Honestly, my original intention when I first went to the Highland Wildlife Park was to just observe the Przewalski’s , hands off and learning from their behaviour. Isn’t it funny how plans and expectations so often don’t go in the direction you thought? My intended path was just about to take an unexpected and very welcome detour…..
Watching a group of horses living and interacting as they choose is a wonderful thing, so the first time I observed the parks herd I was completely engrossed. Alongside me were a couple of the keepers who care for the horses along with Becky, the senior hoofed stock keeper. She began to fill me in on the lives of the horses. During our conversation my work training feral ponies for hoof trims came up, her eyes lit up and she said “Do you think you could do the same with these guys?” My answer was “I really don’t know but I’d love to try!”.
Becky’s question arose out of the difficulties that the keepers had experienced when they needed to handle the horses in the past. If a injury or health reason meant that a horse needed to be worked with the only option available was to dart them. This is a difficult and expensive procedure that can be dangerous for both the horse and human. As free and idyllic as the horses lives are interventions are sometimes needed.
So after interviews with the park director and vet it was decided that I could attempt to work with the horses. Expectations were low but it was thought to be worth a try as long as I was with at least two keepers and safety was the paramount consideration. Understandably a lot of work with animals in zoos is through protected contact, which means there is a barrier between you and the animal. This wasn’t how I wanted to work with the horses so I needed to access how best to work with the herd. We would be starting from scratch.
The horses share 80 acres of hill ground with a large herd of European Bison, some Red Deer, and any local wildlife and birds that choose to join them (The park is also a haven for Red Squirrels and migrating birds). A track runs through the park so that visitors can drive through and observe the animals. They roam free and the people enclosed, Wonderful! Because the Bison like to get involved in whatever’s happening and the very large space it was impractical to work with the horses there. The Camel pens are close by so we needed to persuade the horses to come into that space, much to the disgruntlement of the camels who often stand and watch proceedings through the gate, instead of going into their field to hang out with the Yak.
The problem with the camel pens is that the horses had quite negative associations with the space. Some had been confined there due to health reasons and it was the place that was often used for darting. The horses found it a pretty scary and unsettling to spend time in there. So the first step was to get them used to the area. We needed to build positive experiences for the horses within the space so they would feel safe.
As with any mammal optimal learning takes place when we are in a state of curiosity, too relaxed and we don’t take anything in and too alert and the stress impedes learning. So we needed to make sure the camel pens were a safe and enjoyable place to be, hay in plentiful supply, free movement between all of the pens and chopped carrots and turnips scattered across the ground. It didn’t take long and the horses would be waiting at the gate impatient to get in.
We also needed the horses to feel safe with humans close by so we could share the space with them. We paid attention to our body language, keeping our voices low, eyes soft, our breathing deep and moving calmly and quietly. If a horse approached us we would let them sniff us but would not attempt to reach out to touch them. I’ve found that unhandled horses are often unsettled by our arms reaching out. For us it seems the most natural thing in the world to reach out but for unhandled animals these limbs that move through the air and come towards them can be disturbing.
A big part of this type of work is tiny details and breaking things down. So to prepare the horses for touch we first got them used to our arm movements, maybe reaching up to scratch our ear or putting our hands out to learn on a fence. Then when they were comfortable with that type of movement we would trace the shape of their body were we wanted to touch them but not make contact. So when the time was right and they felt confident enough to instigate touch we could reciprocate and make contact In a way that was becoming familiar to them.
As I read through this it sounds like we were a bit tentative. That’s not the case. We were confident in our interactions but not intrusive. When you observe how horses behave with each other you realise how polite they are. Very rarely do you see individuals barging into another’s space, rather it is a slow getting closer and then an invitation to make gentle and short contact which is then built upon. We humans were so used to imposing our touch onto animals it seems quite natural to go straight to up and start touching them. Domesticated animals get used to this (sometimes) but for sensitive or unhandled horses this is a big deal. So we need to relearn how to behave around them with the goal of building on a solid foundation of trust, predictability and calmness.