How Coetzee was transformed by the horse whisperer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 September, 2008, 12:00am

When you picture the summer break for a top jockey, you don't immediately imagine Felix Coetzee going back to school. But it is a mark of his thirst to improve that, despite three decades as a leading jockey in South Africa and Hong Kong, with championship wins, thousands of races and a long list of victories at the elite level, Coetzee again spent part of his break learning from one of the world's legendary horsemen just how much more there is to learn.

Towards the end of the 2007 season, Coetzee and champion jockey Douglas Whyte were talking about going somewhere to do some western or rodeo-style riding and he admits that first visit to Flag is Up Farms in California with Whyte had almost an element of the movie, City Slickers, about it.

'I found Monty Roberts' course on the internet and we both thought it looked interesting. Really, we had been hoping for something different on horseback, but it went way beyond our expectations,' he says.

'We were blown away by the techniques and the man, who is so knowledgeable and so patient. And he has the willingness and a rare ability to impart his knowledge.'

It was a revelation for the jockeys, despite their own undisputed place at the top of their craft.

'Being around Monty is quite intimidating - you realise that there is so much to learn,' says Coetzee. 'Then I thought, 'Ok, how can I use this in what I do?' I messed around with a few of the ideas when I came back to Hong Kong and it really works.'

For a couple of weeks every year, at the farm in Solvang, California, about a 30-minute drive from Santa Barbara, 73-year-old Monty Roberts holds a course in what is often referred to as 'horse whispering' - a form of body language communication, which has shown incredible success at building the link between man and horse.

A typical day starts at 9am with a classroom discussion of the day ahead then moves to a round paddock, where Roberts demonstrates and explains his methods until early evening. 'They break for lunch but Monty's usually so engrossed in what he's doing that someone has to remind him,' laughed Coetzee.

Roberts is not some conman, snake oil salesman - his achievements go back to winning shows with horses when still little more than a toddler.

As an early teenager, he was invited to be part of a group going into the mountains to gather mustangs, and undertaking the task he became fascinated by the silent communication system of the wild horses.

'Obviously, in the wild, these horses need to communicate silently so they don't alert predators to where they are, so they use gestures and body language rather than sounds,' Coetzee said. 'Monty told us that he spent hours and hours with binoculars watching their behaviour until he felt that he could see a system of communication there.'

It was the seed for Roberts' method, tagged 'Join Up' and which he would use to train horses of all kinds - including champion thoroughbreds - for almost 50 years before the publication of his autobiography, The Man Who Listens To Horses, in 1996. The work was an instant bestseller and has been the subject of further books, TV specials and his story surely inspired the book that led to the Robert Redford movie, The Horse Whisperer.

Roberts spoke in his autobiography of his methods and the contrast with those of his father, a trainer who 'broke' horses in traditional ways, forcing them to bend to his will rather than - as Roberts describes it - 'creating an environment in which horses can learn'.

What he does has been called a lot of things but really it is about understanding and trust, and Roberts himself debunks the idea it is something mystical.

Coetzee stayed in touch with the farm after 2007 and Roberts promised to take him and Whyte out for a ride on their return.

'Douglas had commitments in Japan this summer so I went alone and after a couple of days I thought the ride had been forgotten,' Felix said. 'But one day, he came and asked if I was staying for the second week of the course when he would have time to take me out. I spent four hours riding with him and that was a marvellous privilege.'

One demonstration went right to the heart of what Roberts does, replacing violence with kindness and understanding, when he took a badly abused saddle horse and turned around his life and that of his new owner in half an hour.

'This horse had had terrible, cruel things done to him by people earlier in his life in the name of training and was petrified of everything, but after 20 minutes in the round pen with Monty, you could see the trust building and the painful memories going,' Coetzee recalled. 'The lady who owned the horse was in tears watching the transformation.'

Another previously uncontrollable horse was brought in snorting, eyes bulging, and at one point even charged Roberts and knocked him down - something Roberts said hadn't happened for nine years - but there was Monty, calmly getting back up like nothing happened and he kept working with the horse. By the next day, he was comfortably leading the animal around off another horse.

'The course made me realise how little a jockey here has to do with the horses - we ride work, trials and races, but we don't have constant involvement with them,' Coetzee says.

He is quick to recognise some might argue there are different issues for jockeys handling horses under the microscope of Hong Kong's big betting pools, but he doesn't see the concepts as mutually exclusive.

'I'm acutely aware of the demands on me as a jockey here, but I still felt this course has given me a greater empathy with the horse, a better connection for confidence and trust in both directions and that has a role to play in race riding,' said Coetzee, who finished third in the jockeys' championship last season with 49 winners.

'Last season, I was thrilled with a lot of my results and, while I can't put my finger on a reason, I couldn't help but feel that this experience with Monty Roberts had made a difference. I wish I'd had to opportunity to do this kind of thing earlier.'

Roberts' stated motto is his hope to leave the world a better place for horses and for humans and aims to educate his students to be better trainers than himself - something Coetzee said he is well on the way to doing judging by the remarkable abilities displayed and taught by his assistants at the farm.

'Most people would want to keep their advantage over others, but all Monty wants to do is share what he knows,' Coetzee says. 'This year there was talk of the course being expanded to have a riding section, which would be a fabulous extra attraction for me, but I will go back every year regardless - there is so much to learn there, for anyone. You learn about communication and patience and you learn a bit about yourself along the way.'

On a roll

1. As a 15-year-old, Felix Coetzee attended the Jockey Academy at Summerveld in South Africa. At age 16, he scored his first significant win, riding Kentford to victory in the 1975 Clairwood Winter Handicap.

2. In 1982 he signed on with Cape Town trainer Terence M. Millard for whom he was associated until his retirement in 1991.

3. In 1992, he accepted an offer to ride in Hong Kong for trainer Brian Kan Ping-chee. After five successful years, he switched to riding for trainer David Hill and then in 1999 with Tony Cruz, where he rode the famous Silent Witness to a record 17 straight wins.

4. In 2004-05 Coetzee racked up 81 winners - his personal best - to finish second behind Douglas Whyte in jockeys' title chase.

5. As a Club Jockey, Coetzee finished third in the jockeys' championship last season with 49 winners to finish at 634 Hong Kong career wins.