Temple Grandin speaks at 2019 Rocky Mountain Horse Expo
An hour before speaking at the 2019 Rocky Mountain Horse Expo, Dr. Temple Grandin strode the aisles of the National Western Center, her purposeful gait carrying her to a table filled with books to sign for those buying them at the event.
Despite not being expected to sign until after her speech, the Colorado State University professor and world famous livestock and autism expert pulled up a chair and focused her attention on autographing books for anyone purchasing them beforehand.
That singular focus carried over on stage in front of nearly a thousand people at the Horse Expo. Talking about how animals think, Grandin relayed a wealth of knowledge and her unique autism-based perspectives, weaving in life experiences to help the audience better understand the way horses, cattle, other livestock, and even dogs perceive their world.
“If you understand how an animal thinks, it is going to make it easier to train an animal and work with an animal,” said Grandin in a sit-down interview after not only finishing her speech, but spending several hours signing about 200 books and talking with Horse Expo attendees who waited in line for the chance to meet her. Despite the intense schedule, the 71-year-old’s energy level held firm. “An animal is a sensory based thinker,” she said. “It doesn’t think in language. It is touch sensations, pictures, sounds and the tone of different sounds.”
While Grandin developed her reputation over four decades of projects, research and achievement in the cattle industry, she is also recognized for research and experience with other animals, including horses. Her appearance at the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo was a result of that.
“A lot of cattle and horse behavior is similar,” Grandin said. “The main difference is horses are more of a flight animal. Cattle are more likely to turn around and fight because they are a heavier animal and don’t go as fast as a horse, but there are a lot of things that are similar between the two. They both have wide angle vision, they are both grazing animals, they have a visual field that scans the horizon. Neither of them sees red. The point of balance, when you work the horse in the round pen, is similar to the point of balance when working with cattle. There are a lot of similarities.”
An important issue for people wanting to train a horse is to understand horses don’t transfer the introduction of one type of object onto other new objects. A new object is completely separate from another object they encountered. During her speech, Grandin likened it to desensitizing a horse to an umbrella by opening and closing the umbrella. While that training may be successful, a horse will not carry that experience over to a different object like a tarp.
“Animal thinking is very specific because it is sensory based and not word based,” Grandin said. “Training that horse to tolerate the blue and white umbrella doesn’t transfer to tarps. Now it is probably going to transfer to other photographic things that are very umbrella-like, but a big tarp flapping around looks completely different than an umbrella opening.”
Along those sensory-based lines, Grandin gave examples during her speech, using slides on screens to enhance the message. One showed a chute where cattle were having a problem moving forward. Several seemingly insignificant items were the culprits, as there was a white milk jug visible through the slats and sunlight was reflecting off the surface of a car in a nearby parking lot. Those unrelated items transformed the chute from low stress to high stress for the animals. Grandin said a horse’s perspective is very similar in nature.
“Solutions don’t need to be complicated,” the CSU professor emphasized on stage. To illustrate, she told a story about a large company that paid for her services to resolve a problem at one of their facilities.
“They flew me in using a big black helicopter,” she described with a smile, before relating how the answer wasn’t complex or expensive. “Six pieces of duct tape solved the problem,” she finished with a laugh. “Then they flew me back out in that big black helicopter.”
In the wrap-up interview, Grandin provided an experienced opinion on how to more effectively raise, breed and train horses.
“The first thing we have to make sure is the rough stuff is stopped,” she said in her typical no-nonsense tone of voice. “That is just the first step. Horses also need to have a chance to get out and be horses. There are a lot of fancy horses spending too much time locked up in stalls. I wrote about this in my book ‘Animals In Translation.’ I wrote about stallions that get really vicious and weird because they are kept isolated in a stall. That is not even normal behavior. People say, well that is a stud, that is why they behave like that. Well, a stallion in a pen in the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) place doesn’t behave like that, because it is a properly socialized animal.”
Grandin readily credits her contributions to the field of animal welfare to insights and sensitivities resulting from her autism. As a result, her speeches about how animals think also include information and advocacy concerning autism. According to her, there are positive trends for autistic children and the horse industry.
“I am pleased to see a lot of young people getting into horses,” she said. “I just heard the American Horse Council did a survey, and I haven’t looked it up yet, that a lot of young people 18 years old today, there is kind of a resurgence of getting interested in horses. I think the young people today realize they need to get off the electronics and there are a whole lot of other things they need to do. There are a lot of young people being labeled autistic, learning disability, dyslexic, ADHD, oppositional defiant, and some of these kids that get these labels are really good with animals. Horses are something they ought to be getting into.”
Regarding her impact on both the livestock industry and the study of autism, Grandin remained humble.
“Well, I work hard at it,” she said in her direct style. “Right now, at the age of 71, if I can inspire kids, that is one of the most important things I can do.” ❖
— Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer located east of Parker, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com or you can find him on Facebook at Official Lincoln Rogers Writing & Photography Page.