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So, What Do You Do? Tamara Reynolds, Animal Trainer

April 16, 2019

“So, What Do You Do?” is an MM series featuring extraordinary women in the kinds of jobs that make you sit up and say, “What’s that like?” Every week, another original entrepreneur, executive, artist, or scientist will own the answer by sharing what she does, how she does it, and why she does what she does. Up this week, Tamara Reynolds, animal trainer, on talking to animals, picking up poop, and teaching a happy horse to act sad.

As a bigtime animal trainer, Tamara Reynolds does a lot more than make her animals jump through hoops. She communes with a wide variety of domestic and exotic creatures, including horses, dogs, cats, wolves, cheetahs, bush babies, baboons, ostriches, and many others, to teach them how to interact with humans and carry out tasks for films, TV, and commercials. These relationships mean everything to her. “I’ve always loved animals,” she says. “When I was a kid and we played Genie in a Bottle, my second wish—after saving the world from everything bad—was that I could talk to them.” Reynolds trained horses early on, but her career really took off when she joined the legendary company Gentle Jungle, owned by Reynolds’ husband, Sled. (Sled’s dad, Fess Reynolds, founded the company back in the days of silent movies and Westerns. In fact, one of his prized pupils was Roy Rogers’ horse, Trigger.) In recent years, Tamara has worked on Hollywood projects such as The Jungle Book, The Bourne Legacy, and several Transformers films. Despite being known as one of the best in the biz, she says, “I am more proud of my animals than of myself.”

Here is just some of what she does in a day.

Gets up close and personal with her charges.

Training animals is learning how to talk and how to listen to each animal as an individual, not just as a species. I love the relationship that happens when you make the effort to understand who you are talking to.

Maintains a weird schedule.

We work a lot of nights—our hours are odd and unknown. You have to be flexible, and any life plans you make are always tentative. But on ranch days, I get up early and give myself two hours to have breakfast, coffee, and reading or writing. I love the time to think about what I’ll do with my day. Then I go outside to the animals. Some days are hectic: loading for a job, giving baths, taking care of teeth and toenails, teaching a camel to open a door and take a balloon from a kid—whatever you can imagine.

Flexes her skills in reading body language.

It’s my best tool for training the animals and for doing a good job on set. I can tell if my animal doesn’t understand what we are asking for or if the director wishes it looked different and I will quickly adjust. A ‘stay’ is a simple example. I have the dog walk into the kitchen and stop, but the director suddenly tells me that the dog is stopping because he saw a squirrel through the window. I might not have brought a squirrel with me that day, so I say ‘stay’ and run out of the room, faking an eye line to the window. Or I do Jumping Jacks. Either way, the dog’s posture changes. He rises up, his neck is longer, his ears go up. He freezes. He’s curious. Just as if he’d seen a squirrel. A lot of the time, nuance is more important than the action. You are trying to give the impression of an emotion. A horse doesn’t just walk from the barn to the house. The horse is tired and maybe hurt, sweaty and looking for help. Sounds sad, but we take a perfectly happy, healthy horse and teach him to walk slow with his head down and then we sponge water and shaving cream on him to look like he is sweaty and lathered—ta da!

Stays nimble.

You have to have a good relationship with your animals, trust and understanding, to bring them to new places with new people all the time. I’m hired for all different kinds of productions—movies, TV, commercials. Sometimes you realize when you get on set that what they want the animal to do is different from what they’ve told you.

Loves a challenge…

I love to train hard stuff. I could care less about holding a horse while an actor climbs on and off 50,000 times for a car commercial.

…but also picks up poop.

Most people would probably agree that picking up poop is not very glamorous. And I guess most people would say meeting and working with movie stars and big directors is glamorous. One thing is that I wish I got to dress up more—I wear jeans and T-shirts every day.

Gives the animals what they need.

The lovely thing about animal training is that it is progressing as a psychology. It’s not just about speaking English to an animal and making them do whatever it is that you’re saying until they figure it out. You must also know the instinct and drive of an animal and give them what they naturally and genetically want for their own mental well-being, as much as that is in your power to do. So, our Border Collies get to herd sheep and our bloodhound gets to do tracking. We don’t give the wolves animals to kill, but we give them cardboard boxes to shred and drag and toss around. They love it. It can’t just be about training all the time. When I overhear people talking about how much my animals love me, they’ve seen that look of trust and how relaxed and confident the animal is. Taking care of the animal’s mental and physical health is my biggest goal.

Juggles.

I feel really good when I’ve coordinated a job with a whole lot of moving parts and everything runs smoothly and the production people are happy. That would include managing a huge number of animals and trainers, transportation, makeup, props, training. There’s so much that sometimes I don’t get to actually work with the animals. But when I do, I love when an animal pulls out all the stops and does their very best and they know it. And they do know. I am so proud of them when they feel good about themselves.

Dreams of an idyllic future.

[I envision] a cabin in the woods with my animals, not far from a cute little old town with a great coffee shop, bar, yoga studio, and feed store. A pasture of green grass with the horses and water around me. I want to windsurf. I want a motorcycle with a sidecar. There are so many books to read, I’ll never get them done.


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Ashlea Halpern is the co-founder of Cartogramme and editor-at-large for AFAR Media. She edits New York Magazine's pop-up travel blog, The Urbanist, and writes regularly for Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, Airbnbmag, and Wired. After spending 3.5 years traveling Asia, Australia, the Arctic, and North America, she has settled in Minneapolis, MN—the most underrated city in the lower 48, bar none. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern and @cartogramme. Read more of Ashlea's posts.


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