Terri Lindley is rarely home.
Sometimes for weeks on end, she’ll be traveling from Florida to Mississippi or up the west coast, all to visit clients who can’t exactly make the trip to her. It’s easier for her to load into her car than it is to load the clients into a metal trailer and travel hundreds of thousands of miles to Edmond, Oklahoma.
Lindley trains camels, horses, zebra and exotic cattle, and it’s a different species almost every day and could be in any part of the country.
“You’ve got to really love it because it’s a very tough life,” Lindley said. “I love what I do.”
Despite Lindley’s love and passion for her work, she received her degree from St. Gregory’s University. However, she doesn’t use it even though she said it would be a lot easier and come with a much steadier income.
Lindley isn’t formally trained in animal training, but she’s been working with horses since she started riding at 8 years old. In 1989, she went straight to the race track.
Working with exotic animals, though, didn’t begin until about 8-10 years ago, she said.
“A lot of integrity with a little bit of skill can go a long way,” Lindley said. “Anybody that lacks integrity that tries to get in this business doesn’t stay in this business.”
And it all started with camels.
Lindley’s daughter’s then-boyfriend had a camel that he had some difficulties with. A few minutes into messing with the camel, Lindley said she was sure she could help train him. She began to research, finding other people in the community, finding a saddle and getting more informed.
She’s been training them ever since.
“People that have camels also have a lot of other exotic animals. Then I had a guy bring me a zebra,” Lindley said. “Within 10 days I had this little zebra going over jumps, loading in the trailer, leading down the street and let me pick up her feet.”
Lindley said she strives to have a partnership with the animals she trains — a give and take of sorts.
She said that training them and getting to know them is an intimate process.
“It’s like a two-step, but somebody in a two-step is still always leading,” Lindley said. “I want to create a respectful, trusting, confident, safe partnership to where they understand what I’m asking, respect what I’m asking, believe what I’m asking because they’re smart, they’ll find loopholes. I’ve got to match them for strength.”
Lindley said the best way to match the animals is with the level of energy she exudes and with being assertive. However, she said there’s no room for aggression.
That’s one of the greatest lessons one of her clients, Chet Clark, said he’s learned from Lindley.
“There is no aggression at all or you’re done,” Clark said. “They’re going to remember it. It’s asking them to do something, showing them what you're wanting, but you can’t be aggressive at all.”
Clark, who has owned and trained horses as well as a retired search and rescue dog, owns a camel named Abu a few miles north of Meeker. Abu is about 2.5 years old and is Clark’s second camel. The first died due to a parasite called whipworm, which is apparently very prominent in the tri-county area.
Clark said Lindley has worked with both of his camels — Lindley worked with his first camel in a group of 12 others.
“It’s like she whispers to them,” Clark said.
Clark said if he ever has an issue, Lindley is just a text or call away. He said they communicate about once a month.
“If I have a problem, I reach out to her,” Clark said. “With training horses and a dog, there’s a certain point that if you have a problem, if you continue, it’s just going to make it worse and harder to correct. … That’s a key with a camel. If they’re having problems, you have to stop before you make it worse or it’s harder to undo.”
Lindley said Clark’s camel Abu is an easy client, though, and that Clark did a great job with preliminary training.
However, The Wesleys’ camel Joe Cool in Bethel Acres needed a little bit more work and attention since he’s older and had been handled by more people than just the Wesleys.
“She is unreal with him,” said Jim Wesley, owner of Joe Cool. “When she left, she was laying on top of him, crawling on him, kissing him. You couldn’t believe it.”
Lindley said the key is to be assertive and respectful, but to also be safe. She said there’s nothing she could physically do to a camel that a camel could do to another with its own strength.
She said being aware of a camel’s strength is necessary, but a lot of people don’t know how strong they actually are. Lindley said most people are also unaware of how intelligent a camel is.
“If they buy a young camel, they’re cute and cuddly like a big, cute puppy,” Lindley said. “Especially if they’ve not even handled large stock appropriately, they don’t understand the long term foresight of being able to compare cute behavior to dangerous behavior when they weigh 2000 plus. Between the intelligence and strength that they have, in the wrong hands, they can turn into big messes. People can get hurt easily.”
To avoid that, Lindley said it’s important to be able to communicate with the animals in a way they understand, but that’s not making them speak people or anthropomorphizing them.
She said it’s taking the time and respect that’s necessary for a partnership, which can be an intimate process.
“I have to fall in love with every animal I handle,” Lindley said. “In my opinion, if I don’t like the animal, I’m not going to be very effective. My intention isn’t going to be in the right place. Spiritually. The same thing has to be with me and my people, I have to fall in love with them.”
Lindley said she’s been able to make incredible connections and friends with the people and animals she’s worked with and the greatest compliment is being invited back.
Despite all of her experience, though, Lindley doesn’t claim to be perfect or all-knowing.
“I’m still learning and morphing and changing because every camel has something separate to teach me as an individual,” Lindley said. “I’m morphing and evolving in my handling and my skills and my experiences continue to grow, so I’m being taught constantly. I have a lot of empathy for those that I’m teaching, too, because sometimes it’s hard — sometimes it’s really hard, but the payoff is incredible.”