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Science stirs up training skills

Owner: dr andrew mclean, from australia

Animals: andrew spends his life working with horses around the world

Background: andrew recently visited ireland to give seminars on horse training

Andrew has always been passionate about horses. He began riding at the age of three, and started breaking and training horses while still in his teens. He competed successfully in show jumping and dressage, and back in 1989, he represented Australia in three-day eventing.

After leaving school, Andrew's interest in horses as a sport and a hobby led him into a career of studying animals scientifically: he started out with a degree in zoology. As part of this, he learned about animal psychology, including the well-known theories of learning such as 'Pavlov's dog'. Pavlov was a Russian scientist who discovered that if he rang a bell just before he fed his dogs, they soon began to salivate whenever the bell was rung, even if there was no food around.

This is called a 'conditioned reflex'. It's one of the basic principles of understanding how animals can be taught to perform different tasks. While Andrew was learning about animal behaviour, he discovered that the standard way that he'd been taught to train horses was out of line with modern understanding of the way that animals learn.


It seemed to him that horse training was a skill that had been passed down from generation to generation, almost like the telling and retelling of folk stories. With his new knowledge of the theory of animal behaviour, Andrew felt it should be possible to develop much more effective, gentler, humane ways of teaching horses how to become well-behaved, whether for dressage, show jumping, racing or just general riding.

Andrew went on to pursue deeper studies of the workings of the horse's mind: he completed a PhD in "equine cognition and learning", and then set about applying modern principles to the practical task of training horses.

Andrew qualified as a fully accredited coach in teaching horse riding and, at the same time, he developed his own innovative techniques. He established a centre near Melbourne -- the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre -- and he began to conduct training clinics and demonstrations across Australia, Europe and North America. His methods use many of the concepts of traditional horse training, but they've been refined and adapted.

Andrew has been able to deal effectively with a wide range of challenging horse behaviours, where horses are labelled as being 'stubborn' or 'naughty' because they don't respond to the normal training.

He was even recently asked to give advice on Belgian police horses. Some of the problems encountered during his time there included a horse that was difficult to mount, a number of horses that persistently rushed out backwards when being unloaded from a trailer, and one horse who, while performing his police horse duties very well in most respects, refused to walk on red carpets.


Andrew's success in helping the Belgian Police deal with these issues led to his science-based approach to training horses being introduced into their education programme. His knowledge of animal training has recently taken Andrew into another interesting area: elephant training.

He spends time every year visiting Nepal and other parts of Asia, where working elephants are part of the cultural heritage. He took time to analyse how elephants were being trained, and by applying modern learning theory, he's been able to teach local trainers more humane and effective ways of managing their elephants.

Andrew's recent visit to Ireland was appreciated by horse lovers from all over the country: if you're interested, keep your eyes open for his next trip.