What happens when a retired elephant trainer buys her first horse? Positive reinforcement (R+), of course! After decades of personal success using R+ as a tool with elephants, it seemed like a natural training method for a horse. And this is how we met an amazing individual who truly thinks like a positive reinforcement trainer.

Who is Rhonda Saiers?

Rhonda Saiers is best known as the “elephant mama” from Albuquerque’s BioPark Zoo. Recently retired, she devoted a quarter of a century of her career as a caretaker, trainer, and advocate for the largest living land animals on the planet.

From husbandry to enclosure set-up and activities, Rhonda was a positive reinforcement pioneer for elephant care at zoos. Managing the multi-generational herd, she developed the program around the elephants, ensuring they lived as naturally as possible.  

Upon retirement, one smaller yet also large animal that Rhonda is choosing to spend her time with is her recently acquired Gypsy Vanner, Norma Jean. Experienced with elephants but not horses, Rhonda decided to apply her extensive behavior science knowledge to understand how her horse thinks.

As her equine journey began, she thought that there must be someone who has worked with horses in this way, positive reinforcement is such a valuable tool. Turning to the web for research, Rhonda found Via Nova.

rhonda and norma jean riding

Norma Jean and Rhonda – photo by Hayden Drager

From Elephant Trainer to Horse Owner

Rhonda’s horse story begins three years ago when she agreed to go trail riding with her best friend, who had introduced her to horses when they were kids. That ride led to a search for a new four-legged friend. Always drawn to horses of color, the pair took to the web and found a paint horse available for purchase. 

Now the proud owner of a paint Gypsy Vanner, but not an experienced horse owner, Rhonda wanted to learn from the horse, as she had with the zoo animals. Groundwork with positive reinforcement training ensued with success. The pair began to build a connection. Rhonda was constantly impressed with equine intelligence, becoming increasingly interested in what positivity was possible.

Some Saiers Elephant History

A research career with animals was her dream. So while in school, Rhonda volunteered at the zoo as a docent. When she noticed an ad for an intro-level zookeeper, she applied.

“Back then, it only required a high school diploma and six months of paid experience with animals,” Saier noted. “The extent of my experience was working with the riding camp my best friend’s mom had in the summer, where I led horses in and out of the fields.”

Bold, confident, and a go-getter, Rhonda convinced the Albuquerque BioPark that she was the woman for the job. Initially, she worked with large stock at the zoo, including alpacas and llamas. 

When Rhonda was first introduced to elephants, she was instantly smitten with Rozie, a three-year-old female Asian elephant. With Rozie as the matriarch, Saiers ultimately developed an elephant family over the next two decades. 

Achieving a multitude of impressive goals over her career, Rhonda shared the story about one particularly inspiring elephant named Irene and how she used positive reinforcement to build connection and trust.

Rhonda Saiers

Irene and Rhonda – photo by Conrad Doborski

When Irene arrived at the zoo over twenty years ago, she was in her thirties and didn’t trust humans. 

“We would start the day with a bath and an overall check for health issues. Irene stood as far away as possible. We taught her to bridge, and she learned that if she would come over, she would get treats,” Rhonda explained. 

“One day, when Irene was in her usual faraway place, I called to her, ‘Come on Irene, let’s go get a bath,’ and she came right away! That was a huge milestone proving that positive reinforcement worked on Irene. Years later, when she had a piece of hay stuck in her eye, we used positive reinforcement as a tool so she could have eye exams daily. She would volunteer her head so we could take care of her. Irene had come a long way with positive reinforcement.”

Rhonda said that elephants are smarter, think faster, and ponder more about problem solving than we might think. These large animals can be “chill” or they can be feisty. They can have good and bad days, just like us. But the “elephant mama” always knew how to bring out the best in the herd.

Priority to Positive®

Via Nova welcomed Rhonda as a student in our winter-spring curriculum. While participating in the classes, Rhonda has provided feedback and praise. She applauds the phrase Priority to Positive® and what it stands for as a perspective on using positive reinforcement. We are thrilled to have her learn from our approach as well as having her share her extensive experience with us. Definitely a win-win! 

Rhonda and Norma Jean - photo by Sloane Milstein

Norma Jean and Rhonda – photo by Sloane Milstein