Dr Barbara Baker: Natural Horsemanship at the Pittsburgh Zoo


Podcast: https://www.zoomerradio.ca/podcasts/by-the-love-of-horses/dr-barbara-baker-natural-horsemanship-at-the-pittsburgh-zoo/

The following is a partial transcript of the show.


My guest today is horse-woman Dr Barbara Baker. Dr Baker is the President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo.

 In anticipation of having Dr Baker as our guest for today, I got to thinking about the idea of what it means to be a leader. And especially what kind of leaders we are in need of right now in the midst of the pandemic.

 Leaders come in all shapes and sizes. There are the usual kind of leaders, leaders of people who follow. There are also leaders of leaders. And then again, as we will see in a moment with a story about the horse I ride, Bud, there are leaders who are naturally followers, but who become leaders, when the circumstances demand it.

 As you no doubt already know, even though the very essence of the horse is to be a follower, to be part of a herd, there is nevertheless a lead horse who is at the top of the hierarchy. There might be a number of more prominent horses. But the majority of horses are, to be sure, followers.

Take the horse I ride, for example. Bud. Bud is an older horse. But he’s not what you would call a leader. He’s seen many a trail, and many a day in the arena. And in the paddock where he spends his days, he has his own place among the herd. He isn’t a leader there by any stretch of the imagination. But neither is he at the bottom of the hierarchy. He is comfortable somewhere in the middle. He definitely has his place and will defend it if he has to.

Lately, though, things have changed for Bud. They have changed, because of the arrival of a new, younger horse. Let’s call him Charlie. The new horse Charlie has arrived into Bud’s world because of the loss of Charlie’s long-time companion, who had been Charlie’s friend and the leader of their little herd of two. Charlie had counted on his friend, and had stayed close beside her. Now it was going to be just Bud and Charlie, forming their own herd of two in the paddock together, with no other horses present, at least for for a time.

Charlie was a true follower. He was completely comfortable in that role and wanted things to stay that way. When Charlie arrived in the paddock, he straight away tried to join up with Bud. I spent some time watching them interact. It was clear that Charlie wanted not only to be friends with Bud, but wanted Bud to be in charge. Charlie was in the market for a new friend and leader to replace the one he had lost. Bud Light, CEO of The Herd.

The wonderful thing about Bud [pause] was that this beloved horse I ride rose to the occasion. Bud was, even though he was usually among the gang of followers, now the great leader of this herd of two. You could see the two of them in their paddock. Charlie was happier, while still mourning his old friend. Bud, on the other hand, was little more than tolerant of his new role.. Bud was reluctant about being the leader. It wasn’t really his calling, so to speak. He was more a follower just like Charlie. Well, maybe not quite like Charlie. Bud did, however, nonetheless, accept this new role of leadership that was being demanded of him and looked after Charlie. He is, after all, a kind old soul.

Sometimes our finest leaders have been the reluctant ones. They have been individuals who felt the weight of what needed to be done or had a vision of what the future could look like. They thus took up the position of leader because of recognizing a need, rather than seeking the lead based upon dreams of glory for themselves.

George Washington would be one example of a great reluctant leader. One American history book quotes him as writing to an old friend before travelling to the Capital, then located in New York City: “My movements to the Chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution... I am sensible that I am embarking the voice of my Countrymen and a good name of my own, on this voyage, but what returns will be made for them, Heaven alone can foretell.”

Reluctance on the part of Washington did, however, not make him less effective as a leader. Maybe it made him more.

There has, of course, been a great deal written on the subject of leadership. And we certainly won’t deal with all of what it means to be a leader here.

Sometimes leadership involves having the vision to bring two seemingly very different things together to achieve something new.

You might say that this is what our guest today, Dr Barbara Baker, did when she recognized the gift of her head zookeeper and elephant manager, Willie Thieson, to understand and communicate with elephants. She then proceeded to find a way to not only recognize and applaud Willie Thieson’s technique, but to reproduce it by finding a way to have his approach to animal care taught to the other personnel of the Zoo.

Dr Baker led by being innovative. She recognized an important technique in another industry that would help her in her own. Dr Baker thus recognized the value and relevancy of the Parelli Natural Horse-man-ship program and envisioned its application at the Zoo. She then proceeded to bring in trainers of natural horsemanship to the Zoo. In this way other Zoo personnel could learn how to engage with the animals using the same principles.

To be a leader is to lead a team into a future where there is no real road map and be able to inspire their team to follow them there.

I’m excited to welcome Dr Barbara Baker. It’s nice to meet you and have you with us.



With time there came the need to introduce Charlie into the larger herd of which Bud is a part. Amongst this herd, Charlie still looked for Bud to be his leader. But Bud had to take pains to explain to Charlie that things were different now. Charlie came round to see Bud, but Bud would just kind of repeat what he had told Charlie before.

It was as though Bud said to Charlie: “Look, you’re going to have to find your own place in the herd, Charlie. I know it’s hard. But you have to take your own place. You can’t just stay at my side all the time.”

So, Charlie has listened to Bud and has been trying to find his place in the herd, which I can see is slowly taking place.

Bud was right. He was being a leader in his own way for Charlie after all. Charlie did have to find his own place within the hierarchy of the herd. It was the natural and necessary thing for him to do. He had to take some responsibility for himself.

You might say that in this special circumstance of the pandemic, each of us is being asked to be a leader. We all are being asked to show leadership in following guidelines, in keeping our families and communities safe.

We are asked to be proactive and to take the lead in preserving our own health. I noticed, for example, a recent advertisement which suggested that we take up the position of CEO of our own health.

Times like these call upon us to be innovative like Dr Baker. They call upon us to rise to the occasion like Bud. What is fascinating is that when we try, we find that we have strengths that we didn’t even know we had. The strength of the human spirit is a remarkable thing.

They say that horse women have a special ability to get things done. That may well be true. That is certainly true in the case of our guest today.

But I say that the ability to act positively and effectively to deal with the challenges that lie in front of us is, at the end of the day, in the wheelhouse of each one of us.