Q&A with Anja Salazar, Horse Behavior Expert
German native, Anja Salazar has a Masters degree in Equine Ethology and is a current doctoral student of Animal Naturopathy. She specializes in “Ethological Educated Equitation” and has 20 years experience starting young horses and correcting problem horses. Anja works with horses in the areas of memory processing, stereotypical behaviors, adaption and stress. In addition, she’s a saddle fitter and dealer for DP Saddlery, the owner and operator of True Colors Equine Farm, and foremost, an advocate for the animal itself.
First of all, can you explain what Ethological Educated Equitation is?
Equine Ethology is the scientific and objective study of horse behavior. Understanding equine ethology or animal behavior is important in training and building a relationship between horse and rider. Equitation is the art or practice of horse riding or horsemanship. More specifically, equitation refers to a rider’s ability to ride correctly and with effective aids.
Equine Education consists of:
- Analyzing & studying equine behavior patterns
- Humanely applied communication and cues
- Assessment of skill & training level
- Tack & tools
- Physical abilities
- Environmental factors
- Nutrition and Eating patterns
- Equine Health
How did you get started in your current line of work?
It all started when I was 5 years old. I was blessed with the skill of observation and early on, became kind of obsessed with watching animals and people. I watched the cows’ behavior at feeding time, wondering what exactly was the very first signal, noise, light, etc. to alert the cows that grandpa is coming to feed. And which cow hears it first? Is it always the same one? Does the time matter? What if something changes?
Well, and then I met horses… and my soul was completed and grounded. As a 12-year-old girl, I watched big warmbloods weaving and cribbing in their stalls, the pinned back ears, crinkled nostrils, baring teeth, rolling whitening eyes, kicking the doors or standing quietly with their head in the furthest corner of the stall, not caring if some rich brat in her white breeches, shiny leather custom dressage boots, hair in a French braid, wearing the newest Barbour Wax coat throws the halter at its butt to have him turn around to have another private lesson to practice the traversal in the canter on his arthritic hocks.
The horses at my village didn’t do that. They were outside in the pasture, always in groups, most of them happily coming to the fence to get petted and munch carrots from Mom’s fridge. I watched them for hours and days and months and I grew up and they grew old.
I finished my Master’s in Animal Psychology in 2005 and specialized in Equine, Feline and Canine Ethology. However, I do not offer any services related to Feline or Canine Ethology at this time.
Can you explain what types of services you offer for horses and riders?
Most of the time, it’s a holistic combination of it all – my expertise in the biomechanics, saddle fitting, equine behavior, skill, education, and the athleticism level of both horse and rider. However, my services for horses include In House Education (IEE) which consists of a timed stay at my barn. I gave it this title instead of “training” because I am not a trainer to train for a certain discipline. I am a horsewoman, an Equine Ethologist… I love horses– the animal itself and not just the “use” of them.
I can enjoy driving a pair of Draft horses, tölt an Icelandic, do a 50-miler on an Arabian, sort cows with a Quarter horse, go in an extended trot across the diagonal with a Warmblood, or start a mustang fresh from the range. I specialize in “Problem Horses” – which is not really the right term–but more on that later. . .
I usually only take 1-2 youngsters a year to be started under saddle (nothing below 3 1/2 – 4 years of age), “Refreshers” and “Tune ups”, R&R (time out from show, recovery of an injury), and do most of these in cooperation with Dr. Ali Sandiford, DVM, if applicable. I usually don’t take more than 4-5 horses at a time though.
I also sell a few horses on behalf of their owners, give riding lessons, offer horsemanship sessions, clinics, and seminars, do behavioral evaluations and assessments (also often in cooperation with Dr. Ali Sandiford, DVM). And finally, I help with troubleshooting for horse owners and trainers and resolving stereotypical behavior (environmental / habitual changes).
How is the type of training you specialize in different from traditional forms of horse training?
As I somewhat answered in the previous question, I do not train horses for a certain discipline. I look at the horse, spend time with it, and start what is easy for them, but I do what is necessary to either teach them to be considerate of humans and learn rules and appropriate responses, ride them as their conformation roughly determines to build muscles in the right places in order to have the animal strong and healthy while carrying the rider.
I feel most comfortable in the baroque, English and gaited world but am capable of teaching basic western cues, from bit to bit-less. It’s a holistic approach – understanding the animal as itself, understanding the way it was educated or “trained”, understanding the error in connection and/or miscommunication from rider to horse. There is no method for me. We are all individuals.
Can you tell us about a specific case where you were able to help a “problem” horse?
I would like to take the opportunity to clarify the term, “problem horse”. If I look back at 100 horses who’ve been presented to me, there probably was not one that truly fit this description (even though others see me as working with “problem horses”). I have only had one that I’d consider a “problem horse” in all my experience – but there was medical pathology involved so it really does not count. We could clone–have two identical foals– and raise them two very different ways, and we would have two very different horses. Genetics are only one part of the whole. The upbringing in environments, nutrition, human influence, etc. all influences the horse.
Horses are only “problem horses” because the human isn’t capable of communicating. Humans make problem horses for themselves, and the really sensitive ones with a huge survival instinct and self-preservation often have the crappy luck to go from one unknowable hand into the next. Some get damaged along the way so deeply that it takes years to recover, others come around quicker – usually until the age of 10 there is a good chance of turning their life perspective around, but if some real trauma happened over an extended period of time growing up and the horse is above the age of 10, chances are much lower to bring them back entirely.
In early 2014, I took an Arabian mare who had broken several people’s bones, including her current owner’s clavicle. She bucked six trainers off within the first fifteen minutes of riding. Her name is Belle, which means “beautiful”. The name was accurate. She was a looker! Grey, almost white. After her owner was injured, the husband was ready to send Belle off, but I was able to take her on, so I did.
Belle was pissed off at life. She was offended about everything and anything and it took her six weeks to give me ears forward for a split second before she realized what she was doing and decided to glue them back flat on her head because she apparently “forgot” that she hates everything. I had to be very methodical in regards to groundwork and exercises, and I had her with me, lead rope on my arm, everywhere I could–dumping manure, getting this, bringing that–like a dog on the leash. The mare never bucked with me or anytime after, and she became a solid trail horse. Her owner, an Arabian enthusiast, was inspired by her comeback and started AHRE (Arabian Horse Rescue and Education) in Oregon City and is super successful placing “Throw away Arabians” now.
The other horse burned in my mind is Bandolero, a Kiger mustang from Riddle Mountain. He is actually with me again currently, but only to keep him fit and get him started building stamina for his upcoming endurance season (his owner and I have been trail riding all summer long). Bandolero is probably one of the smartest horses I have ever had my hands on. He was supposed to be started slowly when he was around 3 years old. However, the hired trainer got on him after five days and that was not very successful. He began a bucking habit. I had him for about three months that same year and my recommendation was to turn him out with his buddies and leave him alone so he could heal a bit. The horse had pure panic, PTSD big time. Such a sensitive soul in a big-motored body. Powerful.
Since you’re currently working on your doctorate in Animal Naturopathy, how do you plan to integrate that knowledge with what you do now?
It is just one more ingredient to my holistic approach and I believe Naturopathy and Western Medicine should work hand in hand.
If you’d like to learn more about Anja’s work with horses, please visit her website.