Mary is our first trainer in the USA. She is based in Central Florida midway between two big horse industry regions- Ocala and Wellington.
You can reach Mary by email on MaryRichardsHC@gmail.com or on Facebook.
Here’s what Mary has to say for herself:
Every time someone asks me how I got ‘into’ horses, I tell them about my two horse crazy aunts.
One was a typical pony clubber who spent all her free time winning ribbons, and the other ended up doing several industry related jobs. She was an outrider for the Springfield, SC Steeplechase, a barn manager at Fort Knox, a Quarter Horse trainer, and most recently, involved in rehabilitating OTTBs (off the track thoroughbreds – retired racehorses)
Needless to say, I grew up in barns and racing paddocks. My own father was utterly terrified of horses, so I never had my own as a child, but I did have a close friend who had horses and I did the typical weekend lessons. As I grew up and went off to college, I drifted away from the horse world.
After graduating University with a degree in Psychology and minor in Biology (my intent was to study Animal Behavior in grad school), I was fortunate enough to land a position at the local zoo working in the African Savanna section, with zebras, black rhinos, giraffes and ostrich. One of the additional duties of this job entailed feeding sea lions twice a day for public shows. This was where I got my first introduction to positive reinforcement training. My first real ‘trainee’ was Bonnie Lou, a very opinionated California Sea Lion. This was at a time when positive reinforcement training was just coming into favor in the zoo world (marine mammal facilities were way ahead of zoos), so we were all rank novices. I count myself lucky that I didn’t have any fingers bitten off by a very frustrated sea lion! I learned a great deal about what NOT to do from her, and I will never forget the incredible relationship we had.
I moved on from that zoo to Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 1998 to a position working with hippos, black rhinos, bongo, okapi and crocodiles. Disney as a company is what you would call overachieving; they set out to hire the best of the best in the zoological industry, so I had several incredible training experts to learn from. Disney also made husbandry training a priority in their operation, so it was something in which every zookeeper was expected to become expert. It was here that I was able to hone my skills, and eventually became a training mentor to other keepers. In this capacity, I worked one on one with newer keepers to help develop their skills using more advanced techniques. As an aside, yes you can train crocodiles!
During my time at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, I also worked as the Animal Training and Welfare Consultant for a Psychology lab at University of Central Florida, where I was co-author on several papers investigating Human-Animal interactions.
In 2010, just by happenstance, I moved into a management position at Disney, but at the company’s equine facility where we have 90+ horses and ponies. It was while working at this facility that I began to wonder why ALL animals aren’t trained using positive reinforcement, so I started searching for any information I could find on the subject. At the time, there was not a lot out there, but thanks to social media, I found a group of like-minded horse people who were breaking into the field- including Horse Charming’s founder, Max Easey! It was here that I realized the massive potential for improving the lives of horses by simply changing the way we interact with them and viewing them as sentient individuals, not just a means to an end.
More recently, I have been working one on one with horse owners and equine rescue facilities to help them learn to use positive reinforcement. My passion is helping people take a holistic view of horse keeping to provide excellent welfare for and mutually fulfilling and positive relationships with their animals.
I am also involved in the recently formed Equine Committee of the Pet Professional Guild, where our focus is on producing educational material for the horse owning community.
I currently live in Orlando, which is right between the two most active horse regions in Florida – Ocala and Wellington. I also finally got my very own horse at the age of 45 – Williamson’s Dolle, aka Bird, a gorgeous Belgian Draft mare. I like to call her my war horse. I learn so much from her every day. Working with her has taught me a great deal about patience, unconditional love, and oh yes, the importance of training with a high RoR (Rate of Reinforcement)!