On Equine Research, Empathy … and Elephants

Andrew McLean describes equitation science’s beginnings and how learning theory can apply to far more than horses.
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A decade ago, a handful of ethologists—that is, scientists studying animal behavior–came together to create the world’s first International Equitation Science Symposium (ISES). I was one of them. The term “equitation science” had only recently been coined, and our dream of informing horse people about what research is revealing about horse cognition and behavior would soon become a reality. We wanted to share what we know about horses rather than just what we assume.

Of course, we were and are careful to recognize that horses have been trained for millennia, and so there is some great horse knowledge out there. But sometimes things are not always as they seem. The scientific method has in many areas of human endeavor shown truths that are different to our expectations and imaginings.

So we plowed ahead with arranging that first symposium. It was to be held at my Equine Behaviour Centre here in Australia, and I arranged to have a lecture room constructed for the 40-odd expected delegates. Ultimately, 95 turned up to hear the eight papers we managed to pull together.

Well, what was to emerge in the coming years was truly astounding: The International Society for Equitation Science became possibly the fastest-growing scientific society in recent times. Each year we held a symposium, until the event’s exponential growth dictated it become a conference. As of 2015, around 800 papers have been presented at these conferences. People’s interest in equitation science has flourished, and with it the impetus for research

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Written by:

Andrew McLean, PhD, BSc, Dipl. Ed., founded the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre, in Victoria, and is an honorary fellow of the International Society for Equitation Science. A renowned horse trainer and public speaker, he’s authored five books and more than 35 peer-reviewed articles.

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