A Tip About Horse Training From Killer Whales

Years ago I visited Sea World with my family.  We decided to attend a whale exhibit.  Little did I know as I sat down that I was about to be schooled by marine mammals on horse training.

The whales lived in a tank away from the audience.   A gate separated the whales’ living space from the performance area.  We could see several whales lolling about in the living quarters as we waited with anticipation for the show to begin.

The show started on time with a large killer whale barreling out of the open gate.  He  swam the perimeter of the pool at top speed.  We could all see his power and momentum through the clear glass and through the big wave that he created in his wake.  The energy in the crowd was electric as this magnificent animal demonstrated his agility.

Then he swam right back into the gate.

I can remember feeling a little surprised, but figured it was all part of the show.  However, all that was left of the big performance tank were rolling waves that were gradually dying down.

The water stilled.  No whales appeared.  I was accustomed to these shows and was expecting some big action.  But we waited and …nothing.  You could have heard a pin drop, except for the gulls begging for dropped fries from the crowd.

Then the announcer told us that the whales were not interested in performing.  They weren’t coming out.  We could see the trainers in the back giving the whales some cues with their hand gestures and whistles, but the whales weren’t buying it.

The announcer explained that if the whales weren’t in the mood to come out then they didn’t have to.  They chose when they wanted to put on a demonstration and if they weren’t in the mood there was nothing the trainers could do.  How do you convince an animal that weighs 4-9 tons and is considered one of the top predators of the sea to do something it doesn’t want to do?

The announcer then went on to talk about how the whales usually choose to come out and show off but as long as the trainers respected their decision to take a time out then they were more likely to show off with greater enthusiasm later.

What does that have to do with horses?

Horses are not top predators.  They are prey animals.  When they aren’t in the mood to perform they are relatively easily cowed into cooperation.  We are above them in the food chain and they know it.  Sometimes we are completely ineffective at our efforts to convince them to cooperate and are met with resistance.  At other times our horses do cooperate, but they do it with a dull expression or lack of enthusiasm.

I can’t see the point of pushing my horse through a series of exercises that she isn’t interested in.  I want my horse to buy in 100%.   I’m looking for an enthusiastic partner.  When I put the time in to develop a great relationship and communication then my horse gives me her best.  Then the fun starts and we start to really connect and develop our performance.

Part of developing that relationship is giving my horses the choice about when they want to participate.  I treat them like the trainers did those killer whales.  I allow them to say no and then when they do participate, it’s with a clear  yes.  They come through the gate.  They stay and they play or work on their performance.  And they leave when they want to.

Those whales did decide to come out later.  They swam out full speed, leapt and twirled.  They were awesome even though their show was short.  However, it truly was an incredible show of whale power.  I felt better knowing that they decided to come out of their own accord and not because they were pushed.

How do you feel when you are pushed into something versus when you get to choose?  Have you noticed any of this behaviour in your horse?  Share your comments!

Photo credit: congvo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Comments 3

  1. Hi Heather, tried to like this to my facebook but the popup window to share did not fully come up so i couldnt complete it.. FYI- I like your writing style…and what you have to say.

  2. Interesting stuff. I’m just getting started reading all your blogs but great so far. Although it’s rare, I’ve seen connected horses but despite years of ground work and other training with Natural Horsemanship, I still don’t feel connected really or even strong leader. This approach seems to build a foundation to work from rather than to.

    1. Post

      Thanks for commenting. Yes, I once did ground work that was more similar to Natural Horsemanship, but I found that it still wasn’t based in a friendship or choice from the horse, so the horses were not connecting out of the same willingness they connect with from friendship.

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