Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Trouble With Learning

I did manage to get out for a short while yesterday afternoon. It was windy but not cold, so Izzy and I did some walk/trot work after I turned her out to run like a wild pony around the arena. She's a good girl. I put her back before working too hard because it was time for the evening feeding.

As I'm sure most of you are aware, my first and foremost occupation right now is being a student. I'm in a social science field that I enjoy, and I'm a very active student. I research (sometimes for pay), and attend academic conferences. I like reading research.

This is why the horse world bugs me. So much of what we do is based on tradition with zero research involved as far as I can tell. Person A says, "You absolutely must do this", while Person B claims that if you do what Person A said, your horse will be lame for the rest of it's life. Don't even get me started on Person C.

The only rational response is the one that I think we've all adopted: we listen politely, evaluate what we hear based on our knowledge, and do a lot of trial-and-error to see what works. That's ok, I guess, but horses have been with us for centuries. Millenia, even. There is a lot of money in the horse industry, even if none of us are blessed enough to have it. Why is there not research to support any of these assertions?

For example, on a yahoo group I'm a member of (Jean is the founder, I think), a question came up on how to best store a saddle. I gave an answer that while slightly unconventional, came from my direct experience. I was immediately shot down by someone who claimed that what I said was wrong. Maybe I am wrong. I'm open to that. I'm just irritated by an argument with no supporting claims, no research, no anything.

Sadly, that type of argument is the one we hear the most. Am I just a crazy nerd for wanting some evidence?


  1. Ah, you've hit upon a topic near and dear to my heart. My occupation is as a researcher at a University. Specifically, I am involved in studying the biological basis of behavior. As such, I work with animals bred for research. There are extensive laws governing the use of animals in research. The laws have been put in place to protect the animals and the people who work with them. The laws also make it very difficult to work with animals other than those bred for the purpose of research.

    In addition to the laws, there are several other reasons that little research done on horses. The biggest is simple practicality. Researchers are responsible for providing all the financial support for their animals and horses are large, expensive animals. In order to get statistically significant results, large numbers of test subjects are needed. The cost and space requirements of horses alone make them not an ideal species.

    There is also the matter of consistency. Most animals used in research are specifically bred for research. They are of known bloodlines, they are certified disease free and have been closely monitored since birth to ascertain that every single animal has had an identical life experience. That way the researcher can be certain that there are no outside factors to throw off the results of the study. Since horses are not bred for research, you simply can't get that type of consistency with them.

    As a result of this, most of what we know about horse care tends to be anecdotal: "I did X and the result was Y, so you should, too." It's not statistically significant and doesn't take into account contributing factors, but it's often the best we've got.

    Sorry I wrote a novel on your blog, I find it to be frustrating as well and get carried away : ). There is good information on PubMed, the NIH's database of medical and scientific journals. You should be able to access it through your school's library. I've found a lot of really good information on horse health issues through PubMed.

  2. I can live with making decisions based on what I see and hear, and what is said by horsemen I respect - what irks me is when people adhere blindly to a system without being able to think or learn beyond its boundaries. This happens in the separate disciplines - many think that anyone outside their discipline has nothing to offer - and even within "schools" of training. My biggest pet peeve is "my trainer told me to do it" - often used to justify rough handling or even outright abusive treatment - how about taking some personal responsibility for one's actions and the effect they have on the horse? Not quite what you were talking about, but related.

  3. I think Shannon hit on a significant point. Research animals are bred for consistent qualities. In general, horses are not. A training method that might work well with one horse might as easily fail with another.

    Kenny Harlow, a John Lyons trainer, has a solid technique for working horses and has amazing success. However, when he was working my Toby in regards to a spooking issue, Toby responded with a completely unexpected behavior--one Kenny had never really seen before. He was quite taken aback and later spent some private time working with my horse to figure it out. So, here was a true master trainer who found his tried and true methods not at all the solution for one particular horse.

    I loved riding with Lockie Richards who had several full "bags of tricks" he had picked up along the way of his international career. He saw each horse as an individual with a personality, physique and attitude that required its own unique training techniques. He would mix "schools" of training philosopy until we found the combination that would work with each horse.

    The key is, in order to do an experiment and collect supporting data, you need a control. Unless you could find a substantial number of absolutely identical horses--physically and mentally--you could not really collect any truly valid proof of any training theory.

    As for the saddle rack--my Ansurs sit on metal racks and are just fine. I think the idea is that the saddle tends, on its own to mold to whatever it sits on and the shape of most racks is not ideal. Ansur does not recommend metal racks, and an easy fix is to slip a plastic paint bucket over the rack to make a round place for the saddle to sit.

  4. You raise an interesting point. One I hadn't given much thought to before. But I think you are quite right that there is a lot of "tradition" with horses and not a lot of real research. And my "tradition" might not be yours, because we've learned from different people/books etc.
    I too have adopted your philosophy of listening politely but giving things some thought on my own.


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