Animal Training — I Didn’t Fail, Just Discovered 34 Ways That Don’t Work!

Animal Training — I Didn’t Fail, Just Discovered 34 Ways That Don’t Work!

Success and failure are relative measures. Success tends to boost one’s self-confidence and improve subsequent performances; however, failure tends to toughen one up and increase persistence in the face of future missteps.

To go from one success story to the next feels good, but may give one a false sense of comfort. On the other side, moving from one failure to the next isn’t any good to one’s morale.

So what’s the best? I’m going to tell you a short story.

Once, when I was young and never said no to a new challenge, I accepted a job consisting of trailering a horse. Horse trailering was at one time the number one problem reported by horse owners, much like the home alone problem is for dog owners and inappropriate urination and defecation for cat owners.

Trailering a horse, or not being capable of doing so, can be a considerable problem. If it happens when you’re at home, it’s annoying not to be able to move the horse but that’s what it is. When you’re out with your horse, 300 miles away, and you can’t take your horse home, then, you got a real problem.

These horse owners had the horse 200 miles from home. They went out for some kind of equestrian event and when it was time to drive back home, the horse simply refused to get into the trailer. Try as they might, they couldn’t get the horse into the trailer. In the end, they gave up, left the horse in a stall, and drove home. That’s when I came in. They called me offering me all I wanted if I just could get their horse home. After hearing how many horsemen and how they had tried to solve the problem, I should have refused. As I said, I was young and thrived on challenges.

I drove up to the farm where the horse was. We let if free in a small arena, drove a trailer in, and I sat on the fence just watching the animal. It was a beautiful quarter horse mix, a mare, about 4 years old. The owner told me the story of the horse. Basically, no problems except trailering. Usually, they succeeded in one of maybe 20 tries, but only after much hassle, and it was getting worse.

I will spare you for all the different methods (if you can call them such) they have used while trying to solve the problem—a long list of force and abuse that have nothing to do with horse training, just reflecting human frustration and thoughtlessness. Don’t get me wrong: the owners were not bad people. On the contrary, they were nice, educated, well-mannered—they were just poorly advised, in my opinion.

Some dog people, these days, get their blood pressure up to dangerously high levels from barely hearing a faint whine from a dog, and they fight bitterly over which collars are right and which ones are so totally wrong. Well, you should visit the horse world from time to time, and I promise you that you’d begin focussing on what is important and would not even give minor offenses a thought. Except for a few (and marginalized) brave horseman and women attempting to show that there are other equally (or more) efficient ways to handle a horse than sheer force, I’m sorry to have to say it, but horse trainer is still a long narrative of abuse masked under the names of fancy techniques.

I stepped into the arena bare-handed, not even carrying the horseman’s tool number one, his rope. I liked the mare straight away. It’s with animals like with humans, some you have that feeling of liking instantly—and others, unfortunately not. I think she liked me too, if not right away, then maybe 10 minutes after we both just walked slowly around, each tending own business, pretending not to be bothered at all by the other. The owners left at some point having to run errands downtown, which I think suited us both (horse and me) perfectly well.

After a while, the horse came to me, and we stood for a moment just inhaling and exhaling deeply. This is a horse thing when they meet others. I do the same as the others when I’m in a foreign territory—when in Roman, be a Roman. So, when I’m with a horse, I become as horsey as I can. It may look silly for some, but it works for me.

We walked around in the quiet arena for about two hours. We had a great time. The owners came back and asked me if I had had the horse in the trailer.

“No,” I answered shortly.

“Oh, we’re so sorry you’ve failed and wasted your time,” they replied like offering their condolences.

“I didn’t waste my time, and I didn’t fail at all. I learned 34 different ways that don’t work to trailer the horse.” I replied.

A couple of hours later, both the horse and I were in the trailer eating carrots and happily inhaling/exhaling one another. Not at one time did I use a rope or the halter, not once did I touch the horse. The first time we had body contact was when we had been in the trailer for a while and had eaten 3-4 carrots.

That day, I learned how to trailer a horse, not because I succeeded after four hours, but because I had found 34 ways that didn’t work. I thought I knew it before, but I didn’t. I had just been lulled into a false sense of security by my early success.

Success and failure are in our minds. It’s all a question of criterion and attitude. The two GP camps I just held in the USA prove it beyond any reasonable doubt. They were among the most successful I ever held because of the attitude of (the vast majority) of the attendees. In Altadena with Ready Sit Go, we achieved the amazing feat of having all teams pass the double-blind test, and we learned about the all-important role of imprinting and socialization. In Battle Ground with The Wolf Park, we saw how great results we can obtain when we build a relationship of trust with the animal we train; and that patience and self-control are crucial factors.

Thank you all, my friends, for allowing me to have been your guide in this journey into understanding and harmony among all living, independently of species and race.

Featured image: Roger Abrantes working with horse—Body language and movements are very important when communicating with any animal. Horses are particularly sensitive to motion and stance (photo from the EI files).

Roger Abrantes

Born in Portugal, a citizen of the World. Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology, B.A. in Philosophy. Speaks seven languages. Present work: lecturing on Ethology and sailing and diving in Thailand (marine biology environmental management).

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