Dr. Sheryl King: Demand Evidence, Question Traditions

Editor’s Note:

We hear this week from Dr. Sheryl King, a returning presenter at the Best Horse Practices Summit. King is professor emeritus of Southern Illinois University and one of the most popular presenters at the inaugural Summit, will present on forage-based nutrition:

King writes:

“The stable is a place of hoary tradition often in danger of intellectual stagnation.”


I remember this adage oft quoted by my mentor throughout the study for my doctorate. At the time, I passed it off as one of those favorite sayings of an academic and went about my work.

In the ensuing 40 years of working to educate myself, my students, horse owners, trainers, breeders, veterinarians, and others, I have come to believe that, for too many in our industry, no truer words have ever been spoken.

One of the fundamental signs of a true scholar, in any discipline, is the humbling realization that the more you learn, the greater your understanding of how little you actually know. Learning a new or different or better way to do something requires an open mind. Referring back to the original quotation, horsemanship is in great need for the cultivation of open minds. I am not saying that there isn’t a lot to be learned from good ol’ “stable wisdom.” But I am saying that our traditions must be able to stand up to the scrutiny of scientists and educators. Those who steadfastly choose tradition (“that’s the way it’s always been done”) over education cannot move forward. This is a disservice to the welfare of our horses.

Many practitioners of the newer horsemanship (“natural horsemanship” as the term has been coined) confess to initially being traditionalists who knew it all and handled horses in the time-honored manner of the “horse breakers” of yesteryear.

These master horsemen will often tell of their epiphanies – the moment when, or process through which, they opened their minds to a new and more sensitive way of dealing with their horses. The best among these practitioners will tell you that in order to best serve the horse, they had to let go of their ego. I am very aware of ego, and I am always trying to let it go. Not only is ego a difficult thing to shed, if you aren’t vigilant, it comes back.

Read Fred Holcomb’s take on the journey of learning.

One of Best Horse Practices’ major missions is to promote the continued education of those who work with horses, in whatever capacity. To address this edict put forward by founder Maddy Butcher, the Best Horse Practices Summit was established. It’s an event I was excited to participate in last year and will return to this fall.

In Durango, I had the opportunity to interact with many master educators in a wide variety of equine fields. I came away with new insights.

Do you know how learning and horse training are alike? With each of these activities, you are never, ever finished. My personal goal is to learn one new thing as I take my last breath in this world. How about you?

We all invest in our horses. We make sure that they have adequate food, water, shelter; we invest in their health care, in their training, in tack and other objects designed to make our horses or our lives better.

I would argue that the single best investment we can all make to enrich the lives of our horses is our own education. I know that I still have a long way to go in the field of equine enlightenment; I invite you to join me on that journey. Open your mind. Shed your ego. Participate in every educational event that you can manage.

Decide for yourself what makes sense for you and your horse. Demand evidence. Implement what you have learned. You and your horse will be better for it. Education is the best possible gift that you can give your horse – and yourself.

Posted in BestHorsePractices Summit, Research.


  1. So true! True learning happens through asking a lot of “Why?” questions. Too often, the horse industry does not encourage the questioning mindset I came to appreciate during my grad school years. “Because I’m the trainer!” or “Because we’ve always done it this way!” or “Because dressage expert/natural horsemanship icon/guru X said so!” is not an answer we should ever accept.

  2. Ahhh….so much has changed in the way I ride, interact, and take care of my horses since first beginning my adult journey with horses. I continue to seek out ways to further my education, which also means possibly changing the way I’m currently doing things. Change is easier to embrace if you are open to the possibility first.

  3. So true. We live at a time when all the knowledge is there for the taking if we seek it. Horsemanship is truly a journey that takes time, commitment, love, and loss of ego. We have to be lifelong learners not just about horses, but also about ourselves. I find my horses are happy because I listen to them each day. I feel their intentions and go with that to make my learning valuable.

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