Thinking about “The Cowboy and The Queen”
Memories from my fascinating day with Monty Roberts, Queen Elizabeth II’s longtime friend and horse trainer
I recently had the pleasure of working with Andrea Nevins, the Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated director, and her editor, Graham Clark, on their inspiring new documentary, “The Cowboy and the Queen.” The film, which will be released next year, tells the story of the unlikely friendship of California-born Monty Roberts, now 88 years old, and Queen Elizabeth II. Over more than three decades, her support of his non-violent techniques changed his life and revolutionized horse training. I saw a nearly final cut of the film, which is powerful, moving, and enlightening. It follows the parallel lives of Monty and the late Queen told through his reminiscences and previously unseen images.
Seeing the footage shot at Monty’s “Flag Is Up Farms” in Solvang, California brought back memories of the day I spent there in September 2009 with him and his wife Pat. She is a talented artist so admired by Elizabeth II that she kept two of her equine sculptures in her private quarters at Windsor Castle.
My visit was the sort of deep dive that I have always loved as a biographer. We spent hours in conversation, and I watched Monty’s training methods in his now-famous round enclosure where he uses body language, eye contact, and subtle signals to “join up” with untrained horses and encourage them to accept bridles, saddles, and riders—often within a half hour. Conventional “breaking” of yearlings typically takes four to six weeks and involves tying their legs and heads with ropes until they give up and submit to their human masters.
In Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch, I wrote at length about the week in the spring of 1989 when Monty came to Windsor Castle and first demonstrated his joining up approach to the Queen and a group of several hundred people including the Queen Mother and Prince Philip. I also described the fascinating friendship that evolved from those days, and Monty’s perceptive observations about the character of Queen Elizabeth II.
Today I’m returning to my extensive interviews with Monty to shed further light on his magnetic yet calming personality as well as his relationship with the Queen. Watching “The Cowboy and The Queen,” I was struck by how little Monty has changed since I met him when he was 74 years old: sturdy, tanned, and energetic, with alert blue eyes and a gentle but strong voice. He wore his identical “uniform” (the Queen allowed him to call it that so he wouldn’t have to remove his cowboy hat when they met): brown jeans, blue shirt, and red kerchief fastened by a silver pin.
He revealed to me that on the Saturday before his demonstration in Windsor Castle’s indoor riding school on Monday, April 10, 1989, he coincidentally met the 62-year-old Queen while he was inspecting the round pen where he would train her horses. He was with Sir John Miller, her recently retired Crown Equerry who had seen Monty take untrained horses through their paces in Solvang. Sir John had told Monty that the Queen faced a busy week, and Monty might not meet her. She had asked that the demonstration be filmed so she could watch it in her Windsor apartment. “I was really hurt and let down,” Monty told me.
“Then she was there,” he told me, “The heels came click click, and a woman stepped up to Sir John and said something. She was excited. Sir John introduced me, and she stuck her hand out. I shook her hand, and she continued to talk to Sir John. As she did, I noticed a change in Sir John’s demeanor. He was more attentive, standing with his spine straight. I was looking at him, and a chill went over me. I felt my eyes migrate. I looked at the lady and thought, `This is the Queen of England, and I just met her.’ So I said, `Your Majesty,’ as they were in the middle of their conversation. They halted, and she looked and nodded and said, `Yes?’ I could have walked under the door, I felt so stupid. Then she said, `Come show me this cage of yours. Do I need a whip and chair?’”