As you know, our mission at Equestrian Adventuresses is “to empower women around the world to pursue their passion for adventure with horses.” This works in two ways: On one hand, we are delivering you, fellow adventuresses, inspiring stories of women who live their dream. On the other hand, we give those women a channel to spread their knowledge and information. This time, we are talking to Valentina who is the founder of a research institute for equine behavior. Her goal is to bridge the gap between scientific research and everyday horse management. By understanding horses and their language, she believes you can make a big difference. We are proud to present to you: Valentina Kupresan, founder of the “Equine Behavioral Science Institute.”
Author: Krystal Kelly
Question: Hello Valentina! Please tell us where you are from and what you are up to.
I’m Valentina, and I live in Serbia, a small country in the Balkan region of Europe. I was born in Serbia but I moved to South Africa with my parents when I was very young. Only recently, I relocated back to Serbia with my husband and our two dogs. Moving to Europe has been wonderful for our family! We really wanted a new adventure and so far we haven’t been disappointed.
Q: Tell us about you and how you started your journey with horses.
The love for horses is in my blood. My great-great-great grandfather, Filip, was known as a horse whisperer and animal healer in his village in former Yugoslavia, where he worked with all sorts of animals. His name in Greek means ‘lover of horses’. My grandmother also worked with horses as a young girl.
I started taking horse riding lessons around the age of 8 or 9 and the rest I guess is history. I only began working with horses professionally in 2013 when I started “Equine Behavioural Sciences Institute” (EBSI), then called Equine Behaviour. Prior to that I helped out at the stables where I rode, mainly training horses and exercising them.
Q: What is your occupation?
I am a qualified equine behavioural psychologist. Currently, I am finishing my degree in animal psychology which encompasses dogs, cats and horses.
Q: What is the “Equine Behavioural Sciences Institute?”
The Equine Behavioural Sciences Institute is an educational organisation to provide horse owners with scientific, evidence-based research. It helps them improve upon their management and training strategies. Furthermore it aims to promote good equine welfare, improve performance, and maintain human safety.
There is quite a gap between academia and the general public. EBSI aims to bridge that gap by making scientific information more palatable and applicable to horse owners and practitioners of all skill levels, no matter their experience.
Q: What gave you the idea to start EBSI?
I started it for my horse, Joey. I purchased him in 2012 as a two year old stallion, and I was by no means ready for him. Back then, I was very green and inexperienced as an owner. He was my first horse and Joey was very challenging as his background was dubious. He was extremely aggressive, high strung and nervous. His strong distrust of humans went to the point where he didn’t like being touched. I fell in love with him in an instant and it was a complete impulse decision but one I’ve never regretted. After Joey was gelded I thought it would calm his behaviour. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
After nearly two years of struggling with him, I decided to study ethology and horse behaviour in particular. This led me to my first qualification in equine behaviour and I just continued studying thereafter. I subsequently moved Joey to a different home where he was managed completely differently. There, he blossomed into an amazing partner and friend. I owe him more than I can ever repay.
Q: When you started EBSI in 2013, you were still living in South Africa. Can you describe the equestrian culture of South Africa to our readers?
The equestrian industry in South Africa is fairly developed but small in terms of the number of owned horses. In 2013, the European Commission Health and Consumers Directorate-General carried out an audit in South Africa to evaluate the health controls in place in relation to export of equidae to the EU with particular reference to African Horse Sickness. They estimated the equine population to be around 300 000 horses, of which 20% were registered purebred horses and a further 20 000 registered Thoroughbred racehorses. This leaves a large amount of unregistered horses which are mainly used for leisure riding, as working animals, or for research purposes. This makes regulating and enforcing animal welfare very challenging.
Q: How are horses in South Africa valued and treated?
Riding schools, livery yards, and private stables are generally unregulated and while there are associations in place where practitioners can qualify as instructors and trainers, this is not mandatory and price seems to drive demand more than qualifications and accreditations. Most leisure horse owners will select a stable, instructor or trainer based on location/distance from home or work, and price. Competitive riders may be more selective and will consider reputation and qualifications over price, but the market isn’t very large. Many working horses and donkeys that are kept in rural areas tend to have lower standards of welfare, though educational programmes and support is increasing in this sector. Significant improvements have been made to educate these owners and improve the welfare of the equines in their care.
High Demand for Equine Behaviourists
In general, the equestrian culture in South Africa is mostly based on tradition, advice from non-professionals (fellow stablers, unqualified managers or trainers etc.) and online trends (latest gadgets, equipment, methods etc.). There aren’t many qualified equine behaviourists that are trained in equine ethology, psychology, physiology and cognition. Therefore a definite need exists for more scientific, evidence-based practices and a stronger focus on equine welfare when it comes to training and management of horses.
Q: Have you ridden or worked with horses in other countries?
I’ve barely scratched the surface in Serbia, but my plan is to continue my research and work in the Balkan region and to hopefully join some research initiatives in the future. Being so centrally located helps a lot, I am much closer to welfare and equine science conferences across Europe so I will be able to increase my involvement and contribute more to this field. Animal welfare is very prominent in Europe and is an area of growth and focus in the Balkan region so this is very exciting as I hope to become much more involved in equine projects.
Q: Was relocating to Serbia challenging? How did it affect your lifestyle?
Relocating to Serbia was fairly easy as I have a Serbian passport and my husband has a British passport so we didn’t need visas to move. I also work remotely for a large insurance broker as a marketing manager for two divisions across the Middle East & Africa region so this helps with having a sustainable income. My focus with EBSI is not currently on income as I am much more focused on research at the moment, but I do plan to develop it further in the future once I am more settled in Serbia.
Q: How has working in South Africa shaped you as a person?
It’s been a very humbling experience as working with animals has a way of stripping out all the ‘noise’ and really making you focus on what’s in front of you. Horses in particular are wonderful teachers for introspection – they force you to understand yourself, to accept your flaws, and to use your strengths properly. Working in South Africa was challenging (in a good way) as it’s a developing market and equine behaviour in particular was practically unheard of in 2013. If you weren’t a horse trainer, riding instructor, or medical professional – you weren’t taken seriously. I initially started out focusing on working with problem horses and learned a lot over the years. Ultimately, I decided that I can serve my objectives a lot better with an online educational platform focusing on preventative measures.
Q: Can you share a memorable experience which had a lot of impact on you?
So many! There are two that will always stick with me. The first was an outreach programme where I worked with several previously abused and neglected horses. These horses taught me so much in the few days that I was with them. They really cut you to the bone. One horse in particular was so frightened of people that you couldn’t approach it. Only the regular handlers could, but no one else. It took me hours of sitting in the middle of the arena, ignoring the horse, and just waiting. When she eventually approached me and allowed me to touch her, that was a very humbling experience. I’ve never ever gained the trust of another being in that way where you actually feel the weight of the responsibility.
The second experience was the first time I could actually touch Joey with his permission. Handling Joey was very tricky. Two grooms needed to halter him and lead him and in the paddock or arena. He would not let you near him. I had spent months working with him from the outside of the arena as you couldn’t enter it while he was in it. Otherwise he would charge at you. With no other options, I would walk around the perimeter. I was picking grass and sticks until he was too curious to resist and would come inspect what I was doing.
Eventually I would change direction, increase and decrease my pace and he would follow. This was a good game that he seemed to enjoy. I would throw things inside the area, sticks and rocks, and he would go sniff them then come back to the fence and see what else I had. If I reached out to touch him he would bolt away and it would take time for him to approach the fence again.
After 2 or 3 months of this fence game, we were standing around after finishing a game. He was grazing and I was leaning against the fence and we were touching but unintentionally. Slowly I then turned around and placed my hand on his wither. He just looked at me then carried on grazing. I ended up rubbing him all over the back and neck. Later I could touch him in certain places and even enter the arena. It took several more months before we could safely interact fully in the arena. Even then, he was still very uncomfortable with having his rear touched or his hind legs.
Q: Is there any difficult or stressful situation you experienced? How did you resolve it?
Nearly all situations involving work with problem horses are difficult – not because of the horses but because of the owners. The most challenging situations for me were the cases of real neglect and abuse but the owner was completely ignorant of it and unwilling to change. These are disappointing as the resolution isn’t satisfying. You have to submit your report and recommendations, then follow-up with the owner to see if they accepted and implement them. If not, you have to report them to animal welfare along with your report and recommendations and allow them to take the case further.
Sadly, most abuse cases result in animal welfare involvement as the owners refuse to change. This was one of the primary reasons why I decided to go into actually making the welfare laws better for the animals and more enforceable (higher consequences) rather than just working with irresponsible owners and trying to reason with them.
Q: What does being an “Equestrian Adventuress” mean to you?
To me it means following your heart and your passion. Don’t be afraid to accept where it might lead you. It seems like a cliché when people tell you that you need to take a leap of faith, but I can truly attest to the fact that sometimes, to really get to where you want to go, you need to just close your eyes and jump!
Q: Do you have any advice for fellow adventuresses interested in doing something similar to you?
Go for it! It is one of the most rewarding experiences ever! No matter what kind of work you go into, anything involving horses or animals is really amazing. Psychology has always interested me. Being able to combine that with my passion for horses and animals is such a blessing. And studying psychology is not the only route to follow. Animal welfare and equine science are such vast fields with so many opportunities.
The easiest way to get started is to join animal associations and organisation in your area. See what projects they have available and join them. If you like it then see if there are any courses available or explore a tertiary qualification. To fully work professionally in the scientific field, you will need formal qualifications up to a Masters level and higher. Depending exactly on what you want to specialise in, most research roles require a Doctorate and University affiliation.
Q: What is the achievement your most proud of?
Learning Joey’s language and finally hearing him. To have been able to make the changes he needed, I had to master understanding horses as a species. Only then was I able to see what I was doing wrong and what he needed from me. I was incredibly proud when I realised that he was finally at home and that he was happy.
I filmed him the day he was accepted into the herd and it was spectacular to witness. The change in body language was unbelievable. That really was the best moment for me, him finding his home was my greatest achievement.
Do you like reading inspiring stories about other equestrian adventuresses? Make sure you have a look at all the other features interviews on our website. One of our reader’s favorite articles is “Discover a Natural Horsemanship Center in India Created by a Woman“