Let me tell you a story.
Horses are intelligent, sensitive teachers, with endless patience and a disposition to turn the other cheek again and again. I was drawn to them for their honesty. In a world of complicated humans that I couldn’t figure out, horses were a constant and I knew where I stood with each individual on any given day. Sadly, the human world did not equip me to deal with my growing frustration and anger and I took it out on the horses.
I did many things that I am ashamed of doing simply by being a horse rider. Horse training is an openly violent method of dominating an animal through force, pain and fear. I was a part of that. What I don’t often tell people is the things I did to horses that were beyond simply being a rider. I at time used unnecessary force, was unreasonable, lacking in empathy, unsympathetic, anthropomorphising and generally seeing myself and all my problems reflected in the horse and raging at them as I did inwardly at myself.
The first time I heard a natural horse trainer speak about his life and work, I cried and gushed and generally made a fool of myself. It grabbed me on a very deep level that I resonated strongly with. I never knew such people existed and the things they were saying made such perfect sense to me. To say I was ecstatic is an understatement, and I still have close friends that I met on that day when I burst my enthusiastic and slightly gooey “truth” all over the place.
Natural horsemanship is essentially speaking to a horse using body language, having conversations to cause the horse to do what you want it to do. The horse has a 49% say in the relationship, the human 51%. On an average day, you share 49%, with 2% in reserve in the case of a dangerous situation, where the human must take control. This discovery changed my life and I reverted to a beginner in my riding and training, finally getting that connection with horses that I could never quite reach before. That in itself can be a difficult thing requiring a full belly of humble pie.
Then came the guilt and shame. It was crippling. Even now there are a couple of things that still make me cry to think about. I cannot believe I have done such things in my life. Many people who meet these natural horse training methods reject them – sometimes vehemently railing against them – and I believe many do so due to an inability to face this shame and guilt in themselves that so-called “animal whispering” brings up. The next years were even harder for me as the horses started to teach me all about myself – it wasn’t pretty. I believe this is why many turn away from these methods after just a short time. Changing the way you train an animal requires examining long held core beliefs about yourself and the world; it can leave a person feeling very exposed.
That is why I believe we must show compassion to all people. As we have all done things in our past that we now cannot understand why or how, we must assume that capacity lies in every other human, no matter how treacherous they appear on the outside. That is why I will strive to listen to the problems and concerns, wisdom and reasoning of any mahout with his elephant. They are not monsters. I know this, because I see myself in them in a strange way. Every time I see a hook wielded, I see a past version of myself with a shank chain through a stallions mouth, or using a twitch instead of trust and patience; I remember my frustration and helplessness.
Modern day mahouts are generally outcasts from mainstream society, living close to poverty and not afforded the same socio-economic opportunities of the average citizen. A generally accepted reason for this is that the tribes who first tamed elephants were indigenous to an area that was subsequently invaded and conquered, casting the natives to the fringes while the spoils of victory were divided, the new society taking root and prospering.
I don’t believe that reducing a mahout to “elephant carer” and expecting them to wear any hat we give them is going to achieve a better future for captive elephants. New methods – even when they clearly work – don’t always cause a change in the animal trainer for a multitude of deep dark reasons. You cannot create a sustainable model if the basic needs and assumptions of key players do not align. It goes so far beyond simply handling an elephant. That is the paradigm shift that we, as conservationists, need to grasp.