Ted relayed to me that prior to the show, the SeaWorld trainers explained the general philosophy of how they interact with and teach these marine mammals to do the amazing things they do.
Some of the noteworthy things Ted related were:
--there is no force involved
--there is no punishment
--undesirable behavior is ignored, not corrected
--copious praise reinforces desired behavior
--food is just one reward, praise and human attention are more appreciated by the animals
--the gate to the back pools is always open so if an animal doesn't want to participate it is free to leave the area
--if an animal does not want to "perform" his part of the show is canceled
In fact, this last element is something that Ted and his family experienced for themselves. The first day they went to see the show, they struck up a conversation with an enthusiastic fellow sitting nearby who was especially addicted to SeaWorld (having made many repeat visits) and enjoyed telling them all the things he'd learned about the type of training that is done to put a show like this together. He also told them that sometimes Shamu refused to perform, and that if this happened they should come back at another time because Shamu's performance was spectacular and worth waiting for. Sure enough, during their first visit, the Shamu Rocks America show had to be called off, but during their next visit, the killer whale was in a better mood and ready to show what he could do, bringing astonishment and awe to the cheering crowds.
I was thrilled with what Ted was telling me because it felt very much like the path of horse/human relations I have been pursuing, and reflected almost word for word the philosophy put forth by Imke Spilker in her book, Empowered Horses. This philosophy is also present in Alexander Nevzorov's work, and there are many similarities as well with the work of Carolyn Resnick.
I quickly did some research on the internet and found a website which provides information on training marine mammals at SeaWorld. Those of you who train horses and are especially drawn to non-coercive means of training will enjoy reading through the way training and behavioral shaping takes place at SeaWorld. Reading about how SeaWorld approaches training once again (as with the way Imke Spilker interacts with horses) also reminds me very much of the philosophy behind the Montessori method of teaching young children.
After reading through the SeaWorld web pages, I was especially impressed with their detailing of what they feel creates an ideal training environment which to my perception seemed remarkably holistic and more of an overall interactive lifestyle which includes, sessions devoted to learning, exercise, relationship, play, husbandry and the shows.
Learning about the way SeaWorld trains these marine animals came at a time when I had just been reading on various Spanish Mustang forums and websites how disgusted many of these trainers are with the surge of enthusiasm dedicated to shifting perceptions of horses as livestock which are to be dominated and used, to that of horses as friends with whom we can have egalitarian relationships that lead to self-actualization for both horse and human.
Here are just a few comments from these various sites that caught my attention because they come from a particular perception that horses will take advantage of humans and harm them if they are not reprimanded, disciplined, punished, etc.
"On the flip side, we have those that will over-gentle the horse and try to treat it like a dog. They do not discipline or follow through. They allow the horse to make decisions and then can't change the behavior because the horse does not take them seriously. These horses are allowed to act like spoiled children and will hurt you if given the chance."
"Too many people equate natural horsemanship with passive, whimpy, non coercive, "training" methods. I am not Ghandi. I am just as violent, (and no more so) than are the horses in my herd. If one of my horses would bite me I would take my natural fist, do my best to make it feel like a natural kick, and try to knock the natural hell out of him. "
"I like your description of how you deal with a ground problem, horse to horse. Himself gets popped in the old kisser or a hard fist on the neck when he deserves it. When it happens, he then looks at me and starts licking his lips or if bridled-up, will spin his bit's cricket roller. Like he knows I caught him crossing a line. And then we're fine. It's the old John Lyon Three Second Rule: If the horse bites or kicks or something along those lines, you have three seconds to kill him. Then you let him know that the world is now OK. Rub him a bit. Love a horse to death and one of you may die."
These types of responses from humans towards a horse's undesirable behavior often yield the results humans are after...but not always, horses are not machines and humans are not always interpreting the horse's state of being accurately (meaning that many times a horse is punished when actually the human is in error or has inappropriately provoked the undesired behavior to begin with). And while one can argue that to discipline a horse in this brusque manner is something horses understand because this is the way they handle disputes amongst themselves has a certain merit--however, it does little to raise the level of communication to a subtler, higher state of understanding that brings out the best in both horse and human. At best, this type of training teaches the horse that if he behaves in a subordinate manner things will go better for him and teaches the human that when the horse shows an opposing reaction, she must assert herself, no matter what it takes, until there is a yielding of the horse's will to hers.
This would be the point of that type of dominator-driven training, I suppose, to create, through the use of force, horses which assume a reliably subordinate behavior (subordinate minded horses are considered safer for humans to be around). A horse must submit to the human handler in all things, like a well tuned mechanized vehicle, if you will, that with the press of a button responds as the human has designed it to do.
The trainers whose comments I've highlighted are probably not mean-minded individuals and likely are not cruel to their horses, but I do feel that they may be mentally stalled in their evolution of horse/human relationships and maintain a certain roughness that will keep them from advancing. They are probably not interested in developing anything other than what they presently practice...they are happy and their horses have come to a place of adjusted contentment. It is not necessarily a bad thing, this relating to horses as subordinate creatures--these trainers are merely capitalizing on the horses natural tendencies to yield to a higher authority...
...its just no longer what I feel compelled to do. I am exploring other means of achieving willing cooperation with horses.
For myself, if I resort to inflicting pain, however brief, to make myself understood to my horse, I feel that I have missed the opportunity to take our relationship to a higher level, i.e. my punitive actions reinforce a certain baseness of character that hold us back from evolving in our understanding of our overall potential in our relationship together.
My understanding of the new philosophy of horse/human relationships (or possibly a revival of an ancient one!) is that it promotes nurturing a means of communication that--while based on what we see horses exhibit amongst themselves and utilizes the type of communication we use amongst our human selves--is ultimately generating a unique (or inherent!) situation that transcends apparent differences between the species. This type of philosophy requires a dedication to developing the relationship first, based on mutual respect, creativity, lack of rigid hierarchy, shared leadership and a complete reversal of perceiving the horse as a useful tool to fulfill human desires.
I should note here that the concept of mutual respect, avoidance of a rigid hierarchy and sharing of leadership are the very things that traditional trainers likely finger as causing "spoiled" horses. No doubt a misapplication of means to achieve "mutual respect" and "shared leadership" occur--similarly a misapplication of means can likewise ruin horses in the dominance oriented manner of training.
My point, and the point that has been made by pacifists all along, is that it is possible to achieve excellent relationships with out the threat of "might makes right". Some ancient cultures flourished as "partnership societies" and though the war-mongers later overtook them and established our present well-ingrained system of "dominator societies" we have within us the capacity to revitalize a more sustainable, egalitarian way of interacting with our world and its inhabitants. What better way to understand this than to restructure our relationships with horses (or killer whales) without resorting to domination and violent measures to gain understanding and compliance from them?
Getting back to the training philosophy of SeaWorld. A man named Chris Rice was able to have a one on one interview with Laura Surovik, one of SeaWorld's killer whale trainers. He relayed elements of this interview in his blog, and I'd like to share a few noteworthy passages here, with readers keeping in mind the parallels to being with horses.
I asked Laura if food was the primary ‘reward’ for the whales’ behaviors. I was surprised at her answer.
“Actually, the whales respond more to attention and love. They’re being fed all day, so a few fish are not so much a reward, just part of our interaction. We take our cues from observing the whales.”
The whales demonstrate her point as they swim around responding to each other’s touch. They continually rub against each other’s backs and sides and bellies and love the attention. It becomes obvious that they especially love this kind of attention from the trainers too. And the trainers are more than happy to give it!
The trainers speak of their work as a “lifestyle commitment,” often spending overnights with the whales.
“It’s a 24/7 kind of life. The whales are like family members to us.”
“You know, Chris, you’re a behaviorist, since you’re a psychology major. You know, having worked with children, and people all over the world, you have to be able to read the situation. Look in the animals’ eyes and read. Are they with me? “Animals have good days and bad days. No different than us."
I'm so glad that Ted stopped by to share his inspirational visit to SeaWorld, it has brought to me an added sense of "rightness" in the path I have been drawn to with our horses here at Ravenseryie.