One of the most profound aspects of Equitation Science is that communication with horses can improve significantly by using evidence-based knowledge and skills. Understanding the principles of Learning Theory, equine cognition and equine ethology allows us to remove the confusing and often anthropomorphic language we tend to use with animals, which ultimately crosses over into inconsistent training skills. While well intentioned, blurry language has the potential to worsen the welfare of the horse. This is no different with the captive elephants in South East Asia.
Nonetheless, training animals is the easy part. The real challenge often lies in educating the caregivers to properly and consistently train their animals; i.e. “we don’t help people with animal problems but we help animals with people problems.” Indeed, establishing a clear and consistent animal-human communication is not easy, and it may even differ with language and culture. For me personally, the aim to use evidence-based training techniques to improve the wellbeing of Mahouts and their elephants in SE Asia is what makes being a trainer with H-ELP so stimulating and enjoyable. Especially considering the language barrier and the 4,000 years of cultural tradition in dealing with captive elephants, it is critical we find appropriate ways to assist Mahouts to create positive and sustainable changes in their training techniques. This means being a good communicator and more importantly, a good listener to both the voice and body language. Additionally, a caring and patient smile, a hand on the shoulder, humor (while not in language), laughing, being relaxed, empathetic and sensitive goes a long way in building trust, improving communication and establishing a receptive learning atmos. In reflection, these qualities also make a person a great animal trainer; the empathetic, calm, and sensitive observer as animals often communicate in body language. All in all, it is an amazing learning process in all aspects and I am privileged to equally learn along with the Mahouts. In the end, we stand before each other with similar desires-the love of elephants and the desire to improve their welfare.