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Part II: What is Evidence-Based Horsemanship?

Published: 2/8/2012
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The Evidence-Based Horsemanship Seminar, November 18-20 in Mancos, CO, is a cowboy-scientist collaboration by Dr. Stephen Peters and Martin Black.

By Maddy Butcher

Read Part I, by Randy Rieman

The term, “evidence-based,” has been tossed around in the medical field for years. In health insurer terms, it pretty much means ‘if you can't show that it works, we’re not paying for it.”

Insurance companies demand that hospitals and physicians back up their costs with research to show that what they’re charging for has been proven effective, i.e., worth reimbursement.
In other words, Insurance Company A is not going to pay for Treatment B just because Doctor C has always prescribed it. Research (clinical studies, physicians’ observations, patient feedback, etc.) needs to support it.
Working within the evidence-based framework is how insurance companies help manage costs and steer folks away from unproven or ineffective treatments.

So what is Evidence-Based Horsemanship?

Dr. Peters and Martin Black are proposing we adopt the same attitude when it comes to horse training and management.
Just because you’ve always done it or someone important tells you that’s how he’s always done it, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for you and your horse.
Only when research supports it does the horsemanship become preferable and favored. Research, in this case, is Dr. Peters’ scientific findings on horse brain function and Martin Black’s observations of thousands of colts and adult horses.

I saw Evidence-Based Horsemanship at work when I visited Peters and Black at a clinic in Lisbon Falls, Maine. As the morning session got under way, one rider struggled with her worried, agitated young horse. Black told her to let him graze for a bit.

Isn’t this a No-No?

Peters explained how grazing helps engage the parasympathetic nervous system, the relaxation-oriented part of the autonomic nervous system.  
If the rider had yanked on the reins and tried to contain the horse, she might have evoked a response from the sympathetic nervous system. That’s when animals are likely to react with a Fight or Flight response, i.e., bucking, bolting, etc.

Read more about the horse's nervous system.

Sure enough, a few minutes of grazing helped put the horse in a better frame of mind. He was more ready to learn.

What Evidence-Based Horsemanship Isn’t:

One of the nice things about Evidence-Based Horsemanship as a model AND as a book is the lack of ulterior motive.
There is no line of EBH halters and leadlines. There is no Magick Stick.  

[Photo at right by Kim Stone] 

As Peters writes:

EBH is an approach that continually evolves as our knowledge base grows. Finding that one has done something the wrong way may be just as valuable as getting it right if it refines the knowledge base so others do not have to struggle with a similar wrong turn.

This approach is not concerned with arguing over a school of thought or following one trainer over another. Egos, persuasive salespeople, and charismatic personalities would have little relevance to EBH.

There is room for everyone under this umbrella to educate themselves by asking:
“What does our current scientific knowledge of the horse, when applied and empirically observed, show me about getting the best outcomes possible for me and the horse? 
Does it work?
What’s the proof?
What is it based on?”

Evidence-Based Horsemanship Seminar, November 18-20 in Mancos, CO,

Part III:
Good & Bad Learning - What's the Difference?

View Reader Comments:

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2/8/2012 Jacob
Sounds good. Looking forward to the book.
2/8/2012 Sue
Cool! I have in the past used a few minutes of grazing to chill out my horse-- now I understand why it works!
2/19/2012 Ann W. Firestone
Interesting. As a clicker trainer "head down" is one of the behaviors we teach to calm an animal, as head down is grazing position. I look forward to reading the book.
3/8/2012 connie moses
Have kept horses for 10 years, and have always allowed them to do some grazing during rest stops on trail rides. It seemed natural and common sense, and you could tell it relaxes them. They don't learn it as a "bad habit", rather they learn that sometimes you will allow them to do it, and sometimes not. I never felt there was anything "wrong" with letting the horse feel more relaxed.

"An owner of a Tennessee Walking Horse once said that his horse reminded him of a lightning rod, for, as he rode, all the sorrows of his heart flowed down through the splendid muscles of his horse and were grounded in the earth." - Marguerite Henry