My experiences with horses and capybaras.
The events of this summer set me thinking about my own approach to animals and the negative effect on some animal species when people try to control and manipulate them emotionally.
This year’s chief capybara keeper’s interaction with the capybaras was all about controlling them beyond the usual norms. This had a negative effect on the capybaras, particularly the most senior capybaras in the hierarchy who expected to be in control of their lives and already resented the restrictions on their behaviour as a result of living in captivity. They were particularly stressed at not being able to eat when they were hungry, and not being able to mate. Almost every interaction this chief capybara keeper had with a capybara involved an attempt to make him/her do some completely unnecessary action. Some of the methods she used to try to get the capybaras to bond with her come from dog training methodology; rodents are not dogs! Capybaras are very sensitive emotionally and they knew they were being manipulated. The result of her efforts to control them was that the capybaras did not trust the chief capybara keeper and often became nervous if she approached them.
Every behaviour an animal exhibits is meaningful; this is how animals communicate with humans, but not everyone understands or is sensitive to animals’ behaviour. I come from a family who seem to get on very well with animals and whom animals seem to like. From the youngest age I have always seen things from the animals’ perspective. I have never had any desire to control animals but I have formed the impression that some people who say they love animals, love animals because they enjoy controlling them. For some of these people I have sensed that they felt they had no control over other areas of their own life, or control over people in their lives, so controlling animals made up for this lack of control in other areas of their life.
Many years ago I spent a few months working at a riding school grooming and mucking out horses. This riding school specialised in training students for the British Horse Society Assistant Instructor rating. I had two notable experiences during this time.
On one of our rides through the woods I was given a young pony called Kestrel to ride. Kestrel had a reputation for being naughty and a difficult ride and it seemed he sometimes enjoyed depositing his rider in the mud! We were supposed to ride on a tight rein but every time I tried to pull Kestrel’s head up he would shake his head and pull against my hands. It was obvious to me that he felt more comfortable on a loose rein and I felt a greater need to let him be comfortable and happy than to control him against his will, so we trotted along with Kestrel choosing how he wanted to hold his head. The track through the woods was occasionally crossed by fallen tree trunks over which the horses would jump. However I had not yet learnt to jump and Kestrel quickly sensed I was in danger of falling off if he jumped over these tree trunks. So every time we came to a tree trunk he would slow down and walk over it. Much to my relief! I couldn’t help feeling that he was repaying my kindness towards him in keeping the rein loose, by not jumping over the tree trunks to ensure that I did not fall off.
One of my duties at the riding stable was to take the horse I groomed to the blacksmith once a month early in morning. The horse I was looking after was in fact the chief instructor’s horse with all that that implies. His name was Darcy. We would go to the blacksmith in pairs and on my first trip to the blacksmith I was accompanied by an American girl doing a British Horse Society assistant instructor course who was a far more experienced rider than me. On our return as we trotted down the tarmac road Darcy suddenly veered off to the right up a narrow path leading into the woods. It immediately struck me that Darcy seemed to know exactly what he was doing and where he was going. Unlike me, he had been to the blacksmith many times before. I was very happy to let him canter through the woods and sure enough the path led directly to the stables.
What really surprised me was the reaction of my American companion. She was extremely upset and angry. Since her horse had not bolted but had simply followed Darcy I could see no reason for her extreme reaction other than she must have had a completely different mindset in her relationship with animals. Presumably, she had felt out of control as her horse cantered along the path and unlike me she was not prepared to trust her horse and enjoy the ride.
One other experience from my time at the stables still upsets me. When I first started working there I looked after a horse called Selworthy. He was a very sweet, gentle, calm horse. Earlier in his life he had suffered a back injury, a slipped disc, and had spent a year recovering in a field of sheep. Selworthy soon took to guarding these sheep as if he was responsible for their well-being and happiness. One day the instructor decided to show the students how to inject a horse and chose Selworthy as the unfortunate guinea pig. Poor Selworthy became more and more upset as inexperienced students tried to inject him. I pleaded with her to leave Selworthy alone and find another horse but instead she put a twitch on poor Selworthy’s mouth. A twitch is an extremely unpleasant way of controlling a horse by tying a rope around the horse’s upper lip and twisting it; the idea is that if the horse struggles the lip becomes more and more painful so the horse will stop struggling against whatever the person is doing to him. In the end the instructor had to abandon this exercise. After everyone else had gone I spent a long time with Selworthy stroking him and calming him down, and telling him how sorry I was about the behaviour of these people.
Research has shown that rodents, perhaps more than any other Order of Mammals, want to be in control of their own lives. The research is quite amusing. For example, in an environment where rats are able to control the light levels the rats prefer a low-level of lighting. However, if the research scientists set the light to this preferred level the rats immediately turn the light up to a right level. It is just so important to these rodents to be in control that they will choose the opposite of what they really like in order to exercise control of their environment.
Capybaras are exceptionally sensitive and emotionally sophisticated. They know when someone is trying to control them and this makes them deeply suspicious.
I will come back to the damaging effects of trying to control capybaras in my next blog: “What Happened to Aoba Capybara?”.
I have absolutely no doubt that the best relationship a person can have with an animal is based on mutual trust and the person’s ability to understand life from the animal’s perspective. There are far more productive and rewarding ways of achieving a desired behaviour in an animal then by using force or by attempting to control.