In the equine world there are many sellers of goods and services who say that their products will make your horse healthier, or happier, or easier to ride, or more likely to win competitions. How can you evaluate these claims, and sort out the facts from the fiction? And when does it matter?
It matters most when it affects your horse’s health. Once, if your horse was unwell you called the vet. Nowadays you can call on a whole range of therapists and practitioners. Some of these people may also be vets. Others may not, and might even be working illegally (in many countries, it is against the law for anyone other than a qualified vet to treat an animal except in certain defined instances). Veterinary medicine is far from perfect, but “vets don’t know everything” doesn’t mean that they know nothing. Scientific veterinary treatment is based on a thorough and well-established understanding of equine biology, from the whole animal right down to the atoms and molecules within its cells, and on the nature and causes of illness. In contrast, many alternative treatments are based on ideas that are not consistent with what we know about the laws of biology, chemistry and physics. Scientists don’t know everything, but we know enough to be able to say with confidence that although some are more plausible than others, most alternative therapies cannot possibly work in the way that their proponents say they do.
So, that being the case, how is it that so many people swear and declare that therapy X “worked for them” and cured their cystitis, or backache, or their horse’s scabby skin, or whatever? It is because it isn’t possible to tell, from personal experience alone, whether something works or not. If we do A and B happens, it is all too tempting to assume that A causes B, when in fact B might have happened for one or more of many other reasons. This is why the scientific method developed: people realised that observations and experience alone – even careful, patient observation by many people over many years – were not enough to determine what is true and what isn’t. The scientific method is a way of testing things objectively, eliminating as far as possible our tendency to jump to the wrong conclusion. Scientists certainly start with observations, but instead of stopping there and assuming that A must cause B because their observations suggest so, they go on to devise experiments to test whether A does in fact cause B. Only if many experiments, done by many people looking at different aspects of the question, all tend to give the same answer do they tentatively conclude that yes, A does cause B.
The total evidence to date suggests that almost all alternative therapies “work” through placebo effects (feeling better because you expect to, among other things). This includes animals and babies, contrary to popular belief: because animals and babies can’t tell us how they really feel, the effects of a therapy are assessed by the owner, parent or practitioner; people who are very likely to see an improvement because they wish to see one. Animals who don’t know they’re being treated are unlikely to experience placebo effects in the same way that people do, but they can be conditioned to respond in a certain way to treatment, and this can lead their owners to report apparent improvements when nothing has actually changed (Ramey 2008, Bartimaeus 2009, Averis 2010).
Although most owners would recognise a genuine emergency and would not hesitate to call a vet for something like a suspected fracture, or colic, alternative therapists do get called upon for the sort of low-grade, minor, irritating-but-not-life-threatening chronic conditions, aches and pains for which there really isn’t any treatment, either in horses or humans. Because many of these conditions do go away or improve on their own, the therapy is likely to get the credit. The danger here, of course, is when the horse does have a serious condition and the owner, impressed by the apparent success of a therapy, calls the therapist to deal with something that really needs a vet. As the vet RPC Coombe wrote recently in the British horse magazine Equi-Ads: “If you notice a loss of performance, what order of investigation do you instigate? If the answer is riding friend(s), instructor, osteopath, chiropractor, physio, back man, saddler, farrier, quack and the yard dog before the last resort, the vet, then beware! Time and therefore prognosis may be squandered potentially at the expense of long term soundness.”
Science also matters in training horses. Nowadays there seem to be almost as many training methods as there are trainers. Some base their methods on tradition: methods that have been found to work over many years. Others are trying ways supposedly based on the natural behaviour and social relationships of the horse. And a great many people, from both camps, get it wrong. Recent studies published by the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) suggest that over 80%, and in some populations over 90%, of ridden horses demonstrate a behavioural problem (Hockenhull & Creighton 2008; 2009). Inappropriate behaviour is one of the main reasons for horses being sold on from training yards (Hayek et al. 2005), or given to horse charities because they are too dangerous to ride (Waran 2005). A surprising number of horses referred to a veterinary hospital with suspected clinical problems were found to be physically healthy but to have behavioural problems inadvertently trained by their owners (Waran 2005). Horses think like horses, behave like horses and learn like horses regardless of what we believe, and regardless of what we think we are teaching them. In both health and training the facts, the laws of nature, the nature of horses, hold true despite what we would like to be true. It seems entirely reasonable, therefore, to look at the results coming out of the sciences of learning and animal behaviour, and to develop training methods based on those. This is the aim of ISES (see above and reference list below). The society was founded by a group of people who felt that many of the current difficulties in training and animal welfare were the result of the lack of science in equitation. Many riders expect their horses to think and reason as a person would; to make sense of signals a person would find confusing; and to act with far more consistency than they do themselves. Knowing more about how horses’ minds and bodies work can only help to make our expectations more reasonable and our communications more comprehensible.
Many commonly-accepted ideas in the horse world are based on unsupported belief rather than on biological reality. Too much nonsense has become mainstream in the horse world because too few people are willing or able to question what they are told. That includes those selling the ideas, as well as their customers. The problem is one of misguided belief, not of dishonesty.
So – here are a few of these questionable ideas. But don’t just take my word for it: please follow the links, read the evidence and make up your own mind.
- Anything – therapy, training method, supplement or feed – that uses the words ‘magic’ or ‘miracle’ or promises instant cures for chronic conditions or problems. These are not valid biological processes (Carroll 2009).
- Any therapy based on the idea of manipulating or rebalancing some sort of mysterious, undetectable ‘energy’ or vital force. Not only is there absolutely no convincing evidence whatsoever for any such force, there is no need to look for one: the clinically significant goings-on of the body are already perfectly well explained by processes and structures that are known and well understood (Crislip 2008; Stenger 1999). ‘Energy’-based therapies are generally survivals of ideas from a time when people didn’t know how bodies worked, and this was their best explanation in the absence of knowledge about blood circulation, the nervous system, microbiology and biochemistry.
- Anything that claims to be safe and beneficial because it is natural. Many natural things, from virulently poisonous animals and plants to earthquakes and volcanoes, are extremely dangerous. Many synthetic substances, such as purified active ingredients in drugs, are safer than the raw plant materials from which they are derived. More on this in another article.
- Anything claiming to ‘boost the immune system’. This is scientifically meaningless, cannot be tested, and in any case there is nothing a normal and healthy animal (horse or person) can do to improve immune function (Crislip 2009). Indeed, would you want to? Many equine problems such as COPD and other allergies are the result of an overactive immune system, not a weak one.
- Anything where the proponents say that science – especially if they call it ‘Western science’ – cannot be used to test their claims. With sufficient ingenuity, anything can be tested. What these people generally mean is that science is fine when it supports their ideas, but when it fails to support them, it is because the scientific method is useless, not because their ideas are wrong.
- Funnily enough, anything that is advertised as ‘supported by science’. What this often means is ‘there are one or two weak, just-about-positive studies out of the thousands of negative ones that have been done’. Advertisers can almost guarantee that their readers will not look up the references to check, even if they are able to do so.
- Training methods (or therapies) based on ideas that contradict most people’s understanding of reality, especially if developed or promoted by one person, and even more especially if that person claims to be a misunderstood genius. Lone geniuses are rare, and idiosyncratic ideas generally turn out to be wrong (Skeptvet 2010).
- Training methods based on the concepts of leadership, or dominance/submission, or the idea that a horse must respect his trainer before he can be trained. These ideas may be at odds with learning theory (Goodwin et al. 2008).
By Alison Averis is the editor of Equine Behaviour, the quarterly journal of the Equine Behaviour Forum. (www.gla.ac.uk/External/EBF/)
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References and Further Reading –
Averis, AM (2010). Horse health, management and training – why we need science. This website.
Bartimaeus (2009). The placebo effect in animals, and their owners. www.skeptivet.blogspot.com/2009/07/placebo-effects-in-animals-and-their.html
Carroll, R (2009). Magical thinking. www.skepdic.com/magicalthinking.html
Crislip M (2008). Impossibilities. www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=204
Crislip M (2009). Boost your immune system? www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=1828
Goodwin D, McGreevy P, Waran N & McLean A (2008). Horsemanship: conventional, natural and equitation science. In Proceedings of the 4th International Equitation Science Symposium 2008. Ed by J Murphy, K Hennessy, P Wall & P Hanly. www.equitationscience.com.
Hayek AR, Jones B, Evans DL, Thomson PC & McGreevy PD (2005). Epidemiology of horses leaving the Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing industries. In Proceedings of the 1st International Equitation Science Symposium 2005. Ed by P McGreevy, A McLean, A Warren-Smith, D Goodwin & N Waran. www.equitationscience.com.
Hockenhull, J & Creighton, E (2008) The prevalence of ridden behaviour problems in the UK leisure horse population and associated risk factors. In Proceedings of the 4th International Equitation Science Symposium 2008. Ed by J Murphy, K Hennessy, P Wall & P Hanly. www.equitationscience.com.
Hockenhull, J & Creighton, E (2009). Equipment and training risk factors associated with ridden behaviour problems in UK leisure horses. In Proceedings of the 5th International Equitation Science Symposium 2009. Ed by P McGreevy, A Warren-Smith & C Oddie. www.equitationscience.com.
Ramey, D (2008). Is there a placebo effect for animals? www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?cat=290
Skeptvet (2010). Warning signs of quackery ahead. www.skeptvet.com/blog (February 28 2010).
Stenger, V (1999) Energy Medicine. In Alternate therapies in the horse (with D Ramer). Howell Book House, New York. www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/Medicine/EnergyMed.html
Waran N (2005). Equestrianism and horse welfare: the need for an ‘equine centred’ approach to training. In Proceedings of the 1st International Equitation Science Symposium 2005. Ed by P McGreevy, A McLean, A Warren-Smith, D Goodwin & N Waran. www.equitationscience.com.
Useful websites for investigating the scientific consensus about the various therapies and practices
The Skeptic’s Dictionary www.skepdic.com. An excellent source of information about all sorts of topics connected with science, pseudoscience and critical thinking. Before you try some new therapy or treatment on your horse, check it out here.
www.skeptvet.com. Internet blog by a veterinary surgeon, with some good articles about the use of various alternative treatments on animals.