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Searching for Reason in a Cluttered Horse World

Published: 6/19/2012
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By Maddy Butcher Gray

Are there any good scientists who can catch and ride a horse?

As much as I love science, I’m troubled lately by what I see in a lot of equine research.

First of all...

There are so many “facts” out there. One side can prove its argument with Study A, while the other side disproves it with Study B. Or, as one horseman said: “Both base their conclusions on only the facts they know. Neither know all the facts.”
Unless you’re broadly informed on the topic, how do you know whom to believe? Too often, the chosen side has more to do with looks and money than merit and reason.
How else would Linda Parelli’s theory of “Horsenality” stay afloat? It has the look of good science. That her principles have NO basis in horse brain function doesn’t seem to matter.

And how often do you see products endorsed as ‘Clinically Proven?’ Does it matter that the research was funded and promoted by the very company making them?
As you search for answers, the Internet is rife with bias. Your top search results are rarely the most pertinent or valuable. They’re just the ones paying to be seen. Search engine optimization is as crucial today as Main Street location and neon lights were to brick and mortar storefronts decades ago.
Enter “Should I worm my horse?” into Google. The top result is a warm and friendly horse advice page, designed in soft green and blue hues with links to worming products. It’s a Pfizer site.

Second of all...

In the horse world, there seems to be two popular corrals: one is steeped in lore, history, and ‘ the way we’ve always done it.’  The other is focused on the next flashy new thing.

Science could be that welcome alternative. Finally, we say, definitive answers. We will find solutions unencumbered by neither old school hard lines nor fashionable trends.

So why are we still grinding our teeth?

It seems these scientists have such poor horsemanship foundations that the very nature of their research is skewed and misguided. When I read articles about cribbing straps, rein-o-meters, and head-shaking surgeries, I get frustrated by what seems to be researchers’ universal lack of basic horse sense.  "Cortisol levels indicate Horse X was under stress..."
Of course, he's under stress! You put him in a stall 24/7, away from his herd, and unable to move on open ground. Didn't you notice he was a horse?

It’s like they’re trying to pedal a bike with square tires.

Without even realizing it, many of us have far better habits, routines, instincts, and principles than those researchers with big budgets and barns full of equine subjects.

The tipping point for me came after reading a study by University of Pennsylvania researchers. It measured catch-ability in horses as it relates to human-horse eye contact. After concocting formulas and performing weeks of experimentation, they concluded it really didn’t matter if you make eye contact or not.

Well, DUH.

Only deep in the summary was what us horse folk knew all along: Bringing a horse out of the pasture involves more than just looking at him. It has to do with your attitude and approach.
Or, in the summary's vernacular:
“It became evident to us that the human handler’s body posture and head posture, as well as stride” likely impacted the success or failure of each approach.

Double DUH.

As it happens, Martin Black wrote about catching a horse in the latest issue of Eclectic Horseman. He never mentioned a word about eye contact.

“A friend of mine once said to approach a horse like you have a full glass of water balancing on your head. If you think about not spilling the water, your feet will be softer, smoother, and more acceptable to the horse…If the way you walk toward him doesn’t feel good to him, he won’t be expecting anything better next time.”

Score: Common Sense 1, Science 0.

In the end, science in the form of university studies provides just another tool for your horsemanship tool box. Just because the authors have advanced degrees, doesn't mean they rate higher than graduates from the School of Hard Knocks.

So, read, listen, experiment, and have an open mind. The horses will tell us what works best.

View Reader Comments:

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6/20/2012 Dr. Johnson
Bravo! Well said
6/20/2012 Pete
Never trust a horse scientist until you see them ride!!! Also dont trust a horseperson who is trying to sell you an astrological weejee (sp?) board to understand what your horse thinks! as Maddy says, common sense rules!
6/20/2012 Judi M.
Hey after 10 years and 5 billion tax dollars the federal government finally discovered what causes pregnancy. It's all an economic benefit package for research labs so don't take their health benefits and retirement funds away! Believe only half of what you hear and a quarter of what you read on the internet.
Great article Maddy, sadly, common sense isn't very common any more...
6/20/2012 Taylor Grafton
It can be really tough to know which ' scientifically proven fact' to believe so I have some easy ways for the average layperson to discern Science from pseudo-science: 1. Does the author claim to have proven something? Yes? Psuedo-science. A scientist by themselves never proves anything unless it has been proved ten times before, then disproved, then, proved ten more times. 2. Has the 'Scientist' published their 'science' in a peer-reviewed scientific journal that has not many words in the title been around for more than five years, and has international readership? If they've only posted it on the Internet or in a magazine, run away. Read a poem. It's not science until a bunch of other scientists have scrutinised it. Are they a PhD? Nobody cares3. Did read the study and NOT wish you had that five minutes of your life back? Psuedo-science. Good research is boring, and tells you very little. That's because the researchers are doing a good job of testing a very specific thing. The Penn State study may seem stupid but at least it tells us something we can hang our hat on. If the person I am arguing with about 'catchability' doesn't know Martin Black from Gandolf the Grey all the flowery retoric in the world will do nothing to convince them.
6/23/2012 Jane
....and I like to invite my Horse to catch ME! :)
6/24/2012 Dr, Rebecca Gimenez
Excellent comments - especially since I am one of those scientists that participates in studies of horses... lol! I would like to say that for some reason - the "ouija board" stuff seems to attract horse people - like MOTHS to the FLAME. And that alot of what horse people consider to be "FACT" is absolutely NOT true... or based on science. We all have to use common sense and our powers of observation, as well as a good filter on GOOGLE. Thanks for the article...
6/24/2012 Jayne Roberts
Thank you for writing this article, because I think it reflects perfectly one of the big problems we have in the horse world today?.too much information, easily accessed, poorly understood, unsuccessfully communicated, and often derived from questionable sources. Then of course there?s opinion thrown in?and we all know horse people can be just ever so slightly opinionatedJ Having graduated in the international equine industry from both sides of the fence so to speak, I actually know of a LOT of outstanding horse experts behind the science. In fact, of all the equine science professionals I have worked with, and been privileged to learn from, I cannot think of one I would not consider a knowledgeable, competent horse person, moreover, they far out number the pool of self-proclaimed, delusive horse experts saturating the horse world today The confusion and misunderstanding really stems from a lack of communication between science and practice. As a result, people who do not have a strong science background understandably misinterpret the ?facts?, and the connection is lost as to how to connect and apply it in a real world setting. The equine industry is steeped with folklore and tradition, however, research has come a long way in applying objective methods to help explain WHY things do, or do not work, and how we can make improvements for the good of the horse. You are right, if we read and listen, the horse will tell us everything we need to know, but in our ignorance and anthropomorphic bliss most of us don?t have the first clue how to really interpret what he has been silently, and consistently trying to tell at us for years. Whether scientists do or do not know how to catch a horse and/or ride is immaterial, we are all working towards one common goal?a better understanding, and improved welfare for our equine partners. I agree university studies are a tool for your horsemanship toolbox, but they are an objective, proven (or disproven) adjunct to effective training and management practices, that improve the health and welfare of the horse. Education is a progressive discovery of our ignorance, and the school of hard knocks is one of the best educators out there?but only when you get to that humbling and pivotal place in your awareness, where you understand it doesn?t have to be the case.
11/9/2012 Yvonne Macdonald
Very good true....why is common sense so uncommon.... Watch out for those certifications as well sometines Certified Horse Person may not have the horse sense for a horse...but they are a certified coach....I go by the old saying "a horse never lie's, he knows if you know and knows if you don't know".....I prefer to be Equine Certifide.....

"A canter is the cure for every evil" - Benjamin Disraeli, The Young Duke