What are the challenges of caring for Barbie and Cooper?
Just over 3 months ago, both horses were in very different social settings than they are now. Barbie is no longer in a large herd; Cooper is no longer alone. The horses are acclimating to a new home, new caretakers, new sights and new sounds.
This can be a slow process for animals that are unhandled and untrained. Barbie and Cooper are not domesticated and are not used to close human contact, so their flight response to new people, objects and situation ranges from moderate to high. This is a desirable instinct for horses in the wild, but it means that our animal care team works diligently at building their trust and confidence in this new environment, reassuring them that it is safe.
Through our positive reinforcement training program, we have made progress in desensitizing Barbie and Cooper to their habitat and keepers. At present, they are shifting well between yards and will separate during mealtimes. At the Zoo, the Przewalski’s horses receive a mix of grass hay, hay cubes, and herbivore pellets. We also offer them carrots and sweet potatoes to encourage exploration of the barn's two stalls and to aid in shifting and desensitization.
Barbie seems more willing to engage with keepers for grain. I have touched Barbie's face briefly, and she has reached out on several occasions to sniff my hand. Cooper is becoming more comfortable with being closed into the barn for short periods while he eats, though he prefers to keep his distance unless I sit very still.
With routine desensitization, operant conditioning and habituation, we hope to settle the horses into their new home. Over time, we expect they will be more tractable and even seek out tactile interaction which might mimic social grooming, a natural behavior among horses. In future, we hope to be able to handle and trim their feet, give them a vaccination and weigh them on platform scales with their cooperation. At this stage in our relationship, however, both prefer not to be touched.