The Australian Equine Behaviour Centre
Ten days later and we finally made it to the land down under! After two flights, we landed in Melbourne late at night, where we then drove to Dr. Andrew McLean’s farm, the Australian Equine Behavior Center. Now, the drive to this place was no picnic. In just an hour, the bus driver slammed on his breaks numerous times to avoid hitting kangaroos and wombats crossing the road. While the wombats seemed to be afraid of us, these kangaroos took their sweet time crossing the road. Although kangaroos to Australians are like deer to us, these kangaroos definitely didn’t have a deer in the headlights look. Some would even just sit down in the middle of the road! We finally made it to McLean’s farm around 1:00 AM, which felt more like 3:00 AM to us since we were still on New Zealand time.
The next morning consisted of lots of coffee before meeting with Dr. McLean for our lecture. Those of you who aren’t aware of his work should know that he is the pioneer of the learning theory, which is also referred to as equitation science. Equitation science is the science of how horses learn and was established back in 1990 by McLean himself. Many people think you must have years of experience and talent to train horses and/or deal with behavior problems in horses. However, McLean is showing us that training horses is not an art, but in fact a science that is evidence-based. He has written five books and over thirty peer-reviewed articles where he has completed many experiments on this learning theory. He has devoted the last seventeen years to researching how horses learn so that we can develop a fairer, easier, and more consistent way of training horses, and he is now communicating these findings to trainers and behaviorist all over the world. All of his training is evidence based, and he refers to training horses as a science rather than an art.
After his morning lecture, we then got to work with the horses on the ground. McLean is a firm believer in ground work and establishing the proper aids of stopping, going forward, backing up, and moving the haunches and shoulders on the ground before asking under saddle. If you teach the horse these aids on the ground beforehand, it will be much easier for the horse to learn under saddle, and they will pick it much faster and with less frustration when these aids are applied under saddle. After practicing these ground work techniques, we then got to watch a demonstration of how these aids are properly applied under saddle. McLean breaks it down so that there are different aids for the horse to distinguish between faster, slower, longer, and shorter in their stride. Often, riders blur these lines and cues, so one aid (like pressure from the leg), can mean two different things to the horse (like faster and longer). McLean practices strong distinguishes in aids so that the right answer for the horse is easier to find.
Later that night, we had a fun cook out with lots of food, and I even got to try kangaroo meat, which wasn’t half bad! After dinner we went on a walk around the farm at dusk to see kangaroos, and I’m not kidding when I say there were mobs of ten to twenty in one paddock at a time! It was crazy to see so many and to just watch them balancing on their tails or hopping around. We got up early the next morning for another lecture, which was all about behavior problems and resolving common conflicts horses have, like loading into trailers, standing for farriers and injections from vets, as well as fear of clippers. Learning of his techniques and how they create less stress for the horse was very eye opening and beneficial for horse people. Many of his training techniques can also be used on dogs and elephants as well, so listening to him was quite beneficial for anyone in the animal science field on our trip.
I personally benefited extremely from this trip and these two days at the Australian Equine Behavior Center. I had my eyes opened to how in the past I’ve blurred the lines between aids when riding my own horse in dressage, which in turn was responsible for a lot of his frustration and habit of rearing. I also realized how much faster and less stressful my training would have been for my horse if I had first established a strong foundation in aids on the ground before asking him to do these commands under saddle. I had no idea you could even teach a horse how to leg yield, piaffe, and passage from the ground! I can’t wait to apply these learning techniques I’ve learned to my future horses and see the positive, long term impacts that it will have on horses as well as in my life as an equestrian rider.
This trip has also shown me how equitation science is where my true passion lies. I’ve always known I wanted a profession that had to do with my love of animals and that my talent really lies in working with horses. However, I wasn’t completely sure what that would mean for me and where I’d want to go with my career. After this trip, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Andrew McLean himself, who expressed how I am a great applicant for their equitation science program due to my background in eventing and horsemanship skills and that I could help make this learning theory more common and widespread in the United States. It’s still very new and many people have yet to hear of this new evidence based science, so having a part in spreading awareness of this new and better training method would be incredible. Also, being able to take horses who don’t have much of a chance due to behavioral problems and turning them into a suitable horse for someone is also something I’m passionate about. In the end, it’s not the horse’s fault. They can only comprehend so much, and many times humans believe horses understand more than they actually do. This study abroad trip has changed my life not just because of the exposure to different cultures and different animals, but also by solidifying what career path I want to take with my life. So if you’re a horse person or even just an animal person wanting to implement new and beneficial training techniques, I strongly suggest looking into some of Andrew McLean’s books and into this new concept of learning theory. That’s it for our time at McLean’s, but there’s still many more experiences left to have over these next few days in Australia! We’ll be sure to keep you posted!
Jordan Payton <3