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An Interview with Andrew McLean

Translation of interview in ”Hest” No 9. Page 16

One of the best horse trainers in the world

Australia is almost as far from Denmark as possible. But we Danes often feel in harmony with Australians – it is as if their mentality is very near the Danish mentality. That was also the feeling I had when I met with the Australian horse trainer Andrew McLean.

After a short time you forget that you speak English because it happens in a nice quiet tempo and completely without snobbery. AM is well-known – very well-known, but mostly in academic and research circles. It is in these circles primarily he has held his clinics and lectures on his research on learning in horses. But there is a big interest in his training methods so he is slowly starting to hold his clinics for competition riders also in Europe and the USA . He was in Denmark in August where among other things he held a course for the Danish veterinarian horse practitioners.

The journal ’Hest’ has made an exclusive agreement with AM and brings as the only horse magazine in Denmark, articles on his training principles over the coming years, principles that are both effective and so simple that everybody can use them – both young and old riders, hobby riders and competition riders.

Read the report on AM in this issue and the articles on his training principles in the coming issues of ’Hest’.

Australian Andrew McLean:

Scientist, researcher, and Horse trainer

AM has worked with horses his whole life and has specialized in training of problem horses. He is a zoologist, has taught for years – and still does – at the University of Melbourne. He has given lectures all over the world – but mostly in academic circles. Now he has also finished a PhD degree – the highest education in the academic world – on the subject of learning in horses.

In addition, AM can ride. And not just a little bit. He has competed in jumping and military and he has represented Australia at 3-stars military events.

King Island lies in Bass Strait that separates Australia and Tasmania, and it is here the basis for AM’s interest in animals and their behaviour was laid. It is here that he, in his youth, cantered around on the beaches of the island, in the lagoons, forests and mountains. In the 70’es he spent many hours on horseback together with his friend when they hunted kangaroos, partridges and caught snakes and birds.

He continued training horses and riding. Although horses meant a lot to him there was a reason why he did not train them full time but started a university degree.

”I wanted a university education so that I could earn good money and obtain knowledge so that I could learn about animals and their minds. I wasn’t happy with the ‘willing to please’ belief about horses motivations and then I wanted to make a difference to other peoples horses too”, AM says. And he succeeded.

Also horses during the study

While he studied zoology at the university he also worked training young horses and he taught biology. Concurrent with his education he developed a healthy scepticism towards trainers because he learned more and more about learning theory in animals. He always asked why when he reveived riding instruction. And almost always the result was that he did not get an answer to his question. That is why he started wondering why nobody used learning theory in their training of horses – just like you did when training e.g. dolphins and elephants.

”The most successful horse trainers were often called specially gifted and they were surrounded by mysticism”, AM says. But it appeared to him that these trainers used different aspects of the learning theory rather than mysticism. The trainers themselves, however were not aware of what they did. ”They just did it”, he says. But ever since he has done research and worked with training methods for horses, and last year he finished his PhD in learning in horses.

In all these years he has worked closely together with his wife Manuela who is a biologist and whom he met at the university. They were married and settled down in Tasmania where AM taught both at the university, at home and at Pony club.

And, of course, then you have to ask the unavoidable question, whether he knows our Danish crown princess Mary. “Yes, I have taught her at Huntingfield pony club when she was a child and I remember her because she was a little shy but a good rider,” AM answers with a smile.

Ride for Australia

AM himself is a good rider. He has ridden quite a lot of jumping and one time represented Australia in military. When he was shortlisted to ride for Australia in Sweden World championships in military in 1990, the couple decided they had to move from Tasmania. They settled down in Clonbinane, Victoria, where they started the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre.

“I could feel that I got better and better in the military discipline as I acquired more knowledge about learning in horses,” says AM. The McLean family that today besides Andrew and Manuela consists of the sons Warwick and brother Jonathan, got its reputation for being good with problem horses and that is what they mostly work with at the AEBC.

The horses they get in training are mostly competition horses where something has gone wrong.

“A number of riders feel that their horses are naughty, devious or they have gotten tired of competitions. But that is not the way horses think,” says AM. In contrast, the horses are confused over conflicting messages – e.g. if you drive them forward and hold them back at the same time, and many horses are subjected to that treatment.

Problem behaviour often returns

The family has good results in training problem horses with the result that they return to the competitions and function well. But when horses have shown behaviour problems once, the problems can return very easily.

“The most serious problems to get rid of are the ones related to flight. They return very easily,” says AM. He therefore emphasizes that it is important that the rider of the horse is also trained.

And he has great success training riders – even children. AM’s training system is very simple to understand and many children come to his training. “Amongst others, I have trained Belinda Isbister, who won the Australian championship in military for ponies. She was a clever girl and the problems she had with the pony she got over completely,” AM tells.

His message is clear, that you should not give up if you have a problem with your horse.

“Some people sell the problem horse and buy a new without problems. But the riders that really become good riders are the ones that work with the problem horse. They develop to become the good horse people in the long run – they become the champions,” AM emphasises.

AM trained the dressage stallion Tintagel Magic that goes at a Prix St. George level. “I have taught the stallion to be ridden without a saddle and to do tricks – e.g. to rear, and count with his foreleg and a few other things” “In 1998 I rode him in the first Equitana where I did the Prix st George test with no bridle or saddle, only a string around his neck to show just how amazing and effective learning theory is.” says AM.

These tricks he showed at the world famous horse exhibition Equitana. The audience often sees alternative trainers riding without saddle and bridle and they think it is spectacular and magic.

During his performance in the Equitana AM showed the audience how he had taught the stallion to perform Grand Prix exercises without saddle and bridle. There is no magic involved in that. The stallion has learned the exercises in a traditional way and has gradually learned to do them without a bridle.

“I want to de-mystify the New Age trainers. There is no mysticism involved in horse training,” he says and hopes that people some day will recognize that horse training is a science and not an art.

Error-free training is what AM is teaching. He is famous in Australia for his results and the demand for his training is spreading from the academic to the practical world. He is a different trainer – but he does not want to be put into the same category as the so-called horse whisperers.

At first glance AM is Australia’s answer to USA’s Pat Parelli and Monty Roberts. But he does not want to be classified as a horse whisperer – or New Age Trainers as he calls them.

“They have had a very positive influence on training of horses and put a spotlight on training done without force,” AM says.