF, A FRIENDLY NICKER. GENTLE EYES INQUIRE, 'HOW WAS YOUR DAY OLD FRIEND? ' SUDDENLY ALL YOUR TROUBLES FADE AWAY. author unknown.

  5. 5
    Julie says:

    I am fascinated by this process and currently do outreach work for a local recovery center for substance abuse. My father passed away in March and I now reside at his house with 4 acres and a barn. 2 horses are here and 1 is my sisters. My question is how do I start looking into equiine therapy for vets and PTSD? The house is underwater so there is not any money here at this time. I have noticed many grants on the internet. Do you have any ideas? I would so appreciate them

  6. 6
    Cortney Drake says:

    I am in school right now to be a Psychologist and with my husband being in the Army, I decided I wanted to be a Psychologist for the military. Ever since I was a little girl I have loved horses and at the age of 8 I started taking riding lessons. I was able to do things with horses that their owners couldn't and my horse trainer told me I was a natural and extremely gifted. So now I am wanting to be a Psychologist for the military and start a horse farm that enables soldiers to have "horse therapy". I am very interested in learning more of how equine helps with PTSD and other mental illnesses. Why not combine the two things I love most? Helping people and being around horses.

  7. 7
    Daniel says:

    John,
    I can tell you from experience that PTSD never completely heals. Many of us with PTSD and TBI life what most would consider normal lives. Some self-medicate with drugs (legal and illegal) and others with alcohol. But when you see us we put on a mask to appear normal. But the important thing is to recognize the triggers that set us off. Being able to feel the emotions coming on and recognize what is triggering that emotion and refocusing on someting soothing is a key to relief.
    I will also tell you that 'one size does not fit all.' Everyone is a bit different and we all have our unique triggers. What caused one person's PTSD may be very different from what caused another persons. So one cure will not fix everyone.
    I personally welcome any method to prevent my triggers and try to be careful not to judge others by my condition. As Anais Nin wrote “We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
    I wish you peace in your life.

  8. 8
    Terry FitzGerald says:

    My brother is in the documentary, and while it's true that recovery is a much longer road than 4 days, this program has made a huge difference for him.



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